Why I reject clients

Sometimes, if you come to me with a job to do, I say no — even if the money is good.

There are two basic reasons for this: bad jobs and bad clients.

Bad clients

As a freelancer, I’m under no obligation to work with any individual client. I can say “no” just because I don’t want to work with you.

Fortunately for me, this type of rejection happens very rarely, because I can get along with just about anybody.

Who are “bad clients?” They are people who, after I’ve finished working with them, I would think, “Boy, I regret working with that person.”

For example, I will not work with a cigarette company. I got pitched a little while ago to do a job for “a large company in the health-care field,” but it turned out to be Juul, the vaping company, and I turned it down. I just didn’t want to write or edit information for them.

If your job is to promote a political point of view I find distasteful, I won’t work with you.

I turned down a job to ghostwrite a book on Bitcoin. I’m not a fan of Bitcoin and I don’t think helping promote it is a good idea.

I haven’t been approached by a private equity company buying up local houses for its portfolio, but I’d turn that down if it appeared on my radar. And I’d turn down a job writing for a gimmicky diet or fitness company, too.

Let me be clear about this. I generally have no problem with these companies existing. I’ll even refer other people to work for them. I’m not “boycotting” them. I’m just not willing to take their money to help them succeed.

Even if I persuaded myself that I could do work for them, it would be bad match. I’d feel resentful and angry. I wouldn’t be able to put myself in a frame of mind to help them. And I would do a bad job. So these companies shouldn’t hire somebody like me even I was willing to work for them.

You may wonder how often this situation comes up. The answer is, very rarely. In 99% of cases — whether it’s big companies, agencies, or individuals — I look at what a potential client is doing and think, “I can help with that. It seems like a good product and a good company.” The scope of companies I can work with is huge.

The other category of bad clients is people who behave badly during the pitching process. If you are ass while I’m quoting the job and negotiating the details, then you’ve proven you’re an ass — and I don’t enjoy working with asses.

I don’t believe this stance has hurt my business at all. Because if I ever got desperate enough to take jobs like this, I’d be miserable and it wouldn’t be worth it, regardless of the price.

Bad jobs

To be fair, when I say, “bad jobs,” I mean, jobs that a poor fit for me and my capabilities. I turn down jobs like these all the time.

There are lots of types of bad jobs that I shy away from.

I’m not a proofreader or copy editor. I am a content editor. I won’t take a proofreading job, because I wouldn’t do it well. (There are probably errors in this blog post, if you need proof of the flaws in my proofing.)

I won’t do an editing job if I don’t think I can create a good or great result. There are all sorts of problems I can fix — idea focus, poor structure, bad organization, writing flaws. But if your manuscript is a total mess, I may think, “I can’t do any better than making this a little less awful.” And I’ll turn down the job.

I am very selective about jobs ghost writing books. Why? Because those are six to twelve month commitments. They pay very well. But if I take one and it turns out to be huge, messy, and fraught with difficulties, it won’t make up for the time it takes. Luckily, this misfortune hasn’t happened to me, but it has happened to friends of mine and they’ve been miserable (and often, didn’t eventually get paid enough to make up for the hassle). So if I’m quoting a ghost writing job, I will be very, very careful to make sure the material is appropriate for me and the process is disciplined and likely to generate success.

While there are jobs that are out of scope, there are also jobs that are at the edge of what I can do. I will take those if I think I can learn something. This is how I ended up ghost writing a book about artificial intelligence. It’s how I wrote some short horror fiction. It’s how I ended up hiring and managing a cartoonist on one job. Sometimes these jobs expand my capabilities. Sometimes what I learn is that I’d better not do that kind of job again. But they’re work that is sufficiently connected to what I already do that I feel I have a good chance of success.

Finally, there is one more class of job I turn down — jobs that extend a job I already did, and where I don’t think I can help any more. I recently turned down an opportunity to create a book proposal, and an opportunity to edit a book. In both cases, I had worked with the client on similar material and decided there was not much more I could do for them. Usually, I love working with past clients on new jobs, but these are jobs I’m turning down are ones where I know exactly what I’m likely to get into, and that makes it easy to decide I won’t enjoy them.

Interestingly, there are rarely jobs that I turn down based on budget. The people who come to me generally know my price range. If I’m too expensive, we try to figure out some version of the job that I can do and they can afford. I’ve never cut my price to get a job, and I never will.

I have done pro-bono work, work where I’m only compensated if the book succeeds. Interestingly, it hasn’t worked out well. In one case, I agreed to work on a book that looked exciting with an author who had no budget. They added a coauthor and changed the book concept, and from there the book appeared to be stalled. I agreed to edit a friend’s book for an undetermined future compensation, but they’ve stopped responding. I’m currently scheduled to do idea development for an author who can’t pay, but I love his book concept and want it to succeed — we’ll see how it works out. I’m now very reluctant to take on any big pro-bono commitments, not just because they don’t pay, but but because the “clients” haven’t been good or serious partners.

Why it pays to sometimes say no

As a freelancer, you want a few things: to do work where you can make a positive difference, to enjoy your work, to get paid fairly, and to keep learning and expanding your capabilities.

Bad clients and bad jobs do none of those things. Worse, they suck up time and energy that would otherwise go into worthwhile jobs. Life is too short to do crappy freelance work just for the money.

I’ve done all sorts of work in the seven years I’ve been freelance, and I regret very little of it. And I’ve made a solid living doing work I liked for the entire time.

You might expand your idea of what a “good job” is during a lean period, or shrink it when you’re busy. But regardless of how challenging things are, don’t take work you’ll hate doing. Because that will cost you far more than whatever they’re paying you.

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One Comment

  1. Such important wisdom here. Read, listen and learn, freelance community. You have a right to do the work you want with people you respect and who respect you. Josh is totally on this one, as usual.