Is Turning Down Freelance Work Ever A Good Idea?


For a beginning freelancer, it may be a little impossible to see a time when you can begin to turn down work. Maybe even it makes you feel incredulous. But in many ways, one of the signs of a top freelancer is that they are turning down work for range of different, very sensible, reasons.

In this post, we run through some of the most common situations you can run into where you might be best advised to turn down a new assignment rather than agree to take it on and then have to face the risk of embarrassment, a client’s anger and losing the client if you have to reverse your decision later.


Strange Feeling About The Client

When dealing with someone new, you need to trust that gut feeling that tells you that something is wrong. That gut is often right, even for new freelancers. This is the type of feeling that women are quite attuned to, but with men we tend to ignore these intuitive feelings, push on and then hit a roadblock that the ladies avoid. Time to smarten up, men!

You can get the feeling based on the questions that the client is asking you. If they are overly concerned about pricing, then it may be that their budget is tight or that they don’t have the money to actually pay you and are hoping the needed funds comes through in new business.

If you get the sense that they are a micro-manager, then if you’re a web developer or web designer you might be wise to try to find out who completed the previous web site? Then approach them to ask whether there are any horror stories with this particular client. If you do a search in Google, you can usually find the previous developer from the designers’ web site in their portfolio. Often they’re not too difficult to locate.

More often that not, when you feel something is wrong, trust this feeling. Look deeper into their background. Google them for a while to see what you can dig up. Check social media and see if any red flags pop-up. Also discuss more with them to see how they answer questions. Above all, get a sizeable deposit from them; deposits separate the men from the boys in the design and writing business.

Overloaded With Work

When your schedule is booked solid or a project is taking longer than anticipated which is leaving you little spare time, don’t overbook yourself.

It’s always tempting to do so because you don’t know where your next client is coming from, but ideally you already have several ongoing clients and taking on too much work would risk damaging those relationships when your quality or delivery times start to falter.

See if you can schedule for a start in a couple of weeks’ time; often design clients need time to bring together their product or service information to add to the web site, so a delay isn’t always a negative and you can just push the project completion date back.

When you’re unable to do that, a good referral to someone efficient in your field can be a positive. You might lose the client for good and they may keep going back to the freelancer you referred them to, but if you cannot handle their business right now it’s still the most professional move that you can make. The freelancer, if they’re smart, will perhaps refer business back to you too, so you might not lose out completely.

Shady Business

In terms of ethics and morals, if a prospective client or a current client is asking you to do something that you feel ethically or morally uncomfortable, you do always have the option of saying that it’s “not for you.” This generally doesn’t cause offense.

Situations like this can be things like writing content about a subject with “facts” that you know to be false, writing a sales letter with misleading information or producing a site or landing page which isn’t in the best interests of the visitor.

Where you draw the line is a personal matter for each of us. If content is purely to help rank in the second engines and won’t likely get read by a human being, does it matter? Or do the same standards apply in every case?

Unfair Rate

Hopefully you have your prices worked out for what hourly rate x billable hours per week that you need to achieve in order to hit your financial goals? If you don’t, then you need to go ahead and work that out so you know what you’re aiming for. If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, you’ll hit it every time..

Once you have your numbers in front of you, when a prospective or current client suggests a new piece of business and a rate that is overly generous in their direction, you still have options.

Turning down the work is certainly one option. You can reduce the scope of the request while keeping the same pricing. Or you can negotiate the rate up.


One other option that some freelancers consider is to outsource the work and pocket the difference between what they’re charging the client and what the freelancer they outsource to is charging them.

This is not as easy as it sounds. The quality of work from freelancers is all over the map. Some are unprofessional. Others fail to deliver on time. Still more don’t deliver at all.

There can also be billing issues to ensure that a task comes in on time and on budget so you can still retain your outsourcing margin to make it worth it. You’ll still have to manage the client and the freelancer you’ve chosen, so there is management time involved too. It certainly shouldn’t be thought of as free money because it isn’t.

When To Take On Work When You’re Already Busy

We don’t often think about it, but it’s possible to optimize how we work to systematize workflow to cut down production time. For every repetitive task that takes five minutes each time, it may be possible to cut that to just 4 minutes.

With writing, not stopping to edit as you write and relying on the edit after the fast first draft can work out quicker overall. What can you do better, faster or in a different way to reduce the bottlenecks?

With design, not getting caught up with the latest design software or coding shiny object can save time where you’re busy surfing and reading and trying things out, but you’re not being productive on the project in front of you.

Optimizing in this way can help to improve your work. In combination with the last step below, you can really turn the afterburners on and blast forward.

Productive vs. Busy

As a freelancer, we do often waste a lot of time. We can end up with long days, but not very productive ones. If we know our true hourly rate, we can look at what we billed for a day and determine easily how many productive hours we put in. Not hours worked, but “productive” hours that specifically went on client projects that pay. Get clear on that and you can sometimes double your hourly rate.