Exercising the right to accept or decline work is, in my opinion, one of the best things about owning one’s own business. And yet some editorial professionals feel guilty about saying no. What's to be done?
In Part I, I looked at the reasons for accepting or declining work, how some editorial freelancers talk about feeling guilty, and how those statements stack up against the reality of what’s going on.
Here in Part II, I consider some simple ways of saying no that make it clear that the project is being declined, why this is so, and what the client can do to find an alternative supplier. I also explore the dangers of using an over-pricing strategy to deter an unwanted client, and consider how the guilt-ridden editorial pro might place her feelings within an adapted 10/10/10 framework in order to move forward with a decision that’s in her business's best interests.
Ways to say no
There’s nothing wrong with clearly and briefly stating your position to a client. Recall Sills, cited in Part I: Saying no isn't about negativity; it's about positivity (Sills, 2013). What's relevant is not the negative impact on the unwanted client, but rather the positive decision we take as business owners.
The danger, especially with the desperate or emotionally charged client, is to get drawn into lengthy discussions, none of which are billable, about why you don’t want the work. Remember, you own your business, so it’s your choice.
As several experienced colleagues have pointed out since I posted this article, honesty is often the best policy when giving your reasons for saying no, especially in the case of a client with whom you've had previous difficulties, because it enables them to learn from the experience, too.
However, I do appreciate that for those who are prone to feelings of guilt, being honest about past problems can be so awkward as to cause even more stress. If it's the case that you would find being honest stressful, or you're worried about hurting your client’s feelings, you could choose an alternative stock answer to decline a project in a way that makes it clear that you’ve made your decision and the discussion is closed.
Examples of stock answers for saying no might include:
Caution with the over-pricing approach
If you are contacted by a client with whom you don’t want to work because of reasons other than price, deterring them with an approach that you believe will price you out of their market can backfire horribly. This is because you don’t actually know what they are prepared to pay until they have accepted or declined your quotation.
Let’s imagine the following fictional example: I’m contacted by an academic author who wants me to proofread several journal papers. I worked with this academic seven months ago. The experience was awful. The client did not adhere to the timing parameters of our agreement throughout the process; displayed threatening and bullying behaviour by email on four occasions; telephoned me outside business hours eight times – despite clear statements in my signed-off terms and conditions and verbal statements during these telephone calls that this was unacceptable; and paid her final invoice a month late.
Under no circumstances do I wish to work with this client again. In her most recent email she’s begged me to take on the proofreading, emphasizing how much value I brought to the table when we last worked together and stating that she doesn’t trust any other proofreader to do the job. High praise indeed, but it’s water off a duck’s back. I don’t want the work.
I decide to price myself out of her market. I’d previously charged her £20 per hour for proofreading (which I accepted based on the bulk volume of the work). She’d negotiated me down from £23 per hour so I think I have a good sense of her top line. In order to deter her, I tell her that since we last worked together my rates have increased and I now charge £40 an hour – double the rate she paid seven months ago.
To my horror, she accepts my quotation, telling me that I’m worth every penny. Now I’m stuck. It was never about the money for me; it was about the stress. The problem is that I didn't close the discussion – and having left the door open, she’s stepped through it. Now I have another decision to make: either I take on stressful work that I don’t want, or I have to go back and change my story, offering her a different reason: for example, that having checked my schedule, I can’t do the work after all but that I can point her in the direction of a good directory from where she can secure an alternative proofreader. This response implies that I didn't check my schedule properly in the first place, which is neither professional nor believable. I should have used the scheduling reason in the first place. Instead, I’ve wasted my time and my client’s time. I may not want to work with her but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t respect that her time is precious too. I've also unnecessarily extended the correspondence.
Placing guilt in a 10/10/10 framework
If you’re the kind of person who struggles to say no to clients, try looking at it through a different lens. Business writer Suzy Welch’s 10/10/10 model (cited in Heath and Heath, 2013) asks us to consider how a difficult decision will make us feel in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years. In the case of editorial work, I think the time frames could do with being tweaked a little but the principle stands.
Imagine you were to say no to one of the clients discussed in Part I (the strapped-for-cash client, the time-poor, emotional client, the manipulative client, or the inexperienced client).
If you're encumbered with feelings of guilt when declining work, here’s a summary of tips to help you say no with confidence:
Let’s end with another quotation from Sills (2013): “Wielded wisely, No is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. But setting limits sets us free.”
We are the owners of editorial businesses. We set our own limits. We accept or decline work on terms that suit us, and are free to do so without drama, fear or guilt. This is nothing but normal business practice.
Broomfield, Liz (2013). When should I say no? (Libro Editing)
Heath, Chip, and Heath, Dan (2013). The 10/10/10 Rule for Tough Decisions (FastCompany.com)
Sills, Judith (2013). The Power of No (Psychology Today)
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader's Parlour. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing and Proofreading Business. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn.
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