In my freelancer salad days, I had the misguided notion that in order to get good, steady work, I needed to accommodate every request in my inbox. A client wanted same-day revisions on top of two other deadlines due by EOD? No prob. An editor asked for three more interviews than what was outlined in our contract? Why not.
I’d quietly fume while doing this out-of-scope work, but I’d never risk the ramifications—which, in my head, meant never getting work ever again—of sticking up for myself. But several years into my freelancing career and one pandemic later, I no longer let clients treat me like an all-you-can-eat content buffet at the low, low price of my sanity.
Sometimes, that means writing a difficult email or three. Even for professional writers, penning one of these bad boys can be a challenge—not to mention a time suck. Below are some of the emails I find myself sending over and over again. I hope they can help out any fellow freelancers struggling to find the right words for a sticky situation.
1. Accepting a story from an overly eager new client
When I tell people I work as a writer for a living, I get a lot of raised eyebrows and, “Wow, good for you!”s. (Turns out, there’s a bit of a freelance-writer-as-starving-artist trope out there.) Sometimes, this condescension even comes from prospective clients. What do you mean, you need more details? Aren’t you grateful for any work at all?
In these cases, I send an email explaining my professional process, asking for project parameters, and making it clear I need a contract in place before beginning work. This sets healthy boundaries from the onset of the partnership—and it subtly lets clients know I’m not desperate for their business.
Here’s an example of what I might say:
Thanks for reaching out about this potential partnership! Before we make things official, I’d like to get a better understanding of what you’re looking for and the scope of work involved.
Could you kindly clarify the points below?
- What’s the target word count for this project? My rate is [per-word rate].
- What’s the end goal for this project and the timeline you’re envisioning?
- Do you have any examples of similar past work to share—or published work by other brands that exemplify the tone/style you’re looking for?
Here’s a bit more about how I work:
- Once we have the project details nailed down, I’ll send along a contract.
- On average, I take [number of days] after the contract is locked to submit a first draft.
- My fee includes X number of revisions, and on average, it takes me X number of days to complete them.
- If revisions are extensive or the project needs a complete rewrite, I charge X.
- If you need this project sooner, my rush fee is X.
Thanks and looking forward to working together!
2. Respectfully declining an assignment
Sometimes, I turn down work because I don’t have bandwidth. Other times, I decline because I have a gut feeling it’s going to be a dumpster fire. And every now and then, I say no because I simply need a break.
Here’s an email I recently sent to a client because they needed an article faster than I could accommodate:
Thanks so much for thinking of me for this project. I’m currently operating about 2-3 weeks out for new draft deliveries, particularly those that involve [original reporting, in-depth research, etc.]. Unfortunately, your requested deadline is going to be too tight given my current bandwidth. I want to be sure I’m able to deliver content that’s up to both our quality expectations and standards.
Can we revisit this partnership [next month, in two weeks, etc.] with a little more lead time?
Thanks for your understanding,
Or, if you’d prefer to turn down the assignment point blank, here’s a way to do so that leaves the door cracked for the future:
Thanks for thinking of me for this opportunity! Regretfully, I am fully booked through [date/time of year]. I want to be sure I don’t overcommit so that I’m able to continue delivering work up to both our quality expectations and standards.
Please do keep me in mind for future projects with a launch date of [date] or later.
3. Level-setting in the face of scope-creep
Every freelancer knows the conundrum of a client that plays fast and loose with their contracts. Maybe you stipulated “two rounds of revisions,” but now you’re on the 10th with no end in sight. But nobody wants to be that freelancer—you know, the “per our contract” Karen.
In this case, you’ll need to do a little client-wrangling to get things back on track. One of the easiest ways to do this is to ask for additional compensation for the extra work—which lets the client know about the scope creep while also gently reminding them you’re not a full-time employee. (Contently’s policy is to offer 20 percent for out-of-scope revisions, which I’ve found to be a good baseline.)
Here’s how I’d recommend wordsmithing this delicate situation:
Hope you’re well this week. I wanted to reach out about [project/collaboration]. I understand you’re looking for [revisions by X date, an additional round of revisions, whatever the out-of-scope work entails], and of course, I’m happy to help keep the project moving.
Given that this request goes beyond what’s outlined in our existing contract, are you able to offer additional compensation? My freelance rate for [type of work involved] is [rate].
Please let me know the best way to move forward!
4. Notifying clients about an upcoming vacation
Say it with me now: Freelancers need and deserve vacations, too. Good. Here’s one way to let clients know you’re taking one:
Hope you’re well today. I wanted to let you know about some out-of-office time I’ve got scheduled for [dates]. I won’t have access to email during this period—so please keep these dates in mind for any upcoming assignments, as well as for edits on existing work. I’ll be around until [date] to handle anything that comes up, and I’ll return on [date].
Just wanted to give you a heads up! Thanks and hope you’re enjoying your [season/month].
My recommendation is to let clients know at least three weeks before your planned time off—maybe even farther in advance, depending on the type of work you do.
5. Turning down a work request from a friend
Maybe you’ve got a friend who knows you work in a creative field and wants help designing their small business website—never mind that you exclusively work for print publications. Or maybe you’ve got a friend who wants to “shoot you over some copy to edit real quick,” not realizing they’re putting you in an awkward position.
Mixing friends and business can be a recipe for resentment. Here’s an example of how I handle these situations:
I’m flattered that you’d think of me for this, and it sounds like a very cool project. Unfortunately, I have a ton on my plate at the moment, and I’m sure you’ll understand I need to dedicate my working hours to paying clients. That said, I’d be happy to help you [some small concession, e.g., “give your website a once-over when it’s completed,” “let you know my thoughts once you’ve got a few logos to choose from,” etc.].
I’d also love to point you in the direction of another [freelancer/professional/platform] who might be able to help out. Just let me know what you need.
Please keep me updated on your progress!
Nobody enjoys hard-to-have conversations, but when you’re running a freelance business, they’re inevitable. Learning how to have them ultimately saves both you and your clients from future headaches.