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You Are What You Say "No" To

When you start out riding this wacky freelance writing Tilt-a-Whirl, you might feel obligated to take on every project that comes along. You know what? That's not the worst idea, at least for a while. When you're starting out, your main goal is longevity: you want to build a freelance career that lasts for years...or at least, as long as you want it to last. Taking on as much work as you can manage helps you build a reputation, hone your skills, make important professional contacts, and maybe even save a little money for a rainy day.

But then, let's say you're ten years into freelancing. You've found your niche—ghosting, articles, marketing copy, speechwriting, what have you—and you're killing it. You've doubled your fees since the early days, and you have a big network of clients, peers and contacts constantly referring you work, so you're pretty much as busy as you want to be. This is when you should start saying "No" to more work.

I know, I know. To be a freelancer is to be insecure, the proverbial high-wire walker working without a net. At some point we've all fretted that if we turn down a gig, and something else doesn't come through, then we're going to be the last one left without a chair when the music stops. No money for rent, for the car payment, for (gasp!) Amazon Prime. Oh, the humanity!

But that's not true. The best part about being an established freelance writer isn't the money you can make. It's having more control over your free time, when you work, and who you work with. What's the point of being accomplished and having the ability to choose how often you work and the type of projects you take on if you don't become more selective? If you feel compelled to take on everything that comes your way to the point that you're overloaded and stressed out, you just have a job, not a freelance practice. Remember, the key part of "freelance" is "free."

In other words, you can measure your level of success in this business by what you say no to, by what you turn down. And why would you turn down paying work? Oh, sweet child, there are so many reasons to say no:

  • The budget isn't high enough to pay your normal fee.

  • You don't have the bandwidth to take on the work.

  • The deadline is unreasonable.

  • The client is unpleasant.

  • The work is uninteresting.

The reason I say "you are what you say no to" is because only by refusing work can you exercise control over both your time and your experience as a freelancer. When you walk away from work, you free yourself to take on other work that's more meaningful or lucrative. You make more time for your personal life, for pleasure, for R&R. You tell the world that you're not for sale, you're not desperate. Saying no is an act of retaking your power.

Let's be honest, it's also a power negotiating move. If you really are interested in a gig, but the money or terms aren't to your liking, turning down an offer is the best way to make the other party want to hire you even more. Confidence is charismatic and compelling, and few things convey confidence more effectively than saying, in essence, "I don't need this work and I'm quite certain I can get more."

In order to make this work for you, of course, you need experience and sharp instincts. Do you have enough work or prospective work to pay your expenses? Will saying no to this prospect burn any bridges? My philosophy is, if a project looks like it will be too much trouble or the client will be unreasonably demanding, turn it down. Difficult people and maddening work are not worth the money, period. Refer the project to someone else and take a finder's fee if you can, but walk away from any work that doesn't increase your peace, meet your financial needs, and fire your passions.

Now, go write.

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