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Saturday, September 8, 2012

An Essential Word in Your Freelancer Vocabulary

I admit it. I have a hard time saying no. As a result, I often wind up taking on too much work, only to regret it afterwards. I’d rather say yes to just about everything, which leads to me being overbooked and overwhelmed.
As a former attorney, though, I should know better. As a law student, you study for and take what’s called the ethics bar exam, which tests your knowledge of the Code of Professional Responsibility that lawyers swear to uphold. The one thing I remember from the course more than 20 years later was this line: A lawyer is not a bus. Meaning that if you’re uncomfortable working for a client or don’t feel that you can adequately represent the person, you don’t have to take him on—and, in fact, you may be ethically obligated not to. (A bus, on the other hand, stops to let every waiting passenger climb aboard. Get it?)
This axiom applies to writers as well. As a freelancer, you don’t have to take every project that’s offered. Sometimes the gig doesn’t offer enough money or the contract terms are terrible or you’re already overloaded with work or you don’t feel right about the job. Sure, there will be instances where you take on work you’re not thrilled about because you need the money. After all, having to do things you don’t particularly want to do is part of any job. But if you never say no, you’ll lose control over your writing life and have no time for the projects you really want to pursue.
Still, many writers struggle with saying no, especially when they have a relationship with the person doing the asking. Years ago, my dad, who’s a dentist, came to me with a great idea. He wanted us to write a book together, on providing better-quality dental care to patients in nursing homes. (Imagine my thrill at the idea of covering this subject!) I had to turn him down.
I felt terrible about it. He’s my dad! But I knew that the project would take months, it wouldn’t produce much (if any) income, and it wasn’t a subject I had any interest in. He was disappointed and angry. But if I had taken on the book, it would have severely impacted my ability to make a living. As a self-employed businessperson, I can’t do that. (I would have also been resentful toward him and angry with myself for agreeing to do it, and those are not feelings I want to be embracing for months.)
When I say no, I start with a “thank you,” and then give a reason for my refusal, like, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this project, but I’m afraid I don’t have time to take it on right now.” Or, “I really appreciate you getting in touch, but I charge at least $4,500 for a book proposal, so unless you can afford that, I won’t be able to work with you.” You may feel bad temporarily but you’ll feel much worse if you take on work that you don’t want and then have to actually do it!  
Repeat after me: You are a writer, not a bus. Start saying no to the work you don’t need and don’t want. You won’t regret it. And you'll leave room for more lucrative assignments as well. 
[This post is Secret 51: Learn to say no from Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success. If you're serious about freelancing, I hope you'll check it out. Thanks! Or if you're a total newbie to freelancing and want to know how to sell your first article, you won't find better, more practical advice than in my ebook,Dollars and Deadlines' Guide to Selling your First Article. Or check out my other ebooks here.]
***And finally, stay tuned for my next giveaway to celebrate hitting 400 followers on this blog! It's going to be a good one. :)  


  1. What's hard is saying no when the jobs aren't rolling in (just starting out again after many years away)except the ones that don't want to pay much. Thanks for taking time to share all your wisdom.

  2. Thank you. I love the bus analogy. I have had luck twice in the last few months accepting assignments I was interested in but which paid too little. At first I was going to say no, but then I simply asked the editor for more money and named a specific price I would agree to work for. They both said yes!