‘No’ your way to a better business: SfEP conference session preview

By Laura Poole

As I write this, I’m nearly deluged in paid work. I said ‘yes!’ to clients about three times more than I should have. My bank account will be very happy in about six weeks, but in the meantime I’m getting up early, squeezing in work everywhere, skipping exercise, deferring personal appointments, and drinking extra coffee.

In the 20 years I have been freelancing, I have noticed that it is very hard to say no. I’ve noticed it with colleagues, too, and my theory is this: as freelancers, we train ourselves to say yes because yes = paycheck. When we started out, we probably said yes to everything because we were desperate for work, eager to expand our client base, excited to learn new things, and appreciative of the income. Publishing seems to be a woman-dominated field (at least in editorial), and women often tend to be people pleasers, which can lead to a yes when a no would be better.

When we say yes a lot, it can feel good! Gratification: we made someone happy. Security: work is coming in, money will be earned. Pride: look how much I got done! Too many yeses lead to a feast of work, with concomitant stress. Our bodies, our schedules, our families, and even our friends suffer when we do nothing but work. A feast portion is all too often followed by a famine portion. We’re briefly grateful for a break, a rest, some recovery, but then we start to panic about lack of work… so we start drumming up more business, saying yes to lots more things, and then we’re back in the feast portion again.

The problem is, these vicious circles of stress and panic are not healthy, and they are not sustainable in the long run. For full-time freelancers, this is almost certainly not the lifestyle you envisioned.

There are many steps, tools, and techniques for reclaiming your life and business. In this post, I offer a key one: start saying no. It may seem counterintuitive, and it may feel almost physically uncomfortable to get the words out, but it’s the simplest thing you can do.

Check your instinct to immediately say yes to everything and everyone (and that includes personal requests, like tea with friends or dinner out). Give each request – appointment, social event, client project – some careful thought. Is it coming at a time when you already have plenty of work? Are you already overloaded, or will the schedule free up? Is it work that you truly want to do, or something that’s not quite in your core skills and interests (e.g. proofreading when you really do developmental editing). Think about what you truly want in your life – are you missing time for hobbies, time with family, or even just relaxing? Haven’t taken a vacation in a long time? Reclaim your sanity by saying no as needed.

The tough part is saying no without feeling guilty, without softening it with a lengthy apology or explanation. Remember: ‘No’ is a complete sentence. Loyal clients will know they can come back to you and may even ask when you are available.

When you say no to the things that don’t serve you – that overload your schedule, that aren’t in your core business, that are just a chore and not an opportunity – you will free up time and energy for the things that do serve you. That alone can shape your business in exciting new ways, opening more doors than you ever thought possible.

Start now: what can you start saying no to?

My session at the SfEP conference is ‘Taking charge of your freelance life’ (Monday 9–11am).

laurapoole resized Laura Poole (Twitter: @lepoole) started her full-time freelance business in 1997. She edits exclusively for scholarly university presses. She started training editors in 2009 with privately run workshops. In 2015, she joined with Erin Brenner to become the co-owner of Copyediting, for which she is also the Director of Training. She loves Jelly Babies.


Posted by Tracey Roberts, SfEP blog coordinator

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP

7 thoughts on “‘No’ your way to a better business: SfEP conference session preview

  1. Sophie Playle

    Fantastic blog post, Laura. And, of course, saying ‘no’ to projects that aren’t quite right for us leaves the space in our schedules to say ‘yes’ to the projects that are 🙂

  2. Amanda Coffin

    This post is so timely! Your first couple of paragraphs capture my state at the moment. Yesterday I began to realise that there needs to be more NO in my near future, and I began by telling a client that I could not meet her requested deadline; I needed twice that amount of time. I was certain I’d lose her business, but she replied that she’d picked the first date out of thin air. She is in fact in no rush whatever. That was eye-opening, and your blog post just reinforced it. Thank you!

  3. Melanie Thompson

    Nice one, Laura.
    I like a colleague’s comment, seen elsewhere and shamelessly pinched by me, that it can be a good idea to say “No, but…” and then recommend someone else, either by directly naming someone you know, or by referring the client back to the SfEP Directory, which is an excellent resource, and a substantial membership benefit.
    I gather the US and Canadian editors have similar resources.

    1. Sara Peacock

      And further to Melanie’s (and colleague’s) point, if you are able to recommend someone you actually *know*, and whose work you know to be of a high standard, it will actually raise your own standing in the eyes of the client. This is where the networking of the SfEP (or EAC or ACES, or other national group) comes in so useful. And that colleague may well do the same for you at some point in the future.

      1. Laura Poole

        Indeed, offering a referral is great in many ways… builds your reputation as a go-to resource for your clients, boosts the business of other freelancers, and positions you for receiving referrals, as Sara said!

  4. Doreen Kruger

    I agree wholeheartedly with all your points, Laura. I’ve found myself in that stress situation and it’s not good. I now turn down work I don’t fancy or which have unreasonable schedules or fees. Excellent post.


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