7 Ways to Summon the Courage to Say “No”

What do you do when a freelancing project just isn’t right for you? Do you turn it down, or do you take it anyway?

Most freelancers already understand that they should say “no” to some clients. But often we freelancers just keep on saying “yes” when we know that we shouldn’t.

Here on Freelance Folder, we’ve explained when to say “no” and even provided some guidelines for saying “no.”

Why do we do it? Why do we accept projects when we know we shouldn’t? One reason is because we’re just not very good at turning work down.

In this post, I’ll give you seven ways to say “no” to those projects you know that you shouldn’t accept. I’ll also give you an opportunity to share some of your own tips on how to say “no.”

How to Say “No” to a Client

First of all, I need to confess something.

I, too, have said “yes” when I should have said “no.” I’ve sometimes agreed to take on freelance projects that I really shouldn’t have agreed to do. This post is as much for me as it is for you.

Saying “no” is much harder than it seems.

We say “yes” when we shouldn’t for a variety of reasons. We may be afraid that we won’t get any other offers. We may dread a confrontation. Or, we might be trying to please a prospect or client that we basically like as a person.

Here are some of the ways I’ve learned to summon the courage to turn down bad projects:

  1. Don’t rush into anything. Some of my worst freelancing decisions have been made in a rush. Most good opportunities will wait a day or so. It’s a good idea to sleep on it before deciding to accept a new project (especially if the project is large). Besides, if a prospect is pressuring you to respond quickly, that’s a bad sign.
  2. Trust your gut. Freelancing does involve some risk, so if you are a risk-averse person you may have trouble with this. It’s important to try new things. Still, if you sense that something is wrong with a particular project and that feeling just won’t go away, there’s probably a good reason for that feeling.
  3. Think of the long-term consequences. If you’re between paying gigs, a new opportunity may seem like just what you need. Even if that opportunity is low paying or isn’t in your area of expertise. You may be tempted to accept it. But taking a bad gig can keep so busy that you aren’t available for the good gigs, when they come. (And if you’re marketing yourself, they will come.)
  4. Be honest with yourself. The natural thing to do when you’re sliding towards a bad freelance project is to start to rationalize it. “This project won’t take very long,” we think to ourselves. Or, we tell ourselves “it won’t hurt to do it just this once.” Stop the rationalization.
  5. Practice saying “no.” If you shy away from confrontations, then you might have a tendency to say “yes” more than you should. You can overcome this through practice. Create a polite email template for turning projects down. Get together with a friend and practice saying “no” on the phone.
  6. Remind yourself of your goals. As a business professional, you should have goals for your freelancing business. Ideally, new projects should help you meet your goals. When you’re tempted to take a job that you aren’t really suited for, ask yourself whether the work will help you meet one of your goals.
  7. Refer them to someone else. An easy way to turn work down is to refer the prospect to another freelancer. This works especially well if the project and client are promising, but the work itself is not a good fit for your skills. By referring work to other freelancers, you build up good will with both your client and your colleague.

Like anything else, it takes practice to get good at turning the wrong projects down. But if you plan ahead, you will be prepared the next time someone asks you to do a project that isn’t right for you.

Your Turn

How do you turn freelancing work down when it’s wrong for you?

Share your stories and tips in the comments.

Image by snigl3t


  1. says

    The only clients I will almost always say “yes” to are those who have been loyal over the long haul. (And even then, they are the ones who take “no” the best, because there’s a foundation of trust!)

    As far as how to deliver the message, I think brevity and honesty are key. But from a sales-leverage angle, and if it’s a client that you might want to work with in the future, there’s something to be said for (politely) saying your queue is packed and you can’t take on any new business — suddenly, you’re exclusive and in demand.

  2. says

    First time visitor to your blog because I saw your post in the Facebook blog group – and now I’ve bookmarked your blog!

    Thanks for this list of tips, Laura! I can relate to everything you said, and especially #3 right now – I accepted a “gig” back in October and essentially ended up working for FREE until mid-February when I got a partial payment; I just got another partial payment today, so I’m about halfway there! The work sounded good last fall – but the payment terms were very unclear, resulting in the current situation.

    I’m definitely keeping your list in mind from now on – I may even print it out! ;-)

  3. says

    Laura, this is so funny — see Anne’s post on About Freelance Writing and mine over at About Writing Squared. We ALL chose the same topic on the same day! Hysterical!

  4. says

    Jake P aka DrFreelance, I agree. Loyalty should count for something. If you have repeat clients who pay well and on time, then you definitely should consider their projects. Saying you’re busy could work, but you could wear that excuse out too. :)

    K’Lee Banks, Wow! I’m sorry to hear that you went through such a bad situation. At least you now know to be careful when you negotiate terms. If it makes you feel better, many freelancers have similar stories.

    Lori, The odd thing is that I actually submitted this post on March 12th and had no idea that the owner was going to post it today. :) In fact, I’ve been enjoying Spring break today with my kid and just now got back. I’ll be heading over Anne’s blog in a minute…

  5. Tara Lynne Groth says

    I am SO glad you posted this! I have a blog draft I plan to publish next week that stems off this same idea, except it is targeted at moving away from clients who just won’t go away after they are told ‘no’ multiple times. I will link to you!

  6. says

    Your first point says everything. gist is: When asked to decide don’t rush to say anything. take 5 seconds to decide whether you really want to do this and even if 5% of you says no, answer is NO.

  7. says

    Saying “no” is probably one of the hardest things for people to do especially if it is your boss, someone that you love, or a good friend. By not saying “no” sometimes, will get you real stressed out and agitated because it might be something that you don’t really want to do.

  8. says

    saurabh hooda,

    Five seconds isn’t enough time. For most people, I would say to sleep on it. In the meantime you can send the client an email requesting more details.

    Katherine Bengan,

    Wise words.

  9. says

    I’ve learned from experience that as hard as it is to say no – its easier than taking on a project that isn’t right for you.

    It only takes 5 minutes to craft a polite email explaining that they “don’t fit your business model”. It could take days of your time to complete their project.

  10. says

    Hi Laura,

    This is such a nice blog!. It deals with a problem which most of the freelancer face today. I think the best way to say no is to be totally honest with yourself. If you don’t think that a particular project will help you in the long run you should not take that up.
    You can frankly but politely tell your client that you don’t intend to do this kind of work.

  11. says

    Red Website Design,

    “It doesn’t fit my business model…” That’s a good response. I’ll have to remember that one. :)

    Cara Brewer,

    That’s true. I think a lot of freelancers take projects that really don’t fit their skillset.

  12. says

    Nowadays I am trapped into projects that I don’t like but I was not be able to say NO. I will take into account the awesome article and promise to say No to some projects I don’t feel confident with. Thanks.


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