Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Just Say…A) Yes or B) No

It’s time for me to come clean about my biggest problem as a freelancer – saying “no”. I confess that I am terrible at it. I have a lot of energy and I manage to get many things done, and that combined with my desire to please makes me accept many of the projects people offer me, no matter how much else I have going on in my life. When a customer contacts me about a job that I know I have the skills for, I tend to just say “yes,” even if I know I have many other things to do or if I have planned to take a day off.

Some other freelancers I’ve spoken to have mentioned that they have a similar problem. After all, since most of us freelancers support ourselves with the income we bring in from our work and since we never know if assignments might stop coming in, we tend to take on jobs when they are offered. We worry that if we say “no” to a customer now, that person will find another translator and never return to us, and thus we will have lost more than just the one assignment. Friends and relatives of mine who are not freelancers do not understand what it is like to not have a steady paycheck, and these are the people who always say to me, “But it’s so easy to say “no.” Just do it!” I can point out, though, that this concern about having a steady income is in fact what stops many wannabe-translators from achieving their dreams.

I’ve been working on improving this bad habit of mine. On my recent birthday, for example, a customer I’ve done editing for before asked me to edit an entire book within a 24-hour period. Obviously, that was a ridiculous assignment anyway, and I told the company in question that my professional pride would not allow me to accept editing a book so quickly since I knew it was not possible to do a good enough job given the time constraints, but I also reminded myself that I had promised myself a day off for my birthday, and that I had to turn down the job for that reason as well.

The next day, however, I was back to my usual behavior, and I accepted a translation job and an editing job, though I knew I really did not have the time, and that by taking on that work, I was ensuring that I would not have any time for pleasure reading for the next week or so.

The only situations in which I confidently turn down assignments are if I know I do not have the knowledge or qualifications necessary for a particular job or if the potential customer refuses to pay a reasonable fee or in any other way treats me disrespectfully. When it comes to my own priorities, however, they tend to come last.

So, I ask you other freelancers: When do you say “no” to assignments? How do you do it? And have you noticed whether clients you say “no” to in regard to one particular job still ask you to do other work for them?

I know many of us would benefit from saying “no” more often, but somehow my “no”s tend to turn into “yes”es.


Anonymous said...

I'm also a freelancer, and just like you, I rarely say "no" :(
It's a constant struggle, all the more so since I don't have that many clients: I have only 4-5 regulars, and losing any of those would impact my income significantly.
I usually say "no" only to obviously impossible tasks. For others, I try to re-negotiate the deadlines...

ilda said...

I sympathise with you, as I know how difficult it is to say no, even when time constraints do not allow a yes. Whenever I can, I try to negotiate, and in publishing this is somehow feasible. Recently however, I had to turn down an assignment and this really made me feel like I had lost something...

apscott said...

I'm a freelance translator as well, and I have found that it really helps to have an agenda to note down both job and personal commitments, so that when I receive a request, I can look at the agenda, and if I will not have enough time due to either type of commitment, rather than saying no, I reply "I am busy until ... but if your client can extend the deadline I would be happy to take the job".

This approach works surprisingly well and I have recently had the unusual experience of entire weekends without translating.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comments. You all mention negotiation as your method for dealing with this tricky issue, and I am glad to hear it, because freelancers can feel sometines that they have no power and that they must do whatever the customer says whenever the customer wants it.
I think a deadline can be a hard thing to negotiate about, since customers tend to want their translations done right away (though they don't want to pay a rush fee, but that is another problem) and then you can once again get into the situation where you are afraid to say "no" because the client will go elsewhere and then not return to you. And then you feel, as Ilda pointed out, as though you have lost something.
I do have an agenda, but I often ignore the personal items on there on favor of my clients and their needs!
I'm going to work on negotiating and reprioritizing.

Best wishes,

Eric Dickens said...

I, of course, sympathise with you. I go through this same thing all the time, and I reckon that I'm about twice as old as you.

But that's the point. You don't build up a reputation overnight, and with languages where there is a lot of competition, you will have to work that much harder to keep your head above water financially. Two or three languages means you can spread the load.

Britain is such a cut-throat country for translators because Brits shun languages, but still expect the "glorified typists" that constitute translators, to deliver things within ridiculously short deadlines.

For the sake of your tranquillizer supply, you will simply have to let a few juicy pieces of income pass you by. Greed leads to nervous breakdowns, especially if translation is not your only activity. You will inevitably alienate some customers by saying "no", but these are often people you wouldn't want a long-term translation relationship with.

I have experienced this recently with a quick job which I was well on the way to completing before schedule, when the narcissistic person involved whose adulatory biography was being written by a friend turned on him and demanded that the text had to be written all over again. This, of course left me, the translator, high and dry. All that wasted work.

However tempting it may be to try to keep "well in there" with such people as "they might come in useful", you should be warned that they can treat you in the same shabby way again and again. Translation should not become an exercise in masochism by people who are too eager to say "yes".

B.J. Epstein said...

Good point, Eric. We don't want any translators to have nervous breakdowns -- it simply isn't it worth it. If someone is so desperate for money, perhaps it is time to find a different job or a part-time job rather than to work ridiculous hours for low pay.
Meanwhile, I just accepted two new jobs. So let's all practice together: "No." Let's try again: "No." One more time: "No." This is getting easier!

Best wishes,

Sarah said...

I agree with Eric, people who demand ridiculous deadlines and don't take into account translators' needs will do so time and again.

Personally, I've found that when I've turned down a job if I don't have the time to deliver it within the deadline, the client has appreciated my honesty and has still come back to me with other jobs. Clients do want to build relationships with reliable translators and even if you turn them down when needs be, they will still come back for more!

Likewise for when I have turned down a translation because it is related to a field I don't feel competent to translate - the clients have appreciated the honesty and tried to tailor future requests to my specialisms.

Maybe I've just been lucky, but I don't think we should be too scared to say no :)

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Sarah! Yes, honesty can be both good for business and a way of educating the customer!

Best wishes,