Editorial freelancers, know when to say no

We’re in the business of saying yes … but just as important can be knowing when to say no – some projects may just be more trouble than they are worth. Here are some warning signs to look out for.

  • An unreasonably long test. You have to decide what you consider unreasonable, of course, and it may depend on how much you want the work, and how much work you stand to gain if you’re successful. Bear in mind too that taking a test can be a brilliant way in if you are starting out, as it effectively gets around the need for experience to prove yourself.
  • Refusal to stay within acceptable boundaries. Is the prospective client emailing you every half-hour with queries, or demanding instant answers? Do they telephone you outside normal working hours? This lack of regard for your time can signal a potentially problematic working relationship.
  • A large or complex project offered for a flat fee. We often hear that per-page or per-word rates are best because they reward efficient working practices. But be wary of taking on a long or very complicated job on this basis, unless you have worked on something similar for that client before. If you do proceed, aim to build in agreement from the start that the budget will need to be reviewed if the hours exceed a limit.
  • Unwillingness to discuss the budget. Refusal on the client’s part to commit to a figure, even when asked, is a bad sign. Negotiating can be difficult on both sides – but there still needs to be discussion and agreement about the cost before the job begins.
  • Refusal to agree project terms in writing. The contract for a project could take the form of an email or series of emails in which key details are agreed; it doesn’t have to be on paper, or even very formal. But you do need to have things pinned down; an agreement over the telephone or even in person won’t do, and you can’t refer back to it reliably.
  • Does the client fail to send the work on time, without warning or explanation? If so, don’t feel you have to accommodate this. You may choose to, of course – it’s not unusual for projects to run late, and being adaptable can work in your favour – but don’t be bullied into working to their schedule if they show no respect for yours.
  • A sense that the project, for whatever reason, is not right for you. Learn to trust your instincts – they are very often right.

It can take time to learn when to say no, and even after years as a freelance editor, it’s still possible to get it wrong sometimes. What factors would make you turn a project down?

Liz Jones has been an editor since 1998, and full-time freelance since 2008; she is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She specialises in trade non-fiction, fiction and educational publishing, but also works with a range of business clients and individuals.

Liz’s post was originally published on the SfEP blog.

The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) is a professional organisation based in the UK for editors and proofreaders – the people who make text accurate and clear. Formed in November 1988, the SfEP has more than 2,000 members who provide editorial services to publishers and a wide range of other organisations and individuals. The SfEP promotes high editorial standards and works to uphold the professional status of editors and proofreaders. Its Directory of Editorial Services provides contact information for experienced SfEP members, including details of the skills, subjects and services they offer.

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