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Why and how to say no to freelance work

4 minute read

Rachel Ramsay
Rachel Ramsay

Turning down work is counterintuitive when you don’t have a fixed salary. You don’t want to disappoint a potential client, and more pressingly, you never know when the next project might land on your desk. As a freelancer, that makes it all too easy to say yes to every piece of work that comes your way. However, there are times when ‘no’ is the right response. But why might you need to turn down work, and how can you do so tactfully?

Why say no?

There are a few valid reasons why you might need to turn down a project, so let’s look at each of them in more detail.

You’re too busy

The most obvious reason why you might have to turn down a project is that you simply don’t have the time to fit it in: the deadline might be too tight or the size of the project too large to accommodate it in your schedule. Of course, being busy is a good thing when you’re freelance, but the downside is that it can result in having to turn down work you might otherwise have jumped at the chance to be involved in.

If you’re tempted to say yes to it, despite not having enough time in your schedule to do a good job, just remind yourself that rushing the work – and therefore potentially doing a bad job of it – will result in an unhappy client, and one who won’t come back or recommend you.

You don’t have the right skills

You learn something from every job, but if the learning curve is too steep, you can end up out of your depth. Not only will the work turn into an incredibly stressful experience, but the chances are that the end result probably won’t be as good as you’d hoped. The result, again, is an unhappy client.

That’s why you should only say yes to work when you’re confident you can do a good job of it, and for which you have the right skills or expertise. As a copywriter, for example, you might be used to writing website copy but have no experience with radio scripts; it might sound an interesting project to work on, but be honest with yourself: have you really got the knowledge to write effectively for such a different medium?

Ethical reasons

There may be industries you don’t feel comfortable working in because they conflict with your own beliefs; gambling, for instance, or fossil fuels. If you’re early in your freelance career you may feel that sacrificing work for the sake of your principles is a luxury you can’t afford, and that’s fair enough. However, sooner or later there will come a time when you’re asked to do something that supports an activity that you feel is wrong, and that’s a perfectly legitimate reason for not taking on the work.

It just doesn’t feel right

When you’ve been freelancing for a while, you’ll begin to get a feel for when a potential client just isn’t right for you. Getting a bad vibe from someone may seem a flimsy pretext for turning down work, but gut instinct is surprisingly powerful and you can save yourself a lot of aggro by listening to it.

It’s not completely down to an instinctive feeling that you’d have a difficult working relationship, of course; there are usually a few warning signs. The potential client might be coming across as pushy or rude, with unrealistic or unreasonable expectations; perhaps they’re putting pressure on you to provide a free sample, for example, or guilt-tripping you into offering them a big discount. If the start of your working relationship is like this, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the project. Sometimes it’s better not to have the money and not have the hassle.

How to say no

Having reached the conclusion that a project isn’t right for you for whatever reason, how do you go about telling this to the client? Here are some pointers.

  • Start positively – thank them for getting in touch, tell them you’d love to take on the work, but…
  • A quick explanation is all that’s needed – one sentence explaining that there’s currently no room in your schedule, or that it’s not within your area of expertise.
  • Offer a compromise – if you want the work but don’t have time to take it on, explain when you would be able to do it, acknowledging that this may be too late for them.
  • Don’t burn any bridges – even if you won’t ever want to work for this client, they might still mention you to others. If you’re turning down the work for moral reasons or because it doesn’t feel right, it’s better to give a simple excuse, for example that you’re fully booked.
  • Recommend someone else – this is completely optional, but if you want to be helpful both to the client and a fellow freelancer, is there anyone else you can recommend they contact? If you have the wrong skills, perhaps you’re aware of someone who has the right ones; if you’re too busy, do you know someone else who might be a good fit and have better availability?
  • End with a positive sentiment – for example, that you hope you’ll have the chance to work together in the future, or wishing them best of luck with the project.

Turning down work may seem difficult, but it’s professional to ensure that you’re a good fit for a project — and you might be surprised how much potential clients respect you for this even if you can’t help them this time. Want to learn more about freelancing? Then take a look at some of our other posts on being a freelancer.

Rachel Ramsay

Rachel Ramsay is a freelance copywriter with a background in digital marketing. She's written copy for clients ranging from the United Nations World Food Programme to The North Face, and particularly enjoys working with lifestyle and travel brands. In her spare time, she volunteers for Guide Dogs and flies light aircraft and helicopters.

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