An American Editor

May 11, 2015

On the Basics: Don’t Burn Those Bridges!

Don’t Burn Those Bridges!

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

I’m a firm believer in “What goes around comes around,” in both personal and professional circumstances. The other day, I got a message from a colleague who had just heard from a former client with an urgent request to proofread something that had to go to the printer in two days. She had done freelance work for this organization for a couple of years, until a new communications director came in and, as is common with newcomers to a workplace who want to create an impression of being effective and activist, made a lot of changes, including canceling my colleague’s contract and bringing her work in-house.

My colleague’s reaction to the proofreading request? Not the understandable “Go to blazes, you jerks; you shouldn’t have dumped me in the first place,” but a chuckle, and the professional and smart “Glad to help, despite the tight turnaround time.” She charged for, and was paid for, her time. And it looks like the client will keep using her now, even though not as much as during their previous relationship.

She did the right thing: She didn’t burn that bridge in the first place, when the new director pushed her out of work she loved doing. She was understandably annoyed and disappointed at the time, but handled the situation professionally by accepting it and telling the new person, as well as the people she had been working with, to keep her in mind if things changed. Nor did she burn it when this new opportunity popped up to do so. (Of course, she might have had to say no if she was booked up at the time, or if the fee was too low because the new person changed the organization’s pay rates. There are good reasons to turn down work, but that can be done politely and professionally, without burning the bridge in the process.)

We never know when bad situations might turn around and change for the better. When you leave a job or “fire” a client, do it with care, because you may need that employer or client again in the future — sometimes just for a good reference, but sometimes for new work as well, as my colleague discovered. Even if you’re treated badly, be the one to take the high road.

One way to cope with being mistreated by a current, past, or prospective client is to write a response in the heat of the moment — but not send it. Let it sit and simmer for a day or two, then go back to it and either rewrite it in a more tempered voice, or delete it unsent completely. Some people will react well to a carefully written response and reconsider their decision or behavior, while others simply aren’t worth responding to because nothing you say will change the situation. By writing out your initial response, you get to vent your feelings; by not sending that initial response, you maintain your professionalism and stay on that higher road.

This can also relate to unfairly hurtful or insulting messages. Another colleague recently received an utterly horrible response to applying for an editing project. The prospective client apparently didn’t understand that the colleague was doing what had been requested — providing a sense of what the colleague would fix for the client’s material — and responded by insulting her professionalism in terms that were almost unbelievably crude.

Of course, that took care of any interest the colleague had in working with that prospective client, but she wasn’t sure whether she should respond to the insulting message. It didn’t feel right to let such unpleasantness go unanswered, but it also seemed unwise to continue to engage with the person. Advice from the discussion list where she posted about the situation was unanimous: Don’t respond, because this person is clearly unhinged on some level and responding would probably only escalate the behavior even further. Sometimes it’s better to let ugly behavior go unpunished than put oneself at risk of further ugliness, especially because most people who behave the way that prospective client did are unlikely to change their natures.

There are times when it might be worth responding to unpleasant messages from prospective or current clients. One option would be, as another colleague suggested, to say something like “Thank you for taking the time to respond to me. I tried to give you what you asked for. Because I consider it important to understand how I failed so I can improve myself, I would appreciate your taking a few moments to give me guidance. Your help in my education is greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your time and effort.” This kind of approach is a slight dig at the bad behavior but couched so that the recipient shouldn’t be able to take umbrage, no matter how they might like to do so.

It probably also is worth remembering that apparently wacko, out-of-control messages could have been triggered by trauma in the sender’s life with no relation to the matter at hand — not that that’s ever a good reason for behaving badly, of course. Refraining from responding, especially with anything snarky, could be a bridge-builder if the sender comes to their senses later and gets in touch to apologize (although some situations are clearly unlikely to fall into that category).

A “don’t burn bridges” policy can also apply to being turned down for a project in a pleasant and professional way, rather than an insanely inappropriate way, even when you were sure you were the perfect candidate, invested a lot of time and effort into your application, or received an encouraging response to the application. You can ignore the “Thanks, but no thanks” or “We chose someone else” message; you can go ballistic over having been strung along; or you can respond with something like, “Thank you for letting me know of your decision. Please keep me in mind for future assignments or if the chosen candidate doesn’t work out.” It might even be worthwhile to send the occasional message to such prospects to remind them of your existence and availability, although that should be done carefully, and not very often.

Another related aspect of protecting bridges is saving files from finished projects and past clients. Since it’s constantly getting easier to save material electronically without cluttering up your home office with paper copies of completed projects, most of us can easily and inexpensively retain versions of almost everything we’ve ever written, edited, proofread, translated, indexed, or otherwise worked on. Doing so can mean rebuilding the bridge to past clients, because people do get back in touch after years of not hearing from them, wanting to receive old files or get help in updating or republishing such projects. That has happened to me on occasion over the years, and just happened to a colleague who was able to profit from restoring an old document for a long-lost client, thanks to having that project file stashed in her online storage system.

We can’t predict how people will respond to our queries, applications, and projects. We can’t control the behavior of people who seem worth working with until they turn into clientzillas. We can, however, control our own responses and behavior. Taking the high road rather than burning bridges can only strengthen our editorial businesses.

Have you ever received horrible messages from prospective or current clients? How have you responded to difficult prospects or clients, or kept from burning a bridge in a way that paid off for you later?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.


  1. Great post, Ruth. I’d add one practical word of advice regarding drafting venting emails that you don’t intend to send – leave the Send To box empty! A slip of the finger, Freudian or not, or the arrival of the editorial cat on your keyboard could spell disaster, otherwise.


    Comment by Sue Littleford — May 11, 2015 @ 5:17 am | Reply

    • “Clientzillas” ! Wonderful word. Can’t say I’ve ever had one, though. Either I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, or the fact I don’t burn bridges (by using most of the suggestions in the article) has paid off. Every client, prospect, and production editor I’ve worked with as a freelancer has been well-mannered and professional. The only work-related people who have acted badly toward me were long-ago co-workers in corporate offices. Doesn’t mean I haven’t been relieved to escape certain jobs or people, only that regardless of the situation, everyone has been a grown-up. IMO, it always pays to take the high road. I may change this tune if some future situation goes bad, but to date, I’ve had every reason to keep doors open and behavior civilized.


      Comment by Carolyn — May 11, 2015 @ 5:45 am | Reply

  2. […] We can’t predict how people will respond to our queries, applications, and projects. We can’t control the behavior of people who seem worth working with until they turn in clientzillas. We can, how…  […]


    Pingback by On the Basics: Don’t Burn Those Bridges! ... — May 11, 2015 @ 7:01 am | Reply

  3. A blank “To” line is a great idea!


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — May 11, 2015 @ 9:28 am | Reply

  4. An excellent essay, and the subject is always timely. I have just one very minor comment—I wouldn’t say “if the chosen candidate doesn’t work out.” I wouldn’t want to suggest a scenario where they fire someone! I would say “if your department expands.” And I agree, do leave the “Send” line empty as extra insurance. Thank you, Ruth, for a thoughtful and helpful essay.


    Comment by Christina — May 11, 2015 @ 1:11 pm | Reply

  5. As a retiree from a long career in sales and general management, I can assure you and your readers that your approach is dead-on correct. If a bridge is to be burned, let the other party burn it!
    That said, I’m new to the freelance editing business, and I have a question somewhat related to the bridge burning issue. If approached to edit/proof work that that you strongly suspect to be morally offensive to your core values (for example – sexually explicit, erotic, pornographic material), how do you reject it without putting yourself in jeopardy from a legal standpoint? Recently small independent businesses have been challenged in the courts for refusing to do work for potential customers when that work proved offensive to the business owner. Legal challenges can be messy, not to mention expensive.


    Comment by Ken Carver — May 11, 2015 @ 4:50 pm | Reply

    • Ken, although I suggest you check with a lawyer in your jurisdiction, I am confident that the antidiscrimination laws would not apply in this instance. I think you worry for no reason. But if you really are concerned, prepare a list of rates and publish it and set a price above your normal rate for objectionable work. There is no reason you cannot say, for example, “editing of fiction with explicit sexual scenes/content is at $250/hour with a minimum of 50 hours and requires a preediting deposit of 50% of the minimum charge.” My feeling is that no matter how repugnant I might find editing such material, I would undertake the project under such conditions. Of course, the likelihood of anyone paying that kind of money for copyediting is probably less than infinitesimal.

      The reality is, I would just say no to such work and not worry about it.


      Comment by americaneditor — May 12, 2015 @ 1:02 pm | Reply

      • Thanks for your advice. It’s what I was hoping to hear.


        Comment by Ken Carver — May 12, 2015 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

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