Saying “No” to a Freelance Job

The value of "no" from

If you are a freelancer–writer, designer, event manager–you have had to say “no” to a client. It’s hard, particularly if you like the client, need the work, or find the work interesting. If you feel yourself overworked, exhausted, or frustrated, here are some times you have to say “no.”

1. There isn’t enough money for you to make a profit. Your time is worth money. In America, time is money. If you take a job that doesn’t pay you what you are worth, you will have trouble making the mortgage on time and paying the bills. “Some money is better than no money,” is an excuse I hear all the time. It may not be. If you are working on a job that underpays, you are missing the chance to bid on the jobs that pay well. Jobs that underpay keep you working longer hours every day. Cure: don’t lower your prices to get the job. Under-bid and the amount you quote is how your client sees you. You will be stuck at that price point.

Time moves at different speeds for client and freelancer. Image: Trade King,

2. There isn’t enough time to do the job well. Freelancers are often called in when the company with the job didn’t plan well, or has run out of time. Beware the time-crunch job. Many companies believe that freelancers work only at night and on weekends. They become offended when you don’t want to work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. on their job. In 25 years of writing for other people I have learned one truth over and over: You hand in that rush job on time, squeaking under the deadline. You are a hero, you think. You nailed the deadline. Wrong. Once the deadline has been met, the priority immediately shifts to quality. And if you don’t have it, you won’t get paid.  Cure: Quality is your first responsibility. If you can’t deliver quality within the deadline, turn down the job.

3. You are asked to take less pay this time, and the company will “make it up” on the next job. Just say no. This has never happened in the history of the universe. Why would a company that knows you will work for $X an hour one time, pay you $2X the next time?  You will hear the same story the next time, and the time after. The person who says it may mean it, but they aren’t the decision makers. And in the end, they will leave, and not be around when the next job is discussed. Cure: If you have done a project for less money before, remind the client that this is the time you need more money. If this is the first time they ask, tell them as much as you would like to take less money, you simply can’t. Don’t explain or talk about your finances. You deserve good money for hard work.


4. The job suffers from “scope creep” in a strict budget. You are asked to quote the job. You hand in a proposal. The budget it set. Two weeks into the project, the project grows a new arm and leg, and you are asked to cover those, too. Without extra pay. Cure: Cover yourself quickly by discussing how you will handle scope creep in the original proposal. Present a list of tasks you will do and a second list of those not included. Add a paragraph that says if the project expands, you will stop work and submit a new budget for approval. Then stick to it. Nothing frees up money than stopping the work. If you don’t manage scope creep early, you will never make a profit as a freelancer.

5. The client doesn’t return emails or phone calls in the proposal stage. The time a client will treat you best is when they want you to work for them. If they don’t return your calls or emails, it’s a sign of the lack of communication you will experience for the entire job. When the job is then late, it will be your fault. The cure: set deadlines for replying to emails or phone calls. “Please let me know by Friday if  X is what you are looking for,” is one way to help your client set priorities that match yours.

Quinn McDonald is a freelance writer who has made all the above mistakes more than once. She’s like to help other freelancers avoid them.


The Right Card

A wonderful gift is to know someone so well that he sends you the right Valentine’s card. I’m not given to treacly sentiments; I don’t like roses unless they are wild and smell heavenly; and surely I don’t need more jewelry.

So this morning, Valentine’s Day, I found the card below at my place at the table.

Card (c) Chris Moncrieff, Persimmon Press

Card (c) Chris Moncrieff, Persimmon Press

It says, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” –Elwyn Brooks White.

I had to look him up to recognize him as E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web and the co-author (with Strunk) of Elements of Style. It made me laugh with delight. Which is perfect for Valentine’s Day.

Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach. She’s married to Kent, a personal chef. They live in the Sonoran desert.

The Choice

“Upgrades to your kitchen and bathroom always give you a big return,” the real estate agent said. We looked at our new downsizing house, knowing that the kitchen and bathroom would need to be redone. It was a big expense. But there it was, falling out of the real estate agent’s mouth. Hope in the form of a ROI–return on investment.

Now it is three years later. The agent says, “Upgrades, improvements, it doesn’t make any difference. The only thing that matters is what you can sell it for.” She makes it sound like our house, upgraded and redone, refinished floors and installed crown moulding, is a commodity instead of a lovingly improved home. We sunk so much time, so much work to make it beautiful. And now it doesn’t matter? The time isn’t important? The work makes no difference? I simply don’t understand.

paper bag sketch The person who buys our house moves in and sits down. Maybe adjusts the top-down, bottom-up custom shades. Maybe turns on the super-quiet new dishwasher with no concerns about blowing a fuse, as our house has 200 amps, twice the amount of any of our neighbors. And yet, astonishingly, we keep being told that none of that is important. Only the price is.

It’s as if the greed of bankers and mortgage companies wadded up the American dream of owning a house and chucked it into a paper sack. We are no longer young, we worked all our lives to have a nice home, and we sunk our savings into it.

And now, our choice: sell it far below what it is appraised at, what we paid for it, or live apart, for however long it takes for the economy to come to its senses– me in the Southwest, where my business is starting up, and him in the East, where his business is going so well.

The new reality: If you avoid bankruptcy, you still have to choose a loss of one sort or another. Which reminds me, again, what I remember from the overblown 80s. Greed will suck the light out of a life. Greed never strikes in solitude. It spreads like ink on wet paper. It stains the innocent and guilty alike.

(c) Image and story. Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved. 2008.