Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Just Say No

When I began freelancing, I got into the habit of never saying no. If someone asked me to write an article, even if I knew nothing about the subject, I would say yes. If my editor asked if I can make a deadline, even if it was close to impossible, I would say yes. If I was offered a gig, even if my plate was full, I would say yes.

In the beginning this was a good strategy: it showed that I could work under pressure, that I was a writer editors could depend on, and I was able to gain lots of experience. But is there a point when you start being more honest? Do you ever say, "No I cannot make that deadline" or "I'm really not qualified to take that assignment?"

The day I got back from Israel, I received an e-mail from a prospective agent asking for a synopsis. I, as I loathe writing such things, did not have one, but of course said I could write one over the weekend. It was a reflex, a force of habit. Someone wants something, you give it. But, if I had looked at my schedule over the weekend, I would have seen that Nicole was moving into my apartment on Saturday, I was working on Sunday, and that I had a lunch and dinner plans on Monday. So in between unloading the truck, teaching kids how to swim and eating at the Labor Day festivities, I was at my computer drafting my assignment. I would say that this is an instance where it would have been okay to say, "No, I cannot get you a synopsis by Tuesday. How about the end of the week?"

Some times it is okay to say no:
  • When the deadline is not realistic. It's much better to turn down an assignment than it is not to make your deadline. If the article requires research and/or interviews, just because you can work under pressure doesn't mean your subjects can. If completing your assignment is dependent on the input of others, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to work around their schedule.
  • If you are not qualified. If you do not speak French, know how to fix a car, have twins with juvenile Diabetes, don't claim that you do! With libraries and Internet, it's easy to become an expert on anything, but becoming that knowledgeable, again, takes time. In a job interview, don't say you know HTML if you don't. Don't write a theater/music/book/film review if you have no experience in that field. If you are not qualified to complete an assignment, it is perfectly legitimate to turn it down.
  • When it is a conflict of interest. I have discussed this on previous posts, but when you begin freelancing on a regular basis, often times you are faced with conflicts of interest. Take my advice: play it safe. If your editor wants you to cover an event that you already covered for a rival publication, turn it down. Don't review the same book for two rival publications, or any publications without clearing it with both editors first. Again, it is much better to turn down an assignment than to risk burning bridges by demonstrating a lack of loyalty.
  • Not enough compensation. In the beginning, we all had to work for free. We had to take on whatever assignments we received just to build up our resume and put together some clips. Beggars can't be choosers, but after a few years, you are no longer begging. This may be the hardest part for writers, but it is okay to turn down an assignment if you don't think there is adequate compensation. No one will think you're a bad person. Of course, you should be realistic. If you are a newbie, you won't be paid a dollar per word for a thousand word feature article. But then again, if you've been in the industry for a while, you should expect a higher wage for your services. Ultimately, you have a decision to make. Is it worth your time and effort? If the answer is no, it's okay to decline the offer.

Feel free to add others as you see fit. I'm still in the habit of always saying yes no matter what, and man, it is a tough habit to break. But if you slow down a bit, look at what your editor is asking and deem it not feasible, it is better to turn down an offer than to write a sub-par article or worse, not make your deadline.

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