How Hungry are You: When Do We Turn Down Work

Judith Sudilovsky

We all want to find work in our field—whether it be writing or editing, but how do we decide when to accept an assignment?

As writers and editors, especially in the digital era when these disciplines have taken on new forms and can include content writing for the web and other digital media as well as the traditional journals and print publications, we are facing a dilemma: we all want to get a piece of the pie, but at what cost? True, the digital era has brought on a myriad of opportunities, but are all those opportunities created equal? With much of the writing and editing market working on a freelance basis—many of them greatly underpaid– there is also an awful lot of competition for the jobs we are all trying to get. Naturally we are all hungry for the next job, worried that if we decline one offer who knows when another will come along, only too well aware of the fact that there are many people behind us waiting to snatch up that job.

So we as editors can often find ourselves in a predicament:  do we apply for and accept every job we can because, well, we need to make ends meet, or can we and should we be more selective in the choice of jobs we take.

Hard as it may be for most of us, it appears that sometimes saying no to a job is the best answer, as I just learned when I was outbid for a job by another editor offering to do the job for one-quarter of the charge I had quoted. I could have sent in an even lower counter bid, but then I would have been practically working for free and I am not that hungry. I wished the client well, and let her know I was available for other jobs if she was interested in contracting my services at my rate. I let her know I was worth it. Now I don’t have that job, but also I won’t feel like I am being exploited and resentful for having to “waste” my time on an assignment with little earnings for me, when I could be working on something else or looking for more work.

In general, first and foremost, and for our own peace of mind, we should determine what the deadline for the work is—not just the deadline the client has first asked for, but the real deadline. It never hurts to ask how flexible they can be with their deadline. They may say they want it next week, but if you are already committed to two other editing projects this week it is reasonable to ask if their project can wait for another week. You may be pleasantly surprised with their answer. Then you won’t have to turn down the job.

Still, there will come a time when we will have to decide whether we want or need to turn down a job.

One issue editors need to be aware of which can be a game changer in this internet era is plagiarism. With so much information out there, it is quite easy for authors to slip in pieces of writing which are not their own into their text–whether it be innocently or knowingly. While we as editors are not held responsible for acts of plagiarism in the works we edit, we need to decide whether we want to be associated with text which is practically stolen. We can be sensitive and give the author a way out of this sticky situation or we can politely find a way out from the assignment for ourselves.

Sometimes it is easy for us to decide whether to take a job; other times, probably when we are worried about our bank account balance, we don’t always use our best judgment when making that decision and that is when we get into trouble. Maybe we are already bogged down with several assignments but we just don’t want to let that new offer go. Then we find ourselves under pressure to complete both and end up doing a less-than-our-best job for both assignments. That is doing a disservice to us and our capabilities. Remember, if clients aren’t happy with our work, they won’t be coming back to us with more offers.

But sometimes that decision is not so clear cut. What if the timing is right and the money is right, but there is something about the subject matter which does not sit well with us. Do we as editors push those issues to the side and just do the job for the money, or do we retain our convictions and politely decline the assignment.

Of course, we all have to make the call in this situation but for some people it may be just too difficult to handle work with subject matter which runs contrary to their political or ethical beliefs.

Veteran editor and teacher Susan Holzman says there were several times she refused an editing job. The reasons she turned down the assignment include:

  • A client with a dissertation who was not willing to accept her expertise, and on top of that was deceptive with her payment: “It was a dissertation proposal that was to continue into the dissertation itself. It was on a topic I had expertise on and I knew her advisor and he knew I was her editor,” says Holzman. “The client was whiny when I suggested she expand or explain. She was careless with her citations and references and then she was careless with my payment for the initial work, making a check out for an inaccurate amount and giving me a post-dated check. Best to cut the cord when I could!”
  • Another time her intuition told her there was just something too “far-fetched and ridiculous” with the claims of espionage and assassination “hits” in a book she was asked to edit: “I declined to do a second book for this author. After all, anyone really involved in the kind of activities he claimed to be involved in was not a person that I wanted to mess with!”
  • In another instance a dissertation text she had been retained to edit had political references she felt uncomfortable with: “This dissertation was about education, but made general sweeping statements about Israel’s political actions that influenced educational policy that I would not be able to NOT comment on. It was a Pandora’s Box better left un-opened.”
  • A final example involved an academic article for a refereed journal, which she discovered was written “entirely wrong” for the journal after comparing the manuscript with other articles published in this journal: “The author got defensive and was insulted when I told him that the article would never be published in that format. I agreed to leave the project and he agreed to let me go. Several years have passed and the article has not been published.”
  • Time constraints have also been an issue for declining other assignments: “But I always try to say yes and I have done editing on vacations, on family visits to the United States, and during recovery from surgery.”

Below is a selection of links to articles about these issues which may be helpful to editors and writers grappling with such questions:

In her blog Laura Spencer offers some other reasons not to accept an assignment:

  • Unclear instructions from the client.
  • The client already has a bad reputation.
  • The assignment involves something unethical or illegal.
  • The client is asking for too much for too little.

Anthony Caruana advises to consider declining assignments in three cases:

  • You never seem to be able to satisfy the client.
  • Issues of ethics.
  • The payment is not worth it: “Don’t let the potential client exploit you.”

There are numerous other blogs on the internet that you can check out for help in making a decision, but at the end of the day, you will need to make your own decision based on the issues which are important to you.

Usually the best gauge of whether you should decline an assignment or not is your own intuition. If something doesn’t feel right to you, it probably isn’t. Politely say “no” and go about your way seeking out better opportunities.

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