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How to Say No to a Freelance Project

You’re a freelancer, running your own business and depending on yourself to make a living. Naturally, you want to say yes to every project that comes your way to keep the money flowing in. 

After all, it’s tough to make a living if you turn away work, right? 

Not so fast! Not every project is right for every freelancer, and if you say yes to a project that doesn’t fit, will you be able to say yes to one that does later? As fellow Quadling Laura Poole says, a “yes” to one thing is a “no” to something else. Freelance editors should think strategically about which projects they take on and which they turn away.

Why might you turn down a project?

  • You’re fully booked. (Hooray for you!)
  • The topic is outside the scope of your expertise.
  • The type of editing needed is not the editing you do.
  • The subject matter is distasteful or troubling to you.
  • The project has a lot of red flags.
  • The prospect has a lot of red flags.

Or maybe you just don’t want to take on the project. It’s okay to say no for any reason—that’s the free part of freelancing! Bills notwithstanding, you get to choose the work you take on.

But how do you say no? Let’s look at a couple of ways you can respond.

Say Not Now

Let’s say you’re fully booked or the timing isn’t right, but you’d love to take on the offered project later. We often presume that if a prospective client is asking now, they must want the editing done now. But unless they’ve said so, how do we know that? We don’t! 

Tell your prospect that you can’t take their project on now, but you’d be happy to later. Then, offer a couple of dates when you could do the work. Not every prospect will be able to wait, but you’d be surprised how many can. 

To ensure the prospect shows up later, settle the details now. Get the contract signed and take a nonrefundable deposit to hold their booking.

Use a Template to Say No

When you want to say no, don’t spend more time than necessary to turn down the offer. Dragging out the conversation keeps you from working on more promising leads and keeps the prospect from moving on.

A templated response can help. Keep it simple, such as:

Thank you for your interest in my service, X, but I’m going to pass on this opportunity. Good luck in your search!

You don’t need to give a reason for turning down the work. However, if you don’t want to lose the potential client, you can create an opportunity to help them with a future project. Giving a reason that educates them on what a good fit is for you can encourage them to come back another time. 

Some reasons you could give:

  • I don’t offer [requested editing]. Another time, though, I could help you with [editing service you offer].
  • The project isn’t a good fit for my business because [give a high-level reason]. The projects I usually take on [give a high-level description of work you do].
  • I don’t have room in my schedule for this project. [In this case, don’t give an end date; you want to discourage them from waiting for an opening.]

Avoid apologizing. You’ve done nothing wrong, and some people will take an apology as a weakness to exploit. Don’t give them the opportunity.

Should You Recommend Another Editor?

As editors, we like to fix things. It’s a natural extension of this to offer a prospect an alternative, such as another editor or a different editing service. If you want to build some good will toward a future project, give them a recommendation but don’t spend too much time on it. This is free advice; give only the time and advice you can afford to give away.

You could recommend the appropriate level of editing, for example, and a brief suggestion for how to obtain it:

Based on what you’ve described, you’re looking for developmental editing, which will address structure and argument in your manuscript. I don’t offer this service, but you’ll find many editors who do in [recommend a directory, like the CIEP’s]. 

This approach works the same way for most reasons a project isn’t a good fit. All you need is a sentence or two to say how you’re not a good match and where to find someone who is. 

Pointing the prospect in the right direction is an appropriate level of help, but maybe you know of editors who would be perfect for this project and you feel comfortable recommending them. Seek their permission first, and then send the prospect two or three names along with contact and website information. Again, leave the prospect to actually take the next step. That will help you to end communications as soon as possible.

Clients are not always easy to work with, though, and there may be times when you receive some bad vibes from the prospect. Perhaps they’re asking for something unethical, such as rewriting a thesis. Maybe their communications have been disrespectful. Whatever the reason, let me say again: you do not have to point them anywhere else. Just say “no, thank you.” 

When a Prospect Won’t Accept Your Answer

Sometimes prospective clients will try to persuade you by countering your reasons for saying no or just insisting you take on the project. They’ll try to wear you down through repeated messages.

This is the time to remember that you are a freelancer. You are not obligated to take on anyone’s project. You do not have to explain yourself. And you do not have to continue any conversation, let alone one that becomes manipulative or abusive. 

Make your response brief, firm, and polite. Once you’ve declined, you do not have to respond to any more messages or aggressive tactics. Stick to your “no” with minimal or no explanation. For extreme cases, block their email address and have no more contact with them.

Saying No Lets You Say Yes

Sometimes we take on less-than-ideal projects because we need the work; that’s okay. Just remember that every “yes” you say to one thing is a “no” to something else. Take time to think beyond the immediate future and make sure your decisions will advance your business long term.

Learn more about how to run your freelance editing business with my new book, The Chicago Guide for Freelance Editors: How to Take Care of Your Business, Your Clients, and Yourself from Start-Up to Sustainability, publishing in April 2024. Preorder it today!

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