An American Editor

August 5, 2020

On the Basics: The power of saying no as a reputation-builder

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Owner, An American Editor

As editorial professionals, whether in-house or freelance, how do we build our reputations for not only what we do, but how we do it and who we are?

It may seem self-evident that doing good work is the first and most-important element of establishing a reputation of someone worth hiring, recommending, referring or subcontracting with. There’s more to it, though.

How we do business contributes mightily to an editorial professional’s reputation as well. And a huge factor in that process is knowing when, and how, to say no.

Saying no

It might seem odd to think of saying no as a way of establishing or solidifying your professional reputation, but it can work. Saying no to projects or clients means you know what’s right — or wrong — for your editorial business.

It’s hard to say no to a client or project, especially when you’re just starting out or funds are low and you’re worried about how you’ll pay the mortgage or rent, but doing so can be essential to the health of both your editorial business and your reputation. Saying no means you’re standing up for what you need from your business and what you expect from the people you work with or for. It means you have standards for, and limits on, how you do your work, and are willing to enforce them. Having the chutzpah to say no when appropriate gives you power.

Those standards or limits, and how saying no relates to them, can include:

Hours when you’re available — and saying no to requests (or demands) that you work outside those hours.

Type of projects you will accept and work on — and saying no to projects that aren’t right for you.

Rates you will work for — and saying no to rates that are too low.

Deadlines you will accept — and saying no to ridiculous ones that would make you crazy.

Treatment you expect from clients — and saying no to rudeness, unreasonableness, demandingness (is that a word?) and any other behavior that disrespects you as a professional.

Getting the message across

You can use your website to present your policies on these kinds of topics, as well as creating a template for responding to messages so you’re prepared to deal with challenges when they occur instead of feeling as if you’re a deer in the headlights of an unreasonable, confusing or inappropriate request. Here are a few suggestions for relaying your “just say no” message without actually saying no (at least, not upfront).

Posting work hours

The best way to head off client calls or messages at hours when you prefer not to be available is to put your “office hours” at your website (you do have your own website, of course). Many colleagues use their websites to let potential and current clients know that they aren’t available on weekends or outside specific hours.

Some people will still push that envelope, but posting your office hours means you have a way to push back. It’s also possible to set up a form of autoresponse that says something like “Thank you for your inquiry. I will respond at 9 a.m. of the next business day to discuss your project.”

You also can still do work outside those posted hours if and when you want — or need — to do so. That can mean saying no to the client but yes to whatever you have to do for a project or deadline to work in your favor.

Choosing your projects

Many colleagues prefer not to work on projects with content that is erotic, violent, racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or involves some other aspect that might be difficult to read. That’s our right. Some of us also have specific preferences for the genres we want to work on: fiction vs. nonfiction, young adult vs. adult or middle grade, fantasy, sci-fi, memoir, etc. You can make those go/no-go decisions as your business policy, post them at your website and incorporate them into your e-mail template for responding to potential clients. Like posting your office hours, that can say no for you.

Again, some people just don’t read such material and might contact you anyhow with the offer of work you don’t want, for whatever reason. You don’t even have to quote a reason, but it’s immensely helpful to be able to couch your no in terms of “Thank you for your inquiry, but as you can see from my website, I don’t work on projects such as this.”

Standing up for your rates

Most of us start out charging at the lower end of rates or accepting salaries at the low end of the bar for a variety of reasons, from lack of experience to lack of confidence. If you haven’t had any formal training or experience in your corner of the editorial world, are just launching a freelance business, want to try working in a new genre or topic area, or have no way of confirming that you’re good at what you do (or want to do), it makes sense to charge less rather than more. That goes for salary levels when you’re job-hunting in the traditional work world, as well as for freelancing.

Keep in mind that if you under-charge, you run the risk of spending so much time on low-paying projects to generate enough income to pay your bills that you won’t have the time or energy to find better-paying work.

Just be sure to, first of all, research rates through professional organizations and resources (such as Writer’s Market information, the Editorial Freelancers Association chart of common rates, conversations with colleagues, etc.) for a sense of what you might be able to charge based on your training, experience and skills.

Second, look for ways to defend what you want or need to charge. Your rates or salary should reflect that combination of training, experience and skill level with the added factor of what you need to cover your expenses and have something left for fun. An American Editor founder Rich Adin calls this your effective hourly rate: the income you have to generate to live your life on a level that is not just sufficient but rewarding; a rate based on you, not on someone else, whether a colleague or a client.

If you’re low on training, get some. Look to professional associations, college certificate programs and business resources to do two things: improve your knowledge and skills, and bolster your credibility. If you’re low on experience, look for ways to do more editorial work, even if it’s on a volunteer basis or at a starting-out rate. If your skills seem below par, look for volunteer opportunities, whether with a professional association or a charity you believe in, to do the kind of work you’re interested in and build up those skills. You might even look for a mentor who could help you strengthen your overall knowledge and specific areas of weakness.

The more you can show that you’re skilled and qualified, the easier it will be to say no to prospective clients that only pay peanuts.

Practice makes perfect

Because the necessity to say no is going to crop up for all of us, be prepared. Write out a script for how to turn down work that isn’t right for you, rates that don’t respect you, deadlines that are impossible for you to meet, etc. It can be brief. It doesn’t have to go into any detail or offer any excuses for your no. You might also want to create a backup script for the insistent client who doesn’t want to hear your no.

If you think about and plan for these moments beforehand, it will be much easier to stand up for what you want your business and your reputation to represent.

The bottom line

So how do all these aspects of saying no contribute to establishing your reputation?

Steeling yourself to say no when appropriate creates the impression of someone who is confident enough to have standards and stand up for them. Someone who is strong enough to resist pressure to behave in ways that would undermine their success and their ability to continually improve the quality of their editorial business. Someone who is more than reliable and skilled.

If you develop your ability to say no, you will establish your reputation as someone who is not only an editorial professional worth hiring, but one who can’t be scammed, scolded, underpaid or pushed around. That’s a reputation worth having.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and — as of 2019 — owner of An American Editor. She also created and co-hosts the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com), sponsored by An American Editor. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

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