Career Advice

When Should You Turn Down Freelance Work?

By Yael Grauer August 15th, 2014

One of the greatest benefits of freelancing is something that many writers don’t take advantage of nearly enough: the freedom to turn down work.

Turning down work can be incredibly challenging even for the most seasoned freelancers. Even if you’re overbooked or don’t feel qualified in a particular subject, it’s tempting to see dollar signs and take the work anyway. There’s a palpable fear that walking away from a potential gig will equal a loss of money you’ll be unable to replace.

“That’s called lack mentality,” said Marla Beck, a career and life coach for freelance writers. “It’s normal to default to that, but it doesn’t help your career.”

Instead of fixating on what you’ll be missing out on, Beck recommended putting the time and energy into sending out pitches or doing some networking to find new clients. Knowing that you have the skills to procure other assignments makes it easier to say no to work that might not be the best fit.

Here are few situations that are best avoided:

1. You can’t help a client meet a certain goal

Working with a client that has unrealistic expectations—for example, wanting a huge traffic surge and instant sales overnight—is a recipe for disaster. The end result is often a frustrated client. At the very least, the contract will probably end unceremoniously. It’s best to seek out ongoing work with reasonable goals than to settle for this low-hanging spoiled fruit.

2. Poor hourly pay

It’s often difficult to gauge hourly rates for a particular assignment, but experience with an editor or client coupled with meticulous record-keeping can give you a pretty good idea. Sometimes the hourly or per-word rate is low, and other times excessive revisions make even the most generous per-word rate seem low. A lack of knowledge about a topic can also make your hourly pay dwindle. Unless you are incredibly passionate about a project or leveraging a byline for bigger and better things, low pay can lead to resentment—which can lead to missed deadlines and other forms of self-sabotage.

3. A sketchy contract

A contract that seems overreaching can be a very good reason to turn down an assignment, particularly if it includes a non-compete clause that could cut into additional work.

4. A difficult client

Even the most prestigious job can be hellish if there’s a bad fit for the involved parties.

“What I tend to advise people to do is to check in with other freelancers, so you go into it with eyes wide open, but also make sure that you keep an open mind,” Beck said. “Your experience might be different, but you want to understand what reputation or what kind of history the organization has and decide if that’s a chance you’re willing to take and if it feels right enough.”

5. Ethical considerations

Lax fact-checking can do irreparable damage to your reputation, particularly if you’re covering topics such as health, fitness, and science. Sensationalistic headlines, whether you penned them or not, can hurt your standing with sources. And even ghostwritten work that can’t be traced back to you can leave you feeling uncomfortable if you don’t trust and respect the editors and publishers you’re working for.

6. You’re not growing professionally.

“It’s not just about the money. You have to make sure you are doing work that clicks with you in some way,” Beck explained.

That’s not to say each assignment has to be picture perfect. But if you do choose to take an assignment you’re not thrilled about, make sure you understand where it fits in your mix of assignments.

“Making that choice consciously, and knowing what you’re building or what you’re transitioning into make sense,” she said. “I don’t think there are any total right, total wrong [answers]. It’s kind of an art deciding whether an assignment is the right mix for you right now.”

Bottom line

Although each situation is different, it ultimately boils down to whether or not you feel valued as a freelancer. Making the brave choice to turn down a job can actually be more fulfilling than automatically taking work once you get over the initial fear.

As Steve Jobs once said at an Apple conference: “You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Image by Thinglass
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