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Notes on saying no

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Guercio
I’m not a passive person, but I have a really hard time saying “No.”

Especially when it comes to work.

When an assignment or gig comes my way, I can almost always find a way to justify it:

“It’ll be great experience!”

“That byline will lead to a better byline.”

“Ok, so the pay’s bad, but at least it pays something. And I need something right now.”

“I’ll learn something by working on this project.”

“I’ll make a contact or make a connection that will lead to something bigger/better.”

“This will give me a chance to publish a piece that’s been collecting dust since I haven’t been able to place it elsewhere.”

And so on.

None of these reasons is bad, but as the primary breadwinner of a 3 (soon to be 4) person family living in New York City, I’ve increasingly needed to be more thoughtful about that whole “work smarter, not harder” koan. And working smarter typically means holding out for the assignments and gigs that pay better.


Saying no isn't always easy.

Saying no isn’t always easy.

A couple weeks ago, I received an invitation from an editor to become an “expert” on a particular place I know well for a publication that has a fine reputation. The position would involve writing a couple blog posts each month, as well as answering readers’ questions about the destination, and, of course, promoting my work on social media. For all this, I’d receive less than $300 a month, though, the editor enthused, I’d be able to earn bonuses based on traffic. In other words, the more people I pushed to my work on the site, the more money I’d be able to make. I’d occasionally get some perks– a spa treatment, maybe, or a hotel stay, or a meal– on the publication’s dime.

For those of you are well-established in your freelance writing career, especially if you’ve worked in the online world with its traffic bonus structures that aren’t so different from pyramid schemes, you’ll know that this offer is a no-brainer of a “No.” But I actually considered it for a day. Here was my thinking:

“I can write about X destination more often!”
“If I combine this gig with 5 other gigs that pay the same thing, I could pay our rent!”
“Yes, the pay’s low, but at least it’s consistent.”

I didn’t talk it over with Francisco or anyone else, but as I mulled over my response, I received email from two other friends who’d been offered the same position for different destinations. Both had realized how much of a pittance they’d be making and they dashed off polite, professional “Thanks but no thanks” messages. That made it much easier for me to open up a new message and write:

“After reading the style guide and looking at the scope of the expectations, I’ve decided that I can’t sign on for this project, as fun as it sounds. As primary breadwinner and mom of a 3 year old, I’ve got to start turning down projects that don’t make financial sense for my family. I hope you’ll keep me in mind if other projects that might be a good fit come up, and I wish you the best; the site looks fantastic.”

It felt good to plug my ears to the siren song of the consistent income, when I know that the massive, almost-never-worth-it trade-off is having even less time to work on the projects and pieces I’m really passionate about.

Do you have a hard time saying no to gigs that don’t pay well? Feel free to vent– or offer a dissenting opinion–in the comments.


12 responses »

  1. I have found that even with “consistent” paying jobs, the pay may come at such random intervals that it can be hard to budget or plan. It can be difficult to set up a parameter with a prospective employer stating ” I expect payment within 30 days of posting/publication or I charge a 15% late fee.”

    I insisted upon being paid at a net 30 rate from my employer of fours years and was promptly replaced by a syndicated columnist. The stress of not knowing when/if my paychecks would arrive is now gone- but unfortunately, has left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. I have decided to hold firm, knowing that I and my family deserve a level of consistency.

    I have started to do this on a freelance basis- (2 times since the start of 2013) and found that on both occasions, I received two opposite results: one agreed and I was paid promptly, the other told me that, “they had never heard of something like that from a writer and that they were not in a position to control when I was paid BUT to PLEASE be assured that they paid their contractors.” I stated, ” I am sorry but this is how is work.”

    Every other business charges fees – I have made it a clear part of my contract for work. I have chosen to be the kind of savvy business writer that I would want to work with/for. I have found that I love a deadline for copy completion and a deadline for monetary compensation. It clears up the sticky, messy shit that has left me in the past, feeling resentful and anxious.

    Dues-payment, through taking low-paying or volunteer work is ok for a time. But it needs to be something that incites passion and not desperation.

    I am glad you said no to being an “expert”. And loved the fact that you dropped the “koan” bomb. Love that meditation.

    • Julie Schwietert Collazo


      I think it’s fascinating–and admirable–that you’ve taken a hard line with editors and publishers. They’re certainly not used to being held to the same kinds of standards to which other departments/positions/employees are held with respect to payment. At the same time, though, they’re often working within systems that they don’t control and over which they have little influence. Contract employees/freelancers are often paid on a monthly cycle or 6-week cycle… or, as you know well enough, a much longer cycle. I think they key to being comfortable about the pay structure is fairly simple: it simply involves asking what the pay structure/cycle is, which writers don’t do often enough. Pay cycle and terms should be part of the initial conversation about whether a writer enters into an agreement and relationship with a publication. That way, at least, you know when to expect payment for the work you’ve done and you can budget accordingly. Also, you know when you can start putting their feet to the fire for not making good on the terms of the agreement. I don’t think we should ever have to beg for our money or make justifications about why we want to be paid; as you said, we deserve a certain level of consistency, just as any other employee does.

  2. Thanks for this, Julie! I chronically have a hard time saying no. I always end up rationalizing it something like “well, I wouldn’t have that extra $XX anyways…I might as well just take it if it’s offered to me.” But, as you pointed out and I’ve realized, the time it takes to complete assignments for little pay is time that I could spend searching for projects that pay a lot more, take up less time, and bring me much more joy. I think my often-irrational fear–that I won’t find those projects, that my pitches will get rejected–is really at the root of why I accept assignments that come my way and might not match my true interests or financial/time needs. For me, it’s recognizing those fears for what they are that has helped me start to say no more often.

    • Julie Schwietert Collazo


      Rejection and fear are definitely part of the dynamic. It has helped me enormously, though, to have other writers I trust to be able to talk things through with when these types of offers present themselves. Knowing that those other writers were turning down the assignment helped me feel more confident about my own decision.

  3. Such a relief reading this post as I have similar difficulties with saying no, and coming up with what I feel are valid reasons for doing something, but which are more like excuses to distract me from the fact that, yet again, I’ve been unable to stand my ground. Thanks for the insight! This is really helpful 😉

  4. Good for you for saying no. If enough of us do it, maybe companies like this will be forced to raise their rates.

  5. Thank you for your honest posts. You really help so many of us, who may be in similar positions, think different. Your respect and honour for the industry has influenced me alot. (PS if only they couldn’t added a ‘0’ to that offer of pay!)

  6. This hit so close to home. I’ve been trying to carve out time to work on pitches for some higher-paying assignments, but I need to pay the mortgage so I’ve taken on a string of smaller jobs for mediocre fees that are eating up all my waking hours … thanks for the call to jump off the hamster wheel.

    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      You’re welcome, Christine. It’s a constant negotiation, isn’t it? What gave me more incentive to say no was knowing that other colleagues had– and hoping that, as a result, our collective decline of this assignment would at least give the publishers pause to consider the pay structure they’d set up.


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