Many years ago, when I was just starting out as a freelancer, I was asked to write a piece about a subject that made me very uncomfortable. Furthermore, I didn’t agree with the angle of the piece and I felt like the client was intentionally trying to be inflammatory. I wanted to say no, that since the article made me uncomfortable I didn’t want to do it. However, the money the client was offering was fantastic and I was young and broke and really needed the money. Plus, the client had been referred to me by another very good client. I feared burning bridges. After thinking it over, I buried my reservations and did the work. When it was over, I felt a little dirty, like I’d done something to be ashamed of. It took a while to put it behind me.
Let me state up front that when I talk about jobs that make you uncomfortable, I’m not talking about jobs that aren’t ethical (like term paper mills and rewriting plagiarized work), or which intentionally hurt other people. You should avoid those at all costs. The jobs I’m talking about are the ones that are fully legal and ethical, but maybe just not quite right for you. Maybe the subject matter is offensive to you. Maybe someone is asking you to take a position you don’t agree with, or do work for a cause you don’t support. Maybe the job isn’t something you’d want your mother to see, such as writing scripts for adult videos or writing copy for an adult toy company’s catalog. Or maybe it’s just mind-numbing, soul sucking work like shilling useless products to people who don’t need more crap or writing SEO-laden articles that appeal only to robots, not actual humans.
Some people are better than others at compartmentalizing their work and personal lives. They have no trouble taking jobs that they find uncomfortable. It’s just work to them. Others are left feeling a little dirty when they take certain types of work. While we’d all like to say that we’d never take work that makes us uncomfortable, the fact is that sometimes you need the money. The high road isn’t always the easy one to take when you’ve got bills to pay and kids to feed. Sometimes slumming it can mean the difference between making a profit and having to go back to a cubicle. If you are the sort of person who feels like you need a shower after doing some types of work, how can you deal with it? Here are some tips to save your soul and sanity.
- Use a pen name. This is the easiest way to deal with work that makes you uncomfortable or which may endanger your reputation. Don’t use your real name. That way, no one will ever know you wrote that article on the use of sex toys in the swinging community. You can do the work, collect the check and no one has to be the wiser.
- Ask that the client not include a byline or credit. You can also ask that the client not credit you for the work in any way. Ask them to leave off your byline, don’t thank you in the acknowledgements, and don’t mention you in the credits at the back of the catalog.
- Weigh the potential negatives of not taking the job. Some jobs are easier to turn down than others. It gets complicated when turning down the job can have a large long-term impact, such as when a regular, good client asks you to do a piece on a topic that you’re not comfortable with. If you turn down the job, you may risk losing the client. You have to ask yourself if taking the job is the better thing to do in the long run.
- Weight the potential positives of taking the job. Obviously there’s the money. That’s the biggest reason for taking on a project that makes you uncomfortable. But there may be other benefits. If the work isn’t too off the wall or embarrassing, you may be able to use it as a credit. If it’s a well respected publication, you may make contacts with editors who can help you later. If it’s for a publication that also offers work that you would love to do, doing the crappy piece may be a stepping stone to the better pieces. Think about what you might gain and decide if it’s worth it to you.
- Think about the time commitment. You definitely don’t want to be uncomfortable for months. If the work is a one-off piece it may be worthwhile, assuming there are enough benefits for you. However, if the job is going to drag on for months or years, you might want to say no. There’s a cumulative effect to being unhappy with your work and the longer you wallow in the muck, the worse it will be. Keep it short.
- Figure out exactly what’s making you uncomfortable. Is it the material itself? The stance you’re being asked to take? If so, why does it bother you? Is this really a deep seated belief on the line, or a knee-jerk reaction? Can you overcome your reservations? Is it the people that are making you uncomfortable? If you feel like you’re dealing with bullies, criminals, or clueless editors, you might want to run away. Uncomfortable material is one thing. It can’t abuse you. People, on the other hand, have the power to make your life intolerable. Knowing exactly why you’re uncomfortable can make it easier to find coping mechanisms, know when you’re being irrational, or know when to turn down a project.
- Make sure you can turn out a great piece. Sometimes a lack of enthusiasm or discomfort with certain subject matter shows up in the work. If you’re going to take a job, make sure you can do a great job. If you can’t, turn it down. It won’t endear you to the client if you turn in shoddy work and they might refuse to pay you or recommend you to others, meaning that you spent your time rolling in the gutter for nothing.
- Try to stick to fact-based work. Facts are facts and sticking to them can make writing in certain niches more comfortable, or at least more comfortable than having to render an opinion on something. For example, there is a big difference in a project entitled, “10 Surprising Facts About Christianity,” versus one called “10 Reasons Why Christianity is the Best Religion,” particularly if you’re not Christian.
- Try to negotiate the for your comfort. If you really can’t see yourself writing about, say, a political stance you don’t agree with, ask if you can change the focus/angle of the piece. Maybe ask to write about both sides of the issue, or come up with some other slant that still includes what the editor is seeking, but which also tones it down. Or say, “I’m really thrilled that you’d consider me for this piece, but I wonder if I could write about [insert project you agree with and which the publication also covers], instead.” You never know. You may be able to get a better project out of the deal.
- Move on. When you’ve finished the project, put it behind you. Don’t dwell on it. If you made an informed decision, the project was ethical and legal, and you took steps to protect your reputation (used a pen name), then you did what you needed to do. Don’t spend months beating yourself up over it. It was an assignment and you completed the assignment. Nothing more. Look for better work and then…
- Try to avoid discomfort in the future. Projects like this are the spur to work harder and reach a point where you can more easily turn down icky assignments.
- Focus on what you learned/gained. Almost every project teaches or gives you something. Instead of dwelling on the discomfort, think about what you learned or gained. Maybe you learned something about yourself and your biases. Maybe you discovered a new research resource. Maybe this project gave you an idea for another piece that you will write from the angle you do support. Maybe you met an editor that you really like, or another freelancer that you could collaborate with in the future. There’s almost always a positive. Look for it and cherish it.
My own story has a happy ending. After I did the assignment, the client was impressed and asked me to do some more for him. Fortunately, he never again asked me to do work that made me uncomfortable and he became a very good client for a few years. There have been other times over the years when people have asked me to do work that I wasn’t sure of. Some of it has left me feeling bad that I took the job, while other assignments have had redeeming qualities that at least made them bearable.
When you come to this point in your career where you have to decide whether or not to take a job, remember that no one has the right to judge how you run your business. As long as what you’re doing isn’t illegal or unethical, it’s up to you how much discomfort you can stand. Just take whatever steps you can to protect your reputation and minimize the psychological load. Then do what you need to do to stay afloat and move forward in your career.