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How to Handle Rocks and Hard Places

freelance writingBy Lori Widmer

Recently, I was asked by the client to complete a project section that had been missed when we’d first put together the client’s major project. I agreed. Only afterward did the client mention it was unpaid as the budget for the entire project had been spent. My options were to complete it as agreed (with no pay) or back out.

Because this is a long-time client, I agreed to help out gratis. I spent the rest of the day putting together the project, mirroring the same styles I was presented on the last project. I put my own time into it and gave it my best per usual, sending it off to the client the same day. Imagine my surprise when the client came back wanting changes – major changes. And that’s when I pushed back.


I’m not a stranger to compromising a little in order to help out a client. It’s a good way to build goodwill and to show teamwork that may be remembered later. Likewise, I’m not a stranger to a few clients expecting more free work. For that reason, I’ve learned to draw my boundaries thick and strong. In this particular case, five hours of my billable time is enough. I may lose the client, but in the case of any client who puts me in an uncomfortable situation like that, I’m okay with it.

But when clients ask the impossible, we writers are faced with what we think is a painful decision. Do we agree to terms that don’t suit us in order to appease the client, or do we turn down the work and risk the relationship? Clients ask, inappropriately, for free help all the time. That doesn’t mean we have to honor the requests. But sometimes our motivations get in the way.

What is your primary motivation for saying yes? If any of the following is your reason, you need to be saying no:

  • I don’t like confrontations
  • I’m afraid of losing the relationship
  • I feel I owe them my loyalty
  • I have nothing better to do

A caveat: If the relationship is one where the client funnels plenty of work to you on a regular basis, the answer to the question would depend on the value you’re getting from the relationship. For example, if your magazine editor asks for a sidebar to your latest article and you’re able to do it easily from your notes, it may be okay. If, however, the editor expects you to research and write a rather comprehensive sidebar for no extra pay, you’d be perfectly within your rights to ask for additional pay or say no.


But how do we say no? All it takes is a little tact. Here are some ways to say no and perhaps salvage the relationship:

  • I’m afraid I can’t
  • I’m sorry, but I have too many paying clients whose projects must take precedence
  • I can’t do this, but I can complete it if you are able to find the budget to pay me for it

One thing I would never do is say “I can’t do this at this time.” That opens the door to the client returning with the same request in the future. State what you mean – you can’t do it. You won’t do it. Whatever wording works for you, be cordial, but firm.

Some clients will push back. However, if there’s a guilt trip attached (“But I need to get it done or I’ll be in big trouble!” or “But you should have figured I wanted this in the first place!”), add a final, firm “no” and don’t engage in that conversation again. That’s a client who doesn’t respect you as a professional.

In many client situations, we’re faced with compromises. In every case, we have choices. Practice saying no. Know that the decision is not a personal one, but a business one. That little change in perspective can mean the difference between working for free or commanding the respect you deserve.

When was the last time a client asked you for a freebie?

Lori Widmer is a veteran of standing up for her business and letting pushy clients down gently. She blogs about writing at Words on the Page.

Two newsletters:
Abundant Freelance Writing – a resource for freelance writers including 3x a week job postings.
Writing With Vision – for those who want to get a book written.

Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 22 comments… add one }
  • I ask you who lances for free? Not me
    Robert Nelson recently posted..Star wars galatic heroes toddler beddingMy Profile

  • I have always said the word “freelance” can lead to a heap of trouble and misunderstandings. Maybe we could start a movement to rename to: Feelance. 🙂

  • When first asked, I would spin around my response to be I would be happy to do that for you. I could have it to you in XX amount of time and my fee for the added work is $XX.”

    If I did decide to do it gratis (maybe it doesn’t involve much time-or-whatever)-my response would be along the lines of I would be happy to do that for you. I could have it to you in XX amount of time and I’ll waive my fee of $XX this time. “

    It helps to show the value of our work. If they say they don’t have the budget for it, something along the lines of I’m sorry to hear that. Let me know if your budget situation changes and we’ll revisit it.”
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Friday Lite Christmas &amp Chanukkah Gone WildMy Profile

  • Why do women apologize when the fault clearly lies elsewhere… “I’m afraid…I’m sorry…I want to but…” This really undermines what one is trying to say, which is “No, I can’t.”
    So, (…deep breath to prepare for flames…) if the client is a woman, would you lose her because you didn’t apologize for something she was asking that is unreasonable?
    Because I think if you apologized to a man, did the task, the man would keep asking until you grew a pair and said simply, “No, I will not work for nothing” or just “No, I can’t.”

    • Come to think of it, I think you’re right. I do know that Lori doesn’t take any guff. Languaging is so interesting.

      • Oh, you’re absolutely correct, GoingLikeSixty! However, all readers are not able to get to that point right away. I think my first and third bullet points would be better to use, but there are people (women) who would feel more comfortable using the “I’m sorry” phrase – at least until they get used to turning down bad deals.
        Lori recently posted..Procrastination and the FreelancerMy Profile

  • Gee you mean everything isn’t free? At least on the web (lol) Hope your client comes to realizes that the best things in life aren’t free. When did a company ever give product away for free all the time?
    Robert Nelson recently posted..Star wars galatic heroes toddler beddingMy Profile

    • Funny how so many people think writing is easy or something and don’t want to pay for it or don’t get that a paragraph is worth paying for… an extra one for sure.

    • Robert, wouldn’t it be nice if we could use that same tack on our utility companies or mortgage companies? 🙂
      Lori recently posted..Procrastination and the FreelancerMy Profile

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