Reputation and integrity have a cost. So does ignoring them.

I lost about $18,000 this week, and gave myself a whole lot of extra work for which I’ll get paid nothing. And I regret none of it.


I do quality writing and editing work.

I meet deadlines and never break promises.

I suppose I do this to maintain my reputation. But as I think about it, that’s not really why I do it. I do it because it is the kind of freelancer I want to be. I want to be the guy about whom people will say “Wow, he’s good, and he does what he says he will do.”

This desire ran smack into my revenue this week.

I am ghostwriting a book right now, and it is on a tight schedule. I’ve also begun radiation treatments for prostate cancer. The treatments have a likely side effect of fatigue. There is no way to know when that might kick in, or how hard it might hit me.

So, here are three decisions I made this week.

  1. I canceled a report editing project and gave money back. I’d committed and already gotten paid half of the fee up front (and I had to bug the organization’s accounting department five times to get that). But it’s now clear that it will hit right when my fatigue may start, and it is on a very tight deadline. The client said they would be able to use a different editor if I couldn’t do the work. Since I couldn’t fulfill my promise, I returned the money and cancelled the project. (In eight years of freelancing, this was only the second time I gave money back.)
  2. I turned down a juicy editing project for which I would have been perfect. A former client whose book I had edited reached out about another book that he needs edited. The timing, again, is during the tail end of treatments. I turned it down, even though it was more than $10,000 I could easily have gotten and probably made the client happy — because I couldn’t be sure I could do it quickly enough.
  3. I did more work on another editing project without getting paid. I had edited a book — a very time-consuming project. The author had asked for a very specific type of feedback, and looking over my work in good conscience, I had not provided it. She complained, and she was right. So I’m going to do another pass on the manuscript this week and get her what she asked for.

The macho choice

I have to admit, there is a part of me that remembers being the macho guy who would commit to do the impossible and then somehow, just by force of will, talent, and muscling through, always find a way to deliver. That was the work ethos I learned throughout my career.

I was certainly tempted to make these commitments and figure out some way to complete the work regardless of any side effects.

But there is a risk of letting my clients down. And of course, a risk of overworking myself when my body really needs to recover, too.

I could use the money. But I hate to let people down. There will be other jobs, but I only have one reputation, and I only have one sense of integrity. I’m not willing to put either at risk.

Have you ever given people money back, or turned down work for reasons for like this? If you were me, what would you have done?

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  1. Hi Josh. This post was even more vulnerable than your usual, which is world-class. May your treatments be successful with minimal side effects, and may your lost revenue opportunities come roaring back as the cancer cells are decimated. You have given me sage, sane words of advice as a writer. May there be many more!

  2. I admire you turning down this work.Yes money is great for you however your health and well being is worth more.I too would have chosen health. You can always replace money. You can’t always replace good health. I’m writing novels right now and doing my own editing.Its a tough job to do and I can understand your stress. Always take care of you first.

  3. Hello Josh,

    I first want to acknowledge your health battles and wish you the best on your treatments. I agree WHOLEHEARTEDLY with your stance. I like to keep AND overdeliver on my promises to my clients as much as possible, because reputation is everything. I’ve never had to return a fee (yet – likely just a matter of time), but I HAVE had to back out of jobs I had initially agreed to take on to protect my performance record and reputation. I think your example in this is a good one to follow.

    All the best,


  4. As someone who lost her entire life as a research physicist at Princeton when, in 1989, I caught whatever it was that caused ME/CFS – and had to give up everything I trained for – you learn quickly that you don’t/can’t handle some kinds of fatigue because they come with brain fog and physical problems you cannot push through by sheer willpower; it turns out that if you burn yourself out trying, you actually make it worse each time you crash.

    Your only chance with something like that – and maybe with what your brain and body are going through now – is aggressive rest, and that’s barely enough if that.

    The doctors should know – take their advice. You help heal, if such is possible. It has to come first. Best of luck – they’ve made huge advances.

  5. I appreciate your candor in this post. It is refreshing to hear someone speak about integrity – and the specific (difficult) choices they have made to maintain theirs. Too many people let greed and delusional thinking (I can manage this despite my cancer treatment/spouse’s illness/dying parent/flooded house/unpredictable COVID recovery – fill in the blank). It’s so important to be realistic about our situation, energy levels, and personal circumstances. I think your post also illustrates the importance of not coming from a scarcity mindset – there *will* be other work. We need to trust that. I also fervently hope you are making a full recovery!