First thing: You are allowed to say no.
It’s a perfectly acceptable answer. It is always an option.
You are not obligated to take on every assignment and every client that blows in. You are not required to accept a lousy fee or lopsided terms, either.
I hear from too many freelancers who are agonizing over this. You need to cut that out.
You are already endowed with the right to beg off, pass, turn down, and gracefully decline. And you need no second opinion, prior approval, or special dispensation.
You just decide and that’s that. You are, after all, freelance. If you screw up, so what? Mostly, you’ll regret the bad jobs you did take, and not the ones you didn’t.
Fact is, by common law and tradition you don’t officially make your bones as a freelancer until you actually turn down an assignment or a client or two.
The first time you look at a job that spells trouble, and say ‘Thanks, but no thanks’, that’s when you truly feel the tingling warmth of being an independent. Even after 124 years, I still get a rush from that. Maybe I’m childish, but so be it.
Of course, you aren’t saying ‘no’ just because you’re tired, or the ball game is on, or you don’t feel like it.
What we’re doing is turning away work that is wrong for us. Clients who don’t have their acts together. Work that can only end badly. Work that blunts your tools for no good reason. Clients who can’t pay. Work that buzzes with all sorts of bad signals. That’s toxic work. You’ll get a good sense for that after a while. You’ll know when that seemingly juicy peach hides a bumblebee inside.
What you’re doing is steering your own career, instead of being pushed around by it.
Saying no is how you define who you are, what you are supremely good at, where you’re going.
Saying no is how you disengage from unprofitable C-list clients, how you keep moving ahead, how you keep from getting distracted, sidetracked and dead-ended on work you hate and or suck at.
“Sorry, but I wouldn’t be a good match here. It wouldn’t be fair to take this on and not do a good job on it. If you’d like, I can point you to a few freelancers who might be more helpful.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I’m not the best choice for this sort of work. I focus mostly on branding and identity. If you’d like a few names of web designers, I could pass them along.”
“Oh boy. You wouldn’t want me working on this. My brain works the wrong way ’round. I’d be nothing but trouble. But I’m flattered that you asked.”
“I think it’s time to give a fresh freelancer a crack at this. I’ve enjoyed the work so far, but I’m no longer a good fit for what you need.”
Understand that clients almost never hear ‘no’ from a freelancer. Some will go wide-eyed. Some will be incensed and offended. So don’t be a jerk about it. Oh, and some may give you a whole new respect for not fawning and begging. Well, sometimes.
You’re also saying ‘no’ when the money isn’t there.
“I don’t know how to do a good job for any less, and you wouldn’t be happy with the work. But I appreciate the opportunity. Perhaps we can work together sometime in the future.”
“No problem. I’d be happy to talk again if the budget situation eases up. And thanks for asking.”
“That’s understandable. Heck, there are people even way more expensive than me. I’m sure you could find another freelancer who could work within your budget. Or even less.”
“Sorry, but 30-day or 45-terms aren’t an option for this. I’m not in the position to finance project fees for that long. If you’re hamstrung by company policy, I fully understand. Is there some other way?”
“Actually, if I took the job at this teeny price, I would only be seething with anger the whole time (partly at myself, but mostly at you) and would be trying to push any kind of half-cooked turd out the door as fast as I could. Either that or I’d keep postponing this damn thing in favor of actual paying work, and whenever I see your name on the caller ID, I will pretend I’m not here. So let’s just agree to disagree on this one, okay?”
(Of course, you will not do this all day every day. I am prescribing an aspirin here. Don’t take the whole bottle. I don’t have to tell you this.)
Should you turn down work when you’re too busy? For good clients, try not to. For one-time newbies you’re not likely to see again? Sure.
If a good and steady client wants some skunk work done as a favor, hold your nose and do it.
If a good client hands you a project way outside your wheelhouse or beyond your expertise, you say “I wouldn’t be as scintillatingly brilliant at this as I usually am. If you can go with sort of B- minus work here, I’d be happy to handle it. Or help you find someone else who could help.”
Oh, and this. You will not be turning down that fat and glistening high-profile assignment from the A-list client you have ached for. The one that scares the hell out of you because you’re not sure you have the chops to pull it off, and you’re afraid of crashing and burning in public and forever ruining your career?
That job, you take.
Crash and burn if you have to, but don’t ever say ‘no’ to that.