When do you say ‘no’ to a freelancing job?

Posted on: June 25th, 2010

It’s very tempting to accept anything and everything that you get offered, especially if you’re new to freelancing or you haven’t got that much work on.

However, it’s important to know when to say ‘no’ to a job.

Outside your sphere of knowledge

I know that if it’s outside my sphere of knowledge, I’ll have a big learning curve to go through. So, if your niche is the healthcare sector, you’ll probably find it tough if you’re offered an assignment in, say, the music industry.

Dull-sounding project

And if I get offered a project that sounds exceedingly boring, I’m very unlikely to summon up enough enthusiasm to produce my best work. Equally, if it’s a project that needs a skill that’s not my key strength, I always find it’s best to explain upfront exactly where my talents and strengths lie. Who knows, it could be this potential client has other work that will play to my talents.

The key here is to suggest another freelancer who would jump at the chance of working on the project that isn’t right for you. The chances are that same person will suggest you for a project that’s not quite up their street.

A fellow freelance writer (who is now an acupuncturist) used to love writing speeches. I have absolutely no wish to write speeches so I always used to pass these projects to her. It’s up to you whether you charge them an introductory fee. It’s my choice not to, as I’m of the ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ mindset.

You’re snowed under

The other time when I say ‘no’ to a job is when I’m really busy. In fact, I turned down a brochure writing project just yesterday afternoon. I don’t generally like to turn away money but I’ve got lots of work on at the moment and didn’t feel I could squeeze another project in without compromising quality. I suppose I could have accepted it and outsourced it to someone and taken a turn in the form of a mark up – but it was my decision not to.

When was the last time you said ‘no’ to a job?

13 Responses to “When do you say ‘no’ to a freelancing job?”

  1. Cookies & Java
    June 25th, 2010

    I think in my first two years I said no more than I said yes. The last time I did it was a couple of weeks ago, as you suggest I always try to pass the prospect onto to someone. Partly for recommendations back, partly so the prospect leaves with a good feeling about my business.

    In my industry a lot of the appeal comes down to the client themselves rather than the project.

    I know people who are willing to take anything on, no matter how complex, how busy or how hard the client looks to work with. The results can be very profitable and I’ve seen it help those businesses grow fast, however I’ve seen it became very stressful for those doing, and I’ve seen them under deliver to clients.

  2. Karen Southall Watts
    June 25th, 2010

    Good list. I would add another (I see this all the time with new freelancers)…
    When the client begins early on giving hints that they cannot afford to pay you. Some clients try to turn the initial fact gathering meeting into a “freebie” consult. Others begin almost immediately listing all the cash flow problems that “might” get in the way of timely payment. At that point, it’s time to say NO.

  3. BookMD
    June 25th, 2010

    As a freelance editor, I have said “no” to work I found distasteful (for example, a book that required interviewing couples about their sex lives, and editing a manuscript that was a litany of ways to torture and kill women). The trick is that sometimes you want to keep the client but lose the job. Suggesting someone else is a good way out.

    I do a lot of collaborations, and I have learned that it does not pay to accept a job with someone you really don’t care for. Over time this person will become the bane of your existence. Gut instinct is everything.

    Also, it is just too much damn trouble to work with people who are still trying to invent themselves. The burden is on you to come up with their “program” or “hook” or “platform” or whatever they need to make it big. It makes no sense to put all that effort into making someone else famous while getting very little out of it yourself.

  4. BookMD
    June 25th, 2010

    P.S. Karen’s response reminds me of something else. Often you’ll be offered a job that was previously botched up by someone else. In all probability you will NOT be informed about this. Of course, this becomes obvious when they say they used up all their money on the first freelancer, and they’re so sorry there isn’t more left for you.

  5. Lee Lefton
    June 26th, 2010

    I recently received a call from my boss at my first agency job back in the late 70s. He found me through a mutual connection. The last I’d heard anything about him was when he ran into my father about 20 years ago on the golf course, at which time he told my dad that he had taught me everything I know about advertising. Long story short, he was one of the most angry, arrogant and difficult bosses I’d ever worked for. Now, just hearing his voice brought all of those unpleasant memories back. As expected, he had a “big” job for a new client and if my work met his “standards”, there would be many more jobs and clients to follow. The proverbial carrot. He asked me what I would charge, and I gave him a price with a very large “hassle fee” built in. He blanched and said his budget was approximately 1/4 of that. Even if it had been double what I quoted, I’d still have passed. So I dimply thanked him for calling and politely declined without a single regret.

    BookMD. I can’t believe someone wanted you to edit a book on ways to torture and kill women! I hope you turned him into the police.

  6. Lee Lefton
    June 26th, 2010

    What I meant to say above was that I “simply” thanked him. I don’t have dimples.

  7. BookMD
    June 26th, 2010

    I’m sorry, Lee, I should have explained it was a novel, so there was a little bit of “plot” and some dialogue filler. But it would still work as a “how-to” guide! Awful, awful, awful.

  8. Lee Lefton
    June 26th, 2010


    I don’t know if you saw the movie or read the book, “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but that has a similar ring. It would be nice to think that your author didn’t get published.

  9. BookMD
    June 26th, 2010

    I can’t name names, but he did!

    Thank you for warning me – I will be sure to stay away from “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”!

    What do you suppose would have happened if the manuscript had been all about torture/homicides of men? As a culture, are we equal opportunity murderers? I am not in a position to judge because I stay away from gratuitous violence in books or films. (Not to mention real life!)

  10. Carole
    June 28th, 2010

    Interesting discussion, guys. There’s another occasion when I say ‘no’ to a job: if it’s an industry I’m against – eg:a tobacco company.

  11. veibra-online
    July 16th, 2010

    thanks for the interesting information

  12. Dila
    December 21st, 2010

    Hi Carole,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. I think I usually say no to a freelancing gig when I am already swarmed up with other freelance jobs. And of course I say no to a job that is outside of my knowledge. It’s easier to say no now than when I first started freelancing two years ago. Maybe it’s easier because I had done it a few times.

  13. Freelance FactFile
    December 22nd, 2010

    Hi Dila

    Yes, I agree, once you’ve said ‘no’ a few times, it becomes much easier to say. It was the same when I had to chase clients for payment when I started out as a freelancer. I found it really hard to do at the beginning.

Leave a Reply

Type your comment in the box below: