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Yes, no, maybe ... decisions freelancers make

A few months ago, something strange happened: I found myself inundated with enquiries about my availability. I don’t know whether the stars had aligned, my networking was paying off, or everyone else was just too busy – but for a few weeks I kept finding potential opportunities in my inbox. Obviously I couldn’t do everything; I had to make some choices. That’s the reality of freelancing. You may have a choice of projects, or you may just be unsure about whether something is right for you. How do you make the right decision? Here are some considerations.

Yes – accept this project

The project is a great fit for your skills and interests.

I always enjoy editing educational resource materials for teachers and educational managers. The content is familiar to me, and I’m comfortable working with academic material. I’ve just finished an edit of a book on critical thinking for a US publisher; having written my own coursebook on critical reading, I’ve enjoyed this and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also enjoyed working on educational management materials for a UK publisher, and my ongoing work with IATEFL Conference Selections fits in here, too. What is not such a great fit? Earlier this year I declined an opportunity to write test prep materials for a client here in Canada. Apart from the fact that I was too busy, test preparation is a high-stakes area in which I don’t feel entirely comfortable writing. And while I’ve written a fair bit of teacher training material, it isn’t something that really excites me.

The project is for a repeat client, one that you’ve had good experiences with before.

This year I accepted the opportunity to write an academic upgrading coursebook. This is a big project, one that will keep me busy until next spring. It’s also a slight shift away from ELT, though there is a lot of overlap. I didn’t hesitate to take this on as I had already done an EAP curriculum design project for the client, and I knew it would go well. I was also thrilled earlier this year to reconnect with two colleagues from the past, both of whom are now working together on a new project. When they needed a copy editor, I was happy to accept. I’m about to start Book 2 of a three-book project, I’m learning a lot about the subject matter, and I’m enjoying it immensely. Think about who you’ll be working with – people are just as important as projects.

The project fits with your vision of yourself as a writer or editor.

This one is a bit more complicated for me. Over the last five years I’ve done a variety of writing and editing projects, and while the diversity has been great, I keep thinking it’s time to narrow it down a bit. Looking ahead, my focus as a writer will remain EAP (or ESAP) and academic upgrading materials. As an editor, though, I’m more flexible: I enjoy a variety of projects. When I hear about a new project, my immediate reaction tends to be “I could do that.” I’m trying to change this to “I could do that … but how will doing it benefit my career?” Think about the direction you want to take your career in, and if you’re offered a project that helps you work towards your goals, it’s a keeper.

No – walk (or run) away

You have too many other commitments.

Last spring, after proofreading three dissertations from the same university department, I declined a fourth – I was in hospital with a nasty combination of influenza and asthma, and I was hooked up to a breathing machine. I responded to the client on my phone from my hospital bed. Not every situation is so dramatic, though. Sometimes you just have too much on your plate, and you have to be realistic about what you can take on. This year I reluctantly turned down two projects with new clients that I would love to work with; I just didn’t have the time. Five years ago, when I was starting out, I would have accepted these projects and driven myself crazy trying to get everything done. Now that I’m more sure of myself as a freelancer, I take a longer-term view: projects like these will come around again, and maybe the timing will be right next time.

The client’s time frame is not realistic.

A couple of months ago, I was contacted on a Friday by a postgraduate student who was looking for a proofreader for a 12,000-word dissertation. When was it due? Tuesday. Which meant he needed it back by Monday morning so he could go through my edits and then get it printed and bound. I really didn’t feel like giving up my entire weekend for this, so I declined. Non-publisher clients often have little idea how long something takes, and they have unrealistic expectations. If I know a project will cause undue stress, I’ll pass on it.

The pay is too low to make it worthwhile.

I once turned down an offer to write specialized ELT materials for a publisher. The project would have required a lot of research, and the pay was low. I decided it wouldn’t be worth it, and I think I made the right decision. While it’s tempting to accept a low-paying job when you haven’t got much on, think about how undervalued you’ll feel doing that job. There are times when taking on a low-paying project might make sense – when you’re building a CV, for example – but if you are resentful that you will end up making the same amount as an unskilled worker, let it go and try to find something better.

Maybe – think carefully

The project is mind-numbingly boring.

We’ve all been there – working on a project so boring that we find ourselves checking email every five minutes, playing on Facebook, or watching YouTube videos of 80s pop songs. Of course, not every project will be exciting. When I’m faced with a bread-and-butter project, I think about my house painter, Andy. I recently hired Andy to paint a plain white ceiling in my family room. This was not exciting – no pretty colours or faux finishes – but he did it quickly and cheerfully, and at reasonable cost. Ask yourself how big the project is. A short edit, like my ceiling, is quick and easy; it doesn’t have to be inspiring. On the other hand, if you’re going to put a huge amount of time and effort into something, the rewards should ideally be more than financial.

The project isn’t that interesting, but it’s for a big-name client.

You may really want to write a coursebook, but you’re offered a contract writing something much less inspiring. If the publisher is someone you want to work with and you think there might be potential for something else down the road, take it. Many ELT writers get their start writing worksheets and other supplementary material. One thing I’ve learned over the last five years, though, is that the name of the client doesn’t really matter. I have had great experiences with big-name publishers and equally good experiences with lesser-known clients. And yes, I have had some not-so-great experiences. Think about the project, not the name of the client.

You might have something else in the pipeline.

Right now, I’m being very careful about adding new projects because I am fairly optimistic that something wonderful is going to come to fruition; I’ll know for sure in a few weeks. It’s risky to decline something because you have a lead on something better suited to your skills and interests; projects get delayed, postponed, and even cancelled. But if finances permit, sometimes you have to take a chance. It’s awful to lose a great opportunity simply because you’ve already committed to something else.

We all face dilemmas, but in the end, it comes down to your own instincts and judgment. Experience has taught me what to accept and what to walk away from. I’d love to hear from readers about their own experiences taking or turning down projects.

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