Communication Skills For Screenwriters: 9 Ways To Say “No”

Of all of the communication skills screenwriters need, perhaps the least appreciated skill is the ability to say “No.”

“No” raises your status, protects your time, and makes your “Yes” an even more valuable commodity.

NOTE: Experienced writers should check out #8.

Communication Skills Raise Your Status

The more powerful you are, the more often you say “No.”

  • Are you able to schedule as much writing time as you need?
  • Do your friends and family respect your writing time?
  • Do your reps respect your writing process?

“No” (done properly) sets clear boundaries, makes it easier to find the time you need, and earns you the respect you deserve.

Communication Skills Protect Your Time

You know that your writing time is sacred, but….

  • Do you end up doing tasks for other people instead of writing?
  • Do your writing sessions get interrupted?
  • Do you find yourself going out when you had planned to write?

“No” is a suit of armor that protects your writing time.

It’s how you keep other people’s tasks off your To-Do List and prevent interruptions before they happen.

9 Ways To Say “No”

Most of these communication skills are for when someone is making a request and you feel like you should say “Yes,” but what you really want to say is “No.”

Some of what I’m about to say will be obvious. However, it can be helpful to be reminded of these communication skills, so I’m going to be thorough.

#1: Don’t Be Available At All Times

As my son’s kickboxing instructor says, “The best way to not get hit or kicked is not to be in the situation in the first place.”

Therefore, when you start writing:

-Don’t answer the phone. Let them leave a message. If you’re not there, often the caller will try someone else.

-Don’t respond to off-hours emails. The more you respond to emails during off-hours, the more people will expect a quick response.

-Don’t check your social media. A software program that can help you with this is Self-Control.

#2: Use A Version Of “I’m Busy”

As you know, the standard excuse is that you’re busy with work:

  • “I’d like to, I’m just not available.”
  • “I can’t, I’m just so under the gun right now.”
  • “Unfortunately, I’m swamped. Another time?”
  • “I’ve got a major deadline; I just can’t.”
  • “I have plans.”
  • “My plate is full.”
  • “I have an appointment I can’t break.”
  • “I have a previous engagement.”
  • “Raincheck?”

This has become such a standard tactic that in certain situations you may want to put a little more effort into your “No.”

Two ways to do that are to cite a higher authority or have a policy.

#3: Cite A Higher Authority

The “higher authority” is typically a person you can’t refuse, e.g.:

  • “Can’t – it’s date night.”
  • “Wish I could, but we’re having dinner with my parents.”
  • “I promised (_____) I’d be with them tonight.”

#4: Have A “Policy”

Having a “policy” diminishes the feeling that you are personally rejecting the person making the request.

For whatever reason, it’s harder to argue against a policy.

For example:

  • “I won’t be able to attend the fundraiser. It’s our policy to have dinner together as a family every Sunday night.”
  • “That sounds interesting, but it’s just my policy not to accept new assignments without taking 24 hours to look at my schedule first.”

#5: Just Say “No”

The most powerful version of “No” are the least complicated.

Say “no” politely and leave it at that. Detailed explanations tend to be seen as fictional (even if they’re not).

Keep your explanations to a minimum:

  • “No, thanks.”
  • “No, I just don’t have time.”
  • “No, it’s not my thing.”
  • “Unfortunately, I can’t make it.”

#6: Take a Time-Out

If you’re not sure how to say “No,” one of the easiest things you can do is postpone the decision.

Here are a few classic ways to buy time:

  • “I’m sorry but this is not a good time to talk about this. Can we set a time to speak this afternoon?”
  • “I need to check my calendar and I’ll get back to you tomorrow.”
  • “Let me make a phone call to check something out first.”
  • And, in case of emergency: “Hang on – I need a minute and I’ll be right back.”

#7: Advanced Technique: Run It By The Boss

Sometimes you need to say “No” to a request you’re getting from a colleague at work, and that can be tricky because of how it relates to office politics.

The trick is to make them get the “Yes” from your boss – not you, e.g.:

  • “I have to finish this assignment for (the boss) first. Run it by her and if she wants me to handle it, I’ll be happy to take care of it for you.”

#8: Advanced Technique: Blame The “Fit”

When you have a representative (manager, agent, lawyer) you will often get asked to take on assignments.

While often you’d want to say “Yes” because you want to be working and get paid, sometimes you’re too busy with other assignments or you have a hot spec cooking and that deserves your focus.

Here’s how to say “No” to reps and other VIPs:

  • “Great idea, but it’s not sticking with me, so I don’t think I’m right for it.”
  • “Exciting concept, but in my heart I know it’s not the right fit for me.”
  • “I love it, but my instinct is that I’m not the right person.”

#9: Advanced Technique: Avoid “Upturn Phrasing”

“Upturn phrasing” is where your voice lifts up at the end of the word.

This gives the impression that your “No” can be negotiated into a “Yes.”

Instead, use “downturn phrasing,” where your voice goes down in tone at the end of the word. This communicates, “No” in a much firmer way.

Saying “No” Means Saying “Yes” To Yourself

You know that great feeling when you clean out a closet and donate or throw away a whole bunch of stuff?

Suddenly, it’s so much easier to find the things you need, and there’s space available for what’s new.

The same benefit applies when you learn the communication skills to help you say “No” to the people, activities, and requests that are cluttering up your life.

You have more time for the people and activities to which you want to say, “Yes.”

Question for you: What’s your favorite way to say, “No?” Please share in the comments below.

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Discussion About Communication Skills For Screenwriters: 9 Ways To Say “No”

  1. Laurence MacNaughton

    Saying “no” is a must-have skill for any writer. The further you get in your career, the more “no” answers you have to give, as you graduate to bigger projects. If you keep saying “yes” to projects that are no longer a good fit, you’ll find yourself booked solid — but stuck. If you don’t want to say “no” outright, then define the conditions that will make it a “yes” for you: more money, longer deadline, etc. That way, if the other party can’t meet those “yes, if…” conditions, you’re off the hook guilt-free.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Great idea, Laurence. Thanks for sharing!

      • edi

        helpfull advice for me, just in right time..commonly I say “yes” even insight of me I feel “No”.

  2. Jon Stevens Alon

    Thanks, Stephanie,

    Good advice as our time is at a premium.

    Q: Should a writer represented by a literary agent sign a “release form”, and how do you feel in general re such “release forms” that give the legal right for somehow to steal an idea simply by stating they have something similar already in development.

    Thanks always,


    • Stephanie Palmer

      Hi Jon,

      In general, before signing anything, I recommend having an attorney who works for you review any documents. That said, just to be really clear, you can’t protect your “idea” and a release form doesn’t sacrifice your rights in that respect. All you can really protect is your execution of the idea (which is protected anyway under existing copyright law). Personally, in most cases I sign release forms, but in a few instances I felt uncomfortable with the terms and didn’t sign, and thus did not work with those people.

  3. Rachel White

    This is exactly what I needed right now — too much of the wrong things is just as bad as nothing! Thank you again Stephanie for an extremely helpful and focused post.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      Thanks, Rachel. I think the Fall starts to get really busy for a lot of people, myself included.

  4. Leesa

    Great article! I normally tell people, “I’d love to but I’m completely booked/swamped and can’t take anything new on.”

    I find most people accept that.

  5. Walter Harris Gavin

    Saying “No!” isn’t just a skill for writers. A lot of creative types don’t want to say no,because they feel they always need the work or people will stop calling if they say no too often. But folks always want what they can’t have. So saying no many times insures that you’ll be asked again by the same person, simply because you said no the first, second or third time. Saying no means you’re obligated somewhere else. You always want to seem busy, in demand even if you’re not.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      You’re right, being “busy” is much more appealing than “totally available anytime anywhere.” Thanks, Walter.

  6. Joan Bigwood

    I just decided today with my husband to come into work with him and work in the empty cubicle no one uses, just to get away from my daily distractions.

  7. Shari

    This is a good topic. The Upturn-Downturn phrasing is one I never thought of.
    I’d like to hear more from you and other writers on how to say “No.” to other writers, producers, et al in “The Room”, when everyone’s on a deadline and the pressure is on.

    One favorite is: “Thanks for asking. Right now I’m working on a job (deadline) that just doesn’t leave me enough free time to make other commitments.”

  8. monique gramby

    For me honesty is the best policy. My friends and family know that I’m a “night owl” writer. I’ve already communicated to them when I’m working on a project I’m unavailable during the week. But the same applies professionally. I’m transparent about my schedule and subsequent projects I’m working. That way they already know from the start. It’s important that you give yourself a buffer. Whether it’s for re-writing, flushing out an idea or just looking out the window. Mastering the ability to say “No” helps you to protect your creative space, so you can design your platform of how you want to work.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      It sounds like you’ve done a great job of setting boundaries, Monique. Nice work!

  9. Bonnie Russell

    A very wise woman once told me I didn’t need to justify a “no” whenever anyone asked me to explain why I turned something down.

    Said, “A simple, no- – – that doesn’t work for me, is enough.”

    Since I was new to setting effective boundaries, I asked, ‘

    “What if they press for reasons why?”

    She answered, “Just laugh and ask them if they really did just ask you to justify your “no” to them.”

    She had the nicest, strongest boundaries of anyone I ever met, and was respected by everyone

    and if they press after that, stick to, “it doesn’t work for me” and change the subject.
    No explanation required.

    That was the main thing I learned. No explanation required.

  10. Bela Lampert

    Awesome post, Stephenie!

    Especially avoiding No. 9, upturn phrasing, has made a big difference for me. If you don’t do that people really often try to turn your no into a yes. If you just stand your ground with a convincing NO there won’t even be a discussion.

    Thanks for your useful tips!


  11. Fran

    Great advice for Directors and Producers too – and especially helpful for those of us who seem to be “born to mentor!”

  12. Vladimir

    Stephanie, all of them are great. I have few : “You should have knocked!”. “I’m extremely rude now!”, “Leave me alone”. “Shut up!’. ” Go away!” “Close the door from outside, please”.- or just look at him/her silently.

  13. Silvia Mathis Manning

    God I needed to hear this Stephanie! THANK YOU!

  14. Lori

    Thank You for such a wonderful article! For me to work effectively the word “No” is an absolute. Other writers, actors, etc. I know cannot seem to find a strategic way to do this. These are the same people who end up running around at the last minute trying to quality work and fail.

  15. muwahid

    thank you very much for that very good notes, its really intresting and own ways of saying NO is to ignor. with REGARDS MUWAHID.

  16. Joanna

    This post comes at a great time for me. I’ve just implemented 2 new “no” rules. I only take meetings on Thursdays, which means M, T, W and F are all mine! And I only check and reply to email once per day: between 9 and 10am. I’ve added my emailing times to my email signature. Sticking to these new rules will be extremely hard – but, as you say, saying “no” to others is saying “yes” to me. Great advice.

    • Stephanie Palmer

      You’re an inspiration, Joanna. Love it!

      • Joe Kozak

        very simple……thanks but no thanks

  17. John

    That was great. I did enjoy the write-Up so much, I read it twice. The “nO” word are meant for the geniuses. Because they are not always in the mood to please everyone. Let them call me stubborn-jerk, but it keeps my fire burning. Thanks Steph.

  18. Brandon

    This post is very helpful. As someone who’s transitioning into the field of writing and producing full-time, and pitching various projects, becoming familiar with the different ways someone may be indirectly saying “No” without explicitly saying “No” is helpful and at times necessary. I think your list is pretty comprehensive. I would imagine the indirect “No” you choose to employ is based on your personality. I personally prefer honesty, but also understand some people can’t handle the truth (Jack Nicholson voice). But thanks again for sharing!

  19. Sam Seal

    The whole point of being a free agent is being able to say no.

  20. Ivan

    Great article Stephanie!
    My favourite way to say “No” is “I can’t do it, I’m busy”.

  21. Randall Hahn

    Oh man that sounds like a great idea. I’m in the middle of a script rewrite with two other people waiting after this one, but I will put it in my thinkubater and if you can wait a few weeks I will see what I can come up with.