When to Say No to a Freelance Job

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One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a freelancer is when to say no to a job. (Hint: It should be a lot more often than I do.) Even more, I’ve had to learn that it’s okay to say no. (I’m a people pleaser, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.) In the beginning, I took every job, no matter how awful. Either I needed the money or I needed the referral. Or both. Many jobs made me miserable and I regretted taking them. As time has gone on, I’ve gotten better about saying no and protecting myself from the horrible jobs.

So how do I decide whether or not to take a job? Here are the questions I ask myself. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it should give you the idea. Sometimes, the answer to just one question is enough to make me say no, other times it’s a combination of factors. The longer you stay in the field, the more you’ll learn your preferences and peeves and adjust accordingly.

Questions to Ask Before Taking a Job


Do you have time for the work?

This is the most important question. If you have a lot of other projects going on, or this one is going to take time that you could use to pursue more lucrative projects, you should pass. Time is the one thing you can’t make more of, so if doing this project is going to stretch you to the limit or force you to pass on better jobs, then decline with grace.

Is it something you really want to write about, or can you at least muster some excitement? 

Not every project is going to be fun. There are some, though, for which you know you’re not going to be able to muster up any enthusiasm. This isn’t the only factor when deciding whether or not to take a job, but if a job isn’t meeting other requirements and it’s not going to be fun/interesting, walk away. Boredom doesn’t lead to good work.

Do you desperately need the money/clip/referral? 

Sometimes it’s worth taking on an otherwise undesirable job because you really need the money to pay the bills. Either that you need the experience and clips to show other clients. And sometimes the client is highly respected in the field and you really want that referral. In these cases, it might be worth it to take on something that you would otherwise decline.

Is the work a good fit for your skills? 

If you know that this job isn’t a match for your skills and you’re going to have to invest a lot of time to get up to speed (or risk failing at the job), it’s a good idea to pass. You’re better off passing upfront than getting in over your head and having to bail out, leaving a bad impression. Treat it like a leaning opportunity, though. Make a mental note that a client asked for X,Y, and Z and that you should improve in those areas to be more marketable in the future.


Just Say No


Is the deadline unreasonable? 

Sometimes a client has unrealistic ideas of how long projects should take. If you cannot convince them of a reasonable deadline, you need to pass. It will be nothing more than a huge headache. Worse, it’s probably a symptom of the next problem, which is…

Does the client have a reputation for being difficult or unreasonable? 

Once you’ve been in the field a while, you’ll get a sense of who has a reputation for being “problematic.” (That’s the nice word for it.) There are just some clients that are unreasonable, bullying, haranguing monsters. No amount of money is worth working for these people. Even if they don’t have a public reputation, you can usually get a sense of this when you begin project negotiations. Run away.

Is the client unwilling to pay what the project is worth?

Just like some people have no idea how long a project will really take, some have no idea what it’s worth. You will give them a quote and they’ll want to give you a third of that. Negotiation is fine and expected, but if a client isn’t even willing to come close to a realistic pay scale, don’t take the job. (Incidentally, I’ve found that many of these clients will also find “fault” with the work at the end to get away with paying you even less. Don’t fall for it.)

Is the client asking for something unethical or against your values? 

There will be jobs that skirt ethical lines or which are, while legal, for things that are against your personal values (writing copy for the fur trade or gambling establishments, for a couple of possible examples). You should definitely say no to anything that’s unethical and probably decline anything that’s against your personal values. You’ll hate the work and feel terrible while doing it. Worse, your feelings will probably show in the final product.

Is the project doomed from the beginning? 

There are projects that you know are just doomed before they start. The client doesn’t know what they want. They don’t know what format they want it in. They don’t have a plan. The budget isn’t final. There are too many people with input. No one’s in charge. There are many reasons why a project will never succeed and the whole thing will end up like a bad traffic accident with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else. If you can see this kind of pile up coming, stay away.

Do you have a bad gut feeling about the job?

This is the hardest reason to decline, but it’s also the most important. Sometimes you won’t be able to say why a project is giving you bad vibes. It will be some undercurrent that you can’t articulate, but which is making your eye twitch or your hair stand up. Stay away. Your gut is rarely wrong. I’ve learned this lesson repeatedly, in the hardest ways possible. Every time I’ve said yes to a project that gave me the heebie-jeebies, I’ve been sorry. Every. Single. Time. I’ve finally learned, though. If your gut is telling you something is wrong, trust it and stay away. 

Of course, if you have to say no, do so gracefully. Many times an explanation isn’t necessary. A simple, “I’m sorry, but I am unable to take on your project at this time,” is all that’s needed.

If a client presses for a reason, be diplomatic or make up an excuse. You don’t want to say, “Well, I heard you were a giant asshat, so I’m not taking the job.” You can simply say you don’t have time or you don’t think you’re the right writer for the job. You never know when the company might change ownership, the client might mention you to someone else, or another job might be on offer that you really want. Say no, but leave the door open for the future.

(Photos courtesy of Unsplash, geralt

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