When should freelancers turn down assignments?

When I started freelancing a few years ago, I hadn’t had a published clip in more than a decade. Eager to rebuild my portfolio, I spent the days I wasn’t teaching writing queries and letters of introduction and searching for new markets at my local library and bookstore. I have to admit I also watched a few episodes of “Ellen” during the day.

The occasional assignment provided a welcome break from that routine, not to mention an even-more-welcome check in the mail. In time, my portfolio grew, as did my list of clients. I also started seeking jobs through the online clearinghouse Elance. The site offers thousands of ads from people looking to hire freelancers for everything from writing to web design projects. And, though many jobs offer shockingly low rates, I’ve been lucky enough to find a few regular clients who’ve made signing up for the site worth it.

Today, I am in the enviable position of having as much work as I want, at least while trying to enjoy the summer schedule of a teacher who works during the academic year as both a freelancer and adjunct professor. After all, part-time professoring and doesn’t offer many bankable benefits, so summers off should be embraced and enjoyed.

In fact, I have been considering turning a few assignments down in recent weeks. With the beginning of the semester less than a month away, I have a couple of major deadlines and due dates for a few smaller assignments looming as well as a planned vacation to visit family.

So here are a few things I’ve been considering while weighing assignments and opportunities lately. Some questions are culled from my own experience while others come from freelancers who’ve proven it sometimes pays to say no.

1. What is the hourly rate? Freelancer Kelly James-Enger recommends looking at assignments with this question in mind rather than getting fixated on the rate per word an editor offers. Sure national magazines that pay $1 or more a word are attractive, but writers should consider the total time it takes to pitch, research, write and revise a piece that might not see print for months.

2. Is it interesting? Don’t get me wrong. I was a business reporter for a wire service at one point in my career, so I have penned many dry stories in my time. But now that I am a freelancer, I have more latitude to focus on stories and projects about health, wellness, education and other topics that make no mention of analysts’ estimates or earnings per share and take longer than 30 minutes to turn out.

3. Is it my area of expertise? I recently came across a couple of opportunities that, at first blush, seemed interesting. One was an ad for a freelance proofreader for the local alternative weekly. Although I am an experienced writer, I must say I am not the fastest or most-effective copy editor. The job also seemed better suited to a recent college graduate with an deeper inherent interest in reading about and attending concerts at dingy clubs that offer neither convenient seating nor an extensive selection of craft beers. The other was for a full-time magazine editorial position that required some television appearances. While my appetite said yes to this, my Arkansas accent logged a firm “Naaaw.”

What questions do you consider when weighing assignments? And how have you eventually learned to say no to new work?

 

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