Dispatches from a lady editor

The art of saying no at work — when you’re a woman

5 minute read
Critical thinking with BSR podcaster Darnelle Radford. (Photo by Darnelle Radford.)
Critical thinking with BSR podcaster Darnelle Radford. (Photo by Darnelle Radford.)

I got an email that was oddly familiar the other day. A writer sent me a pitch; I considered and politely declined. And moved on to the next pitch in a big pile. A few minutes later, the writer answered my no, thank you with a single line: “I don’t think you’re a very good editor.”

Later that day, I got an email from another writer. The subject line read “I’ve had enough; I can’t take it anymore.”

“The chances that I will ever write for (or find something to read of interest in) BSR seem at an end,” the writer pronounced. My crime was the same: saying no, thanks.

I know this song

What do these two writers—and almost every writer who has impugned my decision-making in my role as editor—have in common? They’re all white men.

If that rankles you, reader, don’t take it up with me. Take it up with men who repeatedly behave this way. The men that I love working with are too busy doing their jobs in committed, creative, proactive ways to deny other people’s experiences or say “But not all men!” I see you every day, guys—alongside many excellent women and nonbinary folks.

I finally realized why that email calling me a lousy editor sounded so familiar. Most women have experienced an approach from a man whom she is not interested in—and when she says no, the man demeans her in a flash as undesirable. Every woman in this scenario knows that she is the same person, with the same looks, both before and after someone hits on her and then insults her.

At some point quite recently, I was a good-enough editor for these men—they trusted me with their pitches and wanted me to work on their pieces—but when I said no, suddenly I was bad at my job. I’m sensing a pattern here.

Thanks for the validation

We’re finally beginning to promote affirmative consent and strong boundaries in interpersonal realms. But how does men’s chronic entitlement show up in the workplace when a woman is running the show?

I could tell you—over and over. Sure, sometimes it’s men telling me I’m bad at my job or that I’m ruining BSR with my incompetence, my flawed perspective, my foolish mission, or, in some cases, apparently just by being a woman (complete with insulting references to my body). But more often, it’s men refusing to simply accept it when I say no—to an article, to a pitch, to a hire. They demand to know why I’ve made that decision.

I don’t answer them anymore.

That’s partly because the reasons for an editorial no, thanks—for all kinds of people—are myriad. It feels strange even to have to state this, but these decisions are the prerogative of editors. If an editor declines your work and you immediately respond with you owe me an explanation or well, you’re no good anyway, you’ve just validated that editor’s decision not to work with you.

Why ask why?

In many cases, when someone asks me to tell him why after I’ve said no, the reason isn’t going to appeal to him. So what conversation is he hoping to have?

To me, the implication here is that my decision isn’t final but is up for debate. Even the requests for “feedback” (in situations where I do not owe it and it would not benefit my to-do list) feel like small wedges into my process: openings to undermine my judgment.

Some folks don’t understand my selective stance on giving feedback—what’s wrong with taking time to tell someone where they erred?

For one thing, my (or anyone’s) feedback and explanations are not a tap that other people can turn on and off at will. I am often happy to open it myself when I see a clear mutual benefit—that is, for writers who genuinely want to add skills to their already collaborative, professional attitude. Their work will strengthen BSR and we’ll build a valuable relationship while cultivating much-needed new voices for the future of arts journalism. At this point in my career, I will gladly teach writing and media skills. But while I will demonstrate respect in my own behavior, it’s not my responsibility to teach you respect if you don’t have it. (If you want to hear more on this, check out my recent conversation with BSR podcaster Darnelle Radford.)

And for another thing, there are plenty of days where I feel like I’ve done nothing but make decisions—from planning the master calendar to line-by-line edits. I need to carry out my work with speed, integrity, and confidence—and I can’t do that if I’m constantly on call to rehash my decisions with folks who don’t agree.

The right answer

Do I say all this because I’m an infallible writer and editor myself? Nope. As BSR’s core contributors know, we can revisit our work in a productive spirit whenever it’s necessary. When I have learning to do, I’ll admit it. And part of the reason I have so little sympathy for folks who throw tantrums when they hear no, thanks is because I’m intimately acquainted with rejection myself. I’ve been writing professionally for more than a decade. I know how it feels to get turned down: a pitch vetoed, an article killed, somebody else hired for the job.

And I know the right answer when it happens. I’ve said it a hundred times before: “Thanks for your consideration.”

I just wish more men knew how to say it.

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