Diana Kelly Levey

7 Times You Should Turn Down Freelance Assignments

A person stamping the word no on an envelope

June 21, 2021

I know that in the pandemic era, many of us in the freelance world aren’t comfortable saying “no” to freelance assignments, new clients, and any freelance writing jobs that come our way. But there are times when you might need to say “no, thank you” or “not right now” to freelance assignments. I believe that the occasional “no” leads to a better “yes” for your freelance career down the line. (In fact, learning how to turn down freelance work is a skill I wish I knew about freelancing when I was just starting out.) That’s why it’s important to be aware of the signs you should turn down freelance work.

And while some freelancers are afraid that there are a lack of assignments and freelance writing jobs right now or there’s too much competition in the freelance economy, I still think there are times when freelancers can and should turn down freelance assignments. It’s wise to learn how to say “no” to freelance work so you can say “yes” to higher-paying assignments from dream clients. (Need help finding higher-paying freelance clients? Book a coaching call to learn how to earn more money this year.)

Here are some possible scenarios when you might want to pass on freelance work. (And some other times when you might want to lower your freelance rates.)

7 Times to Say No to Freelance Work

1. When to turn down freelance work: The freelance rate isn’t what you want.

I used to get quite a few ‘cold emails’ from potential prospects through my website submission forms about possibly helping out with freelance work. Sometimes they’d want to jump on a call about their project and other times, they’d drop a quick line about what they are looking for and ask for rates. Freelance rates aren’t always calculated seamlessly for me, but since I aim to earn over $100 an hour as a freelancer, I’ll shoot back rates within that ballpark to the prospect. Many times, they don’t even respond to my email and I’m happy I didn’t spend time on the phone with them if they weren’t willing to take the time to reply. Other times, we will have a discussion if the freelance rate is one they can work with, or, they’ll politely say that they can’t afford that right now and will let me know if anything changes on their end. I’ve seen people ask questions like, “Is freelancing on Upwork worth my time?” and I’ve heard of some freelancers and freelance writers doing pretty well using that platform or using Fiverr to find freelance writing jobs. Those websites are too competitive for me to spend my time trying to bid for work and find new clients. I prefer to do the legwork to find clients that I think will be a fit for me. (Here are three ways I find new freelance clients.)

2. When to turn down freelance work: The freelance assignment isn’t in line with your goals.

In the early years of freelancing, if a friend, former colleague or someone random wanted me to do freelance writing work for them, I often felt somewhat obligated to take on the work. As a freelancer working for myself, I felt guilty turning down assignments because the person came to me. But these days, I tend to write within a few profitable freelance niches, and while I always like learning about new subjects and topics, I might not have the time to learn new subject matter and work on articles in a new genre. Sure, I feel like I can write about pretty much anything if I need to with enough time to research the topic, but right now, if writing about cars or the film industry isn’t part of my long-term freelance strategy, it doesn’t make sense to take on those assignments if I don’t need the money. If you’re an experienced freelancer, ask yourself if the project you might work on is on par with your short-term and long-term goals. (If you don’t know your freelance goals, work on them!)

3. When to turn down freelance work: You don’t have the time to take on the freelance assignment.

If you’re a busy, in-demand freelancer (congrats, BTW) you might not have many pockets of time to take on new clients or embark on more freelance work from low-paying clients. when you’re facing a few deadlines or projects. If I hear back from a potential client that I reached out to a few months ago after sending marketing emails and I don’t have the bandwidth to take on new assignments for the next few weeks, I’ll let them know when I’ll have more time in my schedule. Usually, my busy time clears up within a few weeks and I’m available for work within a month or so. If the client can wait, we’ll start working together then. (That’s often the case.) If I can’t take on the project, I’ll try to refer them to another freelance writer who might be available. Be open and upfront about your availability with new clients. This is a key component of turning down freelance work in a smart way. You want to turn in great work and give them the time and energy their freelance writing job deserves so it’s always better to be respectful of everyone’s time and availability right off the bat.

4. When to turn down freelance work: The freelance project requires skills you don’t have.

I’m all for learning new skills and continuing to improve yourself as a freelancer, entrepreneur and person in general.  But, when I’m approached by a potential new client with a freelance writing project that I am not experienced in and frankly, don’t care to be, I let them know that. I am on an extremely limited working schedule these days while balancing an infant at home and my freelance business, so if someone asks if I want to work on a video script-writing project, or help them create YouTube videos or TikToks—skills I don’t feel confident in at the moment—I’ll let them know that’s not up my alley. Get back to the potential client or existing client who asked if you’re interested in the project and let them know your limitations in a timely manner as a graceful way to say ‘no’ to this freelance work. This is also a good time to remind them of the skills you are experienced in and if you have a contact to refer them to. (BTW, here’s how I scale my business working 10 hours a week.)

5. When to turn down freelance work: When you don’t have a good feeling about the project or editor.

Sometimes an email comes over from a potential prospect and it seems way more like it’s about giving them potential traffic or exposure on my freelance writing blog or portfolio, or, frankly it seems to be written like a bot and I might ignore it. If it’s important and the potential freelance client really wants to work with me, I figure that they’ll follow up. Other times, I might have a call with a potential client and get the feeling that they are a bit distracted, not good at time management, they don’t know how to work with freelancers or they aren’t willing to work with my rates and partial up-front payment terms. Any freelancer who’s been doing this for a short length of time knows there’s always a risk that you won’t get paid. I try to get as many details as possible about a project and potential references if I’m not feeling good about them or the freelance assignment. At the end of the day, I trust my gut. If you are getting weird vibes about an editor, manager, company or project, pause and evaluate where that is coming from.

6. When to turn down freelance work: It won’t translate into long-term work.

I’ve mentioned in other blogs that it usually doesn’t pay for freelancers to  work on one-off assignments. I just started working with about four new clients in the past few months and the paperwork and contracts alone took me about 30 minutes of processing time for each! Once you spend that time getting up and running, you want to keep the relationship going and get repeat assignments. Now that I send potential freelance clients a questionnaire before we hop on a call, one of the questions addresses whether they are looking for ongoing work. That’s been a valuable piece of information to know and I find that many clients and managers want to keep relationships going and commit to multiple projects or assignments in order to manage their energy and time as well. (That’s also one of the keys to becoming a six-figure freelance writer.) If you find that new client wants you to work on a one-off assignment and it doesn’t even pay that well, it might not be worth your time to learn their brand, style guide and set up in. their system in order to get paid. It’s okay to say no to freelance work so you can say “yes” to multiple freelance assignments from other clients.

7. When to turn down freelance work: It’s not in line with your values.

I occasionally write about personal finance and when I’ve had opportunities to write about going into debt and taking on large loans unnecessarily, I’ve usually turned those assignments down because it’s not messaging that I feel comfortable giving out. If you’re a die-hard vegan who is an animal rights activist, you probably aren’t going to want to write about the best meat burger places in town or another topic that doesn’t serve your interests. If you can’t stand politics or celebrity gossip, don’t seek out those assignments or agree to write them if they aren’t a fit for your values.

Obviously, if you need to just pay the bills right now or are a new freelance writer who wants to build clips and then move on from an opportunity, you might  want to pick and choose which of these practices feels right  for you.

After freelance writing for 15 years, I try to ask myself a few questions like those above to make sure the assignments I’m working on feel like a good fit for me and my time. I suggest you do the same. And when a freelance assignment isn’t a fit for you but you think you know someone else who would be great for that project, refer another freelancer!

If you need help finding freelance writing jobs for beginners, my eBook can help.

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