Journalism Advice

6 Signs You Should Really Turn Down That Freelance Assignment

It can be tempting to take on every assignment that comes your way. But being picky about what you take on can pay off

Turning down writing gigs takes a huge amount of willpower. Even if you have a million deadlines approaching and projects lined up for the next three months, saying “no” to potential clients can feel like leaving money on the table.

Spoiler alert: It’s not. Passing on assignments—whether you’re a full-time freelancer or have a side gig to your 9 to 5—is often the best decision for your career, your sanity, your bank account or all of the above. Let’s dive into the six solid reasons you should say no to a client.

1. The client’s writers don’t stick around

Whenever someone asks about your writing availability, you should look at the last five or so pieces on their website. Have the writers of those pieces contributed multiple stories? How far back does their work go?

Then repeat this exercise with stories that were published half a year ago. Do the writers who wrote those pieces have any recent bylines?

It’s a red flag when every profile you click on only lists a couple pieces.

“If a client has hired multiple writers for the same position within a short time period, there’s probably something going on with the client,” says Kaysie Garza, a freelance writer and editor.

After all, publications that treat contributors well have no trouble retaining their contributors.

Of course, there are many other (completely unrelated!) reasons a writer will stop working for a client. When you’re not sure what’s going on, consider reaching out to two contributors—one current, one former—and asking both about their experience.

2. The client asks you to do work for free

Some clients will ask you to do free work upfront, with the promise that they’ll pay you if you do a good job. Don’t fall for this trap.

First, you should never work for free: It devalues your writing and makes you seem less professional. Second, credible clients will almost never make this request, said freelance writer Elizabeth Wellington. People who do are usually hoping you’re too inexperienced or desperate to say no.

“Walk away if someone’s hunting for a cheap deal,” Wellington says.

An exception: If you’re applying for a full-time writing gig, the hiring manager will typically ask you to complete a writing test. You’ll get a set period of time (usually two days) to write a sample post for their outlet. Since the stakes are much higher for a permanent position, they need to make sure you can write well on a deadline.

Get inside information on what to pitch niche publications, up-to-date contacts for magazine editors and more. Join AvantGuild, our exclusive membership program for freelance writers and other media professionals.

3. The client has a bad reputation

If the rate is right, it doesn’t matter whether the client’s public reputation is a bit shady, right?

Wrong. In the writing world, your credibility is everything. Potential employers will always search your name—and when they see you’ve written for a disreputable or low-quality site, you’ll immediately look less appealing.

But even if you’re writing with no byline, taking these gigs is risky. You can’t trust that you’ll get paid on time (if at all!). Clients with bad raps usually don’t treat their freelancers well.

4. The client is asking you to write about something questionable

On a related note, pass on any job that attaches your name to a questionable opinion or topic.

“One time, I was approached by the content manager for an adult toy website,” one anonymous freelancer says. “They offered me an enormous sum of money to write product reviews for their blog.”

Despite the fantastic rate, this freelancer says he had no trouble saying no.

“I definitely didn’t want this site coming up in my Google results,” he says.

It’s a little less black and white when you’re asked to cover something you personally disagree with. Say you’re a vegetarian, and a cooking magazine wants you to write an article about grilling meat. You’ll have to decide what you’re comfortable with.

“Before you get in an awkward situation where this happens, I definitely recommend doing a little homework on the company first,” advises WayUp managing editor Lily Herman. “You’d be surprised how many writers start working and only then realize that they may be asked to write about things they don’t want their name attached to,”

5. The client has unreasonable expectations

When a client is making unrealistic demands from the get-go, Wellington says walking away is your best move.

One anonymous freelancer received a request to write a 200-page ebook in one week—and the client wanted at least seven original interviews. The freelancer turned down the gig.

With these types of assignments, it doesn’t matter how hard you work: The client is probably never going to be satisfied. By the time the gig is over, you’re overworked and stressed, and they feel taken advantage of. It’s lose-lose.

Rather than telling yourself their demands will ease up, save yourself the headache and let this job go.

6. The client gives you a bad vibe

Sometimes, you get a perfect gig. The terms look solid, the rate is fair and the work seems right up your alley. Yet even though all signs should be pointing to yes, for some reason they’re just… not. Whenever you talk to this client, the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

You could ignore your gut and move forward with this project.

But every time I’ve ignored my instincts, I’ve ended up regretting it: The assignment turns out to be much bigger in scope than the client described, they refuse to pay on time, they’re disrespectful verging on mean—or all of the above.

Wellington’s experience is similar.

“I’ve happily walked away from big writing projects because I have a gut feeling that the best-case scenario will still be a nightmare,” she says. “My instincts are usually spot on.”

The more experience you gain, the more you should trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s usually because something’s not right.

Just because you want to work doesn’t mean you need to accept every job. “There are plenty of good assignments and credible clients out there,” said Garza.

So if a job isn’t right, give yourself permission to turn it down.

Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get our best career advice and job search tips.


Go Freelance, Journalism Advice