Sample Phrases to Politely Turn Down New Projects

Yesterday, I had talked about when (and why) you should consider turning down new projects. Today I’d like to give you some sample messaging around this topic and point out why it’s a good idea to come up with a strategy to turn down work. Regardless of your reasoning why you want to turn down work, it’s often a good idea to communicate something back for several reasons ranging from professionalism to preventing email miscommunication.

Smart Victorian Lady’s Polite RefusalThe tendency to turn down projects is to say something generic like, “I’m booked working on other projects.” If you have a blog, online journal, or socially network on MySpace, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. and you put yourself out there saying that you’re looking for work, make sure that your public profile matches what you’re telling people who want to hire you. This may seem like a no-brainer, but please: do not make the mistake of begging people for work and then turning someone down because you don’t want to work for them. The “I’m-too-busy” excuse really makes you look bad–especially when the person you turned down reads what you’re up to. Of course, there is the flip side when you are “that” busy. When that happens, be clear and be honest; there is no guarantee that the other person on the other end of the computer won’t misinterpret what you’re saying, but there is really very little you can do about that.

Here are a few samples of how you can politely turn down “new” work for different reasons ranging from time constraints to concerns about whether or not the publisher will pay:

    (1) When Time is the Issue (You Don’t Have Any to Spare):

      At this time, I have previous commitments to fulfill through August 31st and would be unable to meet your deadline of June 30th. Would you have the flexibility to move your deadline? If not, I hope that you keep me in mind for future projects and I would like to touch base with you again.

    (2) When Working for “Free” is the Concern (You Don’t See Any Benefit to Working for Free):

      While I do not typically work on unpaid assignments due to time and budget constraints, I would be willing to negotiate for a smaller word count. Do you accept reprints of previously published work? If this does not meet your publication’s needs, I would be happy to promote your publication elsewhere to help find someone else that might be interested within the writing community.

    (3) When Getting Paid is a Worry (Publisher has a Bad Reputation):

      I appreciate your offer of $X for your upcoming publication, and my understanding is that I will be paid 90 days after the publication date. Since this project will be a big time commitment for me and I will be unable to take on other paid projects during that six month period, would you be willing to re-negotiate the payment schedule?

    (4) When Your Skillset is Inadequate (You Know You Won’t Meet the Deadline):

      I am flattered that you have considered me as an author for your project. To ensure that we have the best communication possible, I would like to be upfront and let you know that I am not as familiar with your product as I would like to be. My concern, at this time, is that I’m not sure if I’ll be able to successfully meet your deadline because it may take more time than I had initially expected to learn more about your product. What are your expectations of me on this project? Do you have some amount of flexibility on the project due date?

    (5) When You’ve Over-committed (You’ve Book a New Gig and Shouldn’t Have):

      After reviewing my schedule, I realized that I had made an oversight in scheduling. One of my prior commitments has taken longer than expected, and I will not be able to work on any new projects until July 15th. I estimate that your project will take me 25 hours to complete, provided there are no revisions. How does this fit within your schedule?

You’ll notice here that I’ve recommended asking for additional information from the editor, and that I am pretty transparent about what I need to get done. Every writer is different, but I believe that honesty is the key to a successful business relationship–especially when communicating via email. Written words do matter and in my opinion, polite, professionally-written words set you up for success.

I can’t think of a better reason to decide up front what you will or won’t work on based on the strength of your reputation. If you’re a star, great! You probably know what projects you’ll take on and which ones you won’t. If you’re not, remember that it’s a lot harder to manage your reputation when you have no rep to manage. There is nothing worse than pissing someone off, even if it’s by accident, who has a better rep or is more well-known than you. Sure, there are ways of dealing with that but remember, work is a lot harder to come by when you’re just starting out.

By establishing guidelines for yourself and learning how to say “No” when something doesn’t fit within your professional goals, you will avoid a lot of miscommunication, confusion, and heartache for yourself. Maybe you don’t want to work with a publisher because you know they don’t pay; maybe you have no desire to write for a fledging webzine because you feel you’re too good to be seen in that space. Whatever the reason, you’ll want to tread carefully to make sure you don’t come across as an elitist jerk.

Next week I’ll be covering more about what the benefits and drawbacks of writing for “free.” I eluded to this in point number two and will talk about this aspect because it’s something that comes up often. I’ll also be talking about some free tools to help you blog and places you can buy used books online for your research.

Thanks for sticking with my blog, cheers to your success!

5 Responses to Sample Phrases to Politely Turn Down New Projects
  1. Karen Swim

    This was excellent advice and I loved the messaging. I have had to turn down projects and agree there is an art to graciously turning down a project with your reputation intact. Even if you are turning down a project and are praying the person never contacts you again, it’s important to remain professional. Thanks for the great tips!

  2. [...] post a awhile back about when to say no. Monica Valentinelli also posted suggestions on how to... brazencareerist.com/2008/08/15/5-signs-that-this-isnt-the-gig-for-you
  3. Antique Ring

    I usually do not comment on blog posts but I found this quite interesting, so here goes. Thanks! Regards, P.

  4. Mitzie Standafer

    Interesting article. Were did you got all the information from… 🙂



Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore and game store near you.

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