Considering the number of unemployed (and underemployed) journalists right now, it can be tempting to take whatever freelance projects come your way. Can’t be too choosey in a down economy, now can we? Actually, I think freelancers should always be selective unless they are in such dire financial straits that turning down work would mean losing their home or going hungry. Writers who take on whatever projects come their way have a harder time pursue the topics that really interest you or seeking higher-paid work. That can lead to stagnation or burnout. Here are five scenarios where it makes sense “just say no,” along with tips on doing so tactfully.

1. You don’t have time. Having more work than you can handle is a situation we’d all like to be in. But too many all-nighters and weekends spent hunched over the computer can diminish your work quality (not to mention your health). If you’d otherwise want to tackle the project, see if you can negotiate the timeline. If not, stay on the client’s good side by explaining how much you’d like to work with him or her in the future and referring another competent freelancer. Some freelancers subcontract overflow work, but it does take time to manage subcontractors and the accompanying paperwork.

2. You have ethical concerns. Earlier this year, I turned down a project because the client wanted me to post answers in a forum without disclosing my connection to the company. That sounded deceptive, so I suggested they adjust their strategy and set up a blog instead to be more transparent. When that didn’t fly, we parted ways. If your ethical concern is that the project poses a conflict of interest with one of your current clients, you could always suggest another writer instead.

3. The pay is too low. This is probably the most common reason why freelancers turn down work. If the client’s budget is slightly lower than your usual rates, there may be room for negotiation. Or you could scale back the assignment so it fits within their budget. But if it’s completely outside of your acceptable range, then I’d use this line, “I understand you aren’t able to pay professional rates at this time but please keep me in mind if that changes.” I wouldn’t waste time lecturing the client, as they’ll probably find someone else to write for cheap. And if you stay focused, you’ll find someone else willing to pay your rates.

4. The project is outside your area of expertise. Sometimes these kinds of projects can be a good way to stretch yourself and discover a new niche. But if it’s completely out of your element and you’re not interested in learning something new, suggest someone else in your network who’s better suited to the job. You might also leave the door open to future work by adding something like, “It sounds like you’re looking for someone with a strong PR background. My focus is on writing donor appeals, so if you need that in the future, please keep me in mind.”

5. You sense other red flags. Maybe you’ve heard from other article writing services that this client is a deadbeat or you get a bad feeling from your initial phone call. Whenever my gut has told me to turn down work, there’s usually a good reason, even if I don’t know it at the time. If the client has a history of nonpayment or other issues, it may not make sense to refer someone else. Instead, I’d write something like this: “It sounds like I’m not the best fit for your company’s writing needs but I wish you luck in finding the right person.” Then leave it at that.

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