Should a freelancer ever refuse a job?

When should you say no?Is there ever a time when you should refuse a job? All freelancers are eventually faced with this dilemma. In my view, there are some situations when saying no to a piece of work is a viable option.
1. You can’t satisfy the client
If a client comes to you and offers a piece of work and you don’t think you can deliver what they’re after you should politely refuse the job. Remember, your Number One priority is to solve problems for clients – not become a problem yourself.
Late in 2009, I was offered a story by a publisher. I knew the people involved and really wanted to help them. Another writer was scheduled to write a feature but they pulled out at short notice. I was asked to do the story but had to give it a lot of thought. The deadline was short and the Christmas/New Year break was in the middle of the time I had available. That made lining up the six interviews I needed really tricky.
I asked the editor if I could have a few hours to think about it. In that time, I made a few calls, did some research and worked out that, if I could negotiate an extra couple of days with the editor, I could take the job.
As it turned out, I was able to negotiate a slightly extended deadline and I took the work.
That turned out to be the start of an ongoing working partnership and I’ve since written several features for that publication.
However, if at the end of my short research phase I felt that I wasn’t going to solve my editor’s problem I’d have said no to the job and passed on the names of a couple of other journalists that might have been able to help. That way, even if I didn’t directly solve the problem, I could provide an alternative solution.
2 – Ethics
Although I have posted some advice on work ethics, I’ve not previously discussed personal ethics.
A while ago, a prospective client called me (he found my details in the freelance register maintained by my union) and asked if I could help him write a business plan for a venture he was embarking upon. I asked him a for a few details and he explained what he was planning to do in this venture.
Without going into specifics about the prospective client, I felt that the set of beliefs he wanted to promote in his venture was completely in opposition to mine. Although the pay cheque would have been nice I could not, in good conscience, be involved in promoting what this client was into.
I refused the job politely letting the client know why I was unable to work with him.
3 – The payment is not worth it
Freelancers often don’t know where their next pay packet is coming from. That leads to the temptation to take any job, no matter how poorly it pays. Here’s a great example from a friend of mine.

The publisher wanted a local journo for the local paper to file up to 18 stories a week + photographs and captions. The pay? $250/week flat.

Now, let’s do the maths here. Let’s say that the 18 stories were about 300 words each. That’s 5400 words per week. I’d say that with travelling, interviews and transcription and then sorting thorough photo, cropping and making other adjustments that there was easily a week’s work.
So this publisher, who has a readership in the hundreds of thousands, wanted to pay someone less that a week’s rent for all that.
When you’re desperate for work, it’s easy to say that you’ll take anything but jobs like that just aren’t worthwhile. The pay is below what’s needed to survive in a western city and the amount of work is so great that you’ll not have the time or energy to pursue more lucrative opportunities.
Don’t let a potential client exploit you.
So, have you ever said no to a job? When is it OK to just say no? What advice would you give a new freelancer, making a start? Share your experience by adding a comment.

Comments (9)

  1. Moondog


    You forget another key reason to turn down work; you know the client will jerk you around. If a client has a history of demanding the earth and then dicking you around, it’s worth evaluating whether they’re worth the hassle. Even if the money is good, there reaches a point where you have to walk away.

  2. Reply

    Ah yes Moondog – the difficult client. Of course, the trouble is that you may not know if the client is difficult until after you’ve engaged with them. Sometimes, the difficulty may relate to a specific set of circumstances.
    But I think you’re right. In my experience, the best way to figure out how difficult the client is relies on good record keeping. Track the time taken for the job. If all the jerking around means that your hourly rate in unacceptably low, then it wasn’t worth it. Otherwise, perhaps the pain is worth the gain.

    • Moondog


      Also track how long it takes for them to pay. If they’re cheap jobs, it might not matter if they leave you hanging for a while. But if you’ve got 4 or 5-figure invoices outstanding for a ridiculously long time, to the point where you’re struggling to pay your own bills, perhaps that customer is more of a threat to your business than a benefit.

      • Reply

        Yes – that’s a good point. I’ve got a client that I like writing for and gives me an opportunity to do some really challenging work. However, they’re very slow to pay so I’ve decided to find a similar publication to pitch the work to who I know has a better reputation for paying promptly.

  3. KayPat


    I’d love to see a column on when it’s time to surrender a client because they are difficult, time-wasting pricks. There’s more to work than merely getting paid on time. Once a client intolerable, I say it’s time to move on.

    • Reply

      Great idea. I’ll put it in the queue.
      Thanks for the suggestion. Please keep commenting. I’m passionate about helping freelancers and other sole traders be successful and rely on the comments to make sure I research and deliver what people want.

  4. Alex Wells


    I find it ridiculous that clients are allowed to get away with effectively haggling a pay rate out of a freelancer. If a client wants a cheaper rate then that’s fine but I would give a discount based on actual work received. Most clients want to haggle you down immediately – sorry guys but it’s the oldest trick in the book. If you’re off to see a new client stick 20% on your usual rate and then when they try it on, just knock 10% off to start with and see if you can get away with it. The other thing to watch for is if it’s a big company, sometimes they try to put suppliers out of business (if they think you might become competition) by giving you so much work that you end up working exclusively for them and then they gradually cut your rate until you go bust.
    I also think you have to decide ‘how’ you do business. Companies I’ve worked for in the past often have lots of work but want a massive discount because “we’re giving you all this work”. Bollux. I’ve ended up working for less than a junior would get paid, over say, a six month period. The decision to work with one company over a long time period did no good in the long run. The decision was made because at the time there was no prospect of anything else. As it transpired I had to turn other work down because of it and financially it wasn’t worth it. DON’T DO IT. You’ll end up feeling used and possibly nearly bankrupt.
    If you are working on a single assignment, make sure the client knows up-front, how many “rounds” of amendments they are allowed for the money. I’ve been strung along for months giving the client what they want for the same amount of money. Someone has to draw a line in the sand.

    • Reply

      I agree Alex insofar as the relationship is often very one-sided. Part of the problem for freelance writers is that publishers have a huge pool of potential writers to choose from. Depending on what research you look at at what the exact definition of a blog is, there may be as many as 500 million blogs. And I suggest that even if only 1% fancy themselves as “writers” that editors have a vast number of folks who will work for very low rates (or even for free). That puts them in a position of significant power.
      That means that we need to differentiate ourselves with high quality work that’s delivered on time and make editors and publishers realise that we deserve higher rates because we deliver better work.
      But it’s tough to do.

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