Why I Don’t Need to be a Know-It-All Writer

Ask any experienced writer and I’m sure they’ll be able to tell you a tale from their newbie days, where they succumbed to the temptation to keep income flowing by taking every writing job offered. That’s a mistake, but it’s something writers often learn the hard way.

Why I Don't Need to be a Know-It-All Writer

Here’s a short story from my early days of freelancing, when I was working regularly for a UK copywriting agency. I never knew what article topics would land in my inbox. I had my specialties (consumer finance, home and lifestyle topics and web and social media) but there were no guarantees. And sometimes I’d be assigned a client who was running a number of different websites. One of those taught me a lesson.

A Lesson from My Freelancing Past

The writing job seemed pretty innocuous – five general articles on sewing bundled into a much bigger home and lifestyle job. It wasn’t a topic I’d have chosen, but I felt I couldn’t say no in order to protect the rest of the work that I was doing for them. I tried to turn it down, but the agency insisted and in the end, I caved.

That was the big mistake. The articles turned out to be more technical than general, which meant I had to dig deep to do the research and get to grips with the topic. In the end the articles took double the research time and double the writing time. They also felt like a chore because I had no interest in the topic. In the end, I delivered a competent job (that was why they paid me the small bucks) but I learned never to take that kind of job again. It’s something that is guided my writing career ever since.

So what happens when clients ask me to do something I don’t know enough about? One thing’s for sure; I don’t pretend to have expertise I can’t back up. Instead, I am honest with my clients both about what I can do – and what I can’t. I am honest about the results they can expect when they work with me and those that are completely out of both our hands. And I’m honest enough to say when someone else would be a better choice for a particular job than I would.

What to Say When Turning Down Clients

It may seem strange to turn down work, but that honesty pays off. When current clients ask me to do something that’s outside my expertise, I refer them to someone else. I know a lot of writers and other creative professionals who can handle just about anything clients want. When potential new clients give me a shopping list of potential jobs, I will happily refer them on if it’s beyond the scope of my services. Sure, it takes a certain steely nerve to tell a client “no” but here are some examples of things that I’ve actually said:

  • I’m not an expert in this business, but if you’re willing to brief me then I can do a competent job of writing about it. (I use this one if it’s a topic I know about but for a new business sector.)
  • I’m not an expert in this topic, but I know someone who is and I can introduce you.
  • I no longer provide the service, but I know an excellent service provider who will do a great job for you.

The Payoff In Turning Down Writing Work

The Payoff In Turning Down Writing WorkIn the long run, avoiding work that I am not expert in works better because:

  • I don’t spend hours trying to get creative blood from a stone.
  • I get to help another freelancer or service provider.
  • My client gets an excellent service.
  • I have better relationships with my clients.

And there are even more benefits. I run my business with integrity, I avoid doing things that don’t make me happy and I help my clients and other service providers at the same time. Most clients just want to get the job done right. If you can help by referring another expert, that works for them.

And let’s face it; it’s good karma, too. You may not get the cash this time round, but you definitely get the brownie points. I’ve had people I referred on come back to me years later when they are ready for a service in which I AM an expert.

What do you think?

This post is part of the Word Carnival, a monthly business blog carnival featuring some of the smartest people I know. Read other posts on this month’s topic: Being an Expert Doesn’t Mean You Know Everything.

Book image: Public Domain Pictures

About Sharon Hurley Hall

Sharon Hurley Hall has been mentoring writers here at Get Paid To Write Online since 2005 to help them improve and build sustainable and successful writing careers. Check me out on sharonhh.com. Feel free to connect with me online on Google+.


  1. Great story, Sharon, that shows the downside of caving in to do something we really don’t want to do.

    Early in my career, I had a similar experience; however, it was in my niche but something I simply did not want to do. I caved because it was so early in my freelancing career and it was from an existing client.

    The project got more involved than expected and on top of it all was micro-managed – something I really, really hate.

    This experience showed me that even projects within my niche should not automatically be agreed to and it’s okay to turn them down. My mental health is worth the loss of income. πŸ˜‰

    For me, that’s the beauty of freelancing – the freedom to turn down projects that aren’t a good fit – whatever the reason.

  2. Hi Sharon. Nice article. I think the traits you mentioned above are spot on. Writers don’t have to be know it all’s in a specific subject. They just have to be articulate and have good research and interpretation skills. I’ve hired many writers over at StrongWhispers.com with mixed results. I’m trying the something similar in my current project workonlineblog.com but with a slightly different intention/angle. Will see how it pans out.

    Take it easy.

  3. Great advice and all the right reasons too. I am a big believer of karma and like to do a good job rather than lots of average jobs. True…. its not about the money the relationship matters.
    PS. I couldn’t share it on fb as it says the link is broken. …I was trying through my phone. Could you check.

    • I agree, Inderpreet – do a great job and you will get the reward eventually (even if it’s in a different form from you expect). Thanks for the heads-up about FB – I expect it’s a FB problem which happens sometimes.

  4. Love this Sharon and I so agree, honestly saves a whole lotta stress. I have had the same situation where I referred to someone else who needed to put together a plan first and then they came back to work with me. Good Karma is extremely important for everything I do it always pays off in the end.

  5. Great post, Sharon! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights on being an expert. I enjoyed reading this.

  6. Ah, this is a lesson that so many of us learn the hard way! It is hard when you’re under pressure, whether to make money or to satisfy some demand, to turn work down. The best thing we ever did in our business was narrow our services down. We started out with much the same approach – we’ll just do whatever someone needs. Some of it we weren’t as skilled in so we ended up looking to outsource it anyway, some of it was horribly boring. There has been more than one time where I said “I just don’t want to do this.” It’s not my core competence and even if I could do a decent job it’s not comfortable or even as effective as if someone else had done it. So I take your approach now which is a big, fat no, followed by a referral to someone who can!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Carol Lynn. What I love about the new approach is that everyone ends up happy (and I avoid being overstressed or bored). πŸ™‚

  7. Enjoyed every word, Sharon!

    I totally agree with you here …
    “I avoid doing things that don’t make me happy” The older I get, the more importance I place on how I “feel” about projects. My intuition never lies.

    And, yeah … “karma” … that thing with NO expiration date. LOL!

    When it comes to putting food on the table, it’s hard to turn down work, isn’t it? But I think it’s equally vital to feed your soul by having integrity on your plate. πŸ™‚

    • So true, Melanie. Last year I got an approach from a client on the other side of the world. I could tell from the first conversation that there were going to be issues – and there were. I took a couple of calls and responded to a couple of emails (and even did one piece of work), but in the end referred the client to someone in the same neck of the woods who could provide the kind of attention that client needed.

      • In your line of work, Sharon, seems to me it’s always a “judgement call”.
        Good for you for making the right call with this particular [faraway] client. You probably saved yourself lots of sleepless nights! πŸ™‚

  8. I love the four payoffs to turning down work, and already shared your graphic. By (rightly) calling it a payoff you’re taking the sting out of the perception of lost money. I say perception because as you’ve rightly described it really does cost you in the end. I too try to offer others who can provide that service, or at a minimum give advice about the types of questions to ask and credentials to require.

    • While putting the right value on your services is essential, money isn’t everything (can I say that to the Numbers Whisperer, lol?). If you can combine integrity, job satisfaction, client satisfaction AND great pay, then that’s a win.

  9. Judas Kimmy says:

    I found this post great. The thing I liked most is how to turn down a client if you aren’t an expert at any specific topic. As a Technical Writer, I still get numerous article writing projects from clients who don’t even bother telling any details for the topic. Neither I nor the client knows the details in such situation. So, I do the same as you used to do. I have to dig deep for finding information on such topics.
    Thanks for sharing your past with us! It will help many writers.

  10. You’re so right! Connecting the ‘doing everything’ with major time loss is so well put. I need to remember that.

  11. “Most clients just want to get the job done right” So logical and so true. We certainly ignore this mantra at our peril. I would love to include simple, but wonderful lines like this into an ode to great business. We need reminding like this, thanks Sharon.

  12. Great article, Sharon. It’s so true. Hard work is one thing. Painful work you have no interest in it is another! It can be hard to turn down work when you need the money, but it’s always better when you do. I think that’s something every freelancer learns the hard way.

  13. Saying no to potential clients is one of the most difficult things any newbie freelancer (or small business owner) can learn. And it all starts with one premise:

    People are a lot more than the sum of their checkbooks.

    If you understand and accept that, your business will run so much smoother. At first, you sometimes don’t really have the choice – you have to take what you can get, gag down your ramen, and do your best not to murder the people who send “URGENT” emails at midnight.

    So much of what we do has to be rooted in our passion for the thing we’re doing; doing work is so much harder when you have the psychological weight of apathy or indifference or worse: loathing, tied to the thing you’re trying to accomplish.

    I literally hate programming (which is hard for a web developer to admit), but I LOVE solving problems – and solving problems with programming is very, very fun for me. So I hate the tediousness of typing the crap out, getting the semicolon in the right place, but for now – it’s worth it when I get to solve a really difficult problem.

    • I know just how you feel, Nick. I decided a few years back that I would focus on advising people on some of the social media stuff they needed to consider rather than managing it for them – I’m much happier that way. πŸ˜€

  14. I love this post, Sharon! You give so much valuable advice to writers and freelancers of all types. One of the hardest lessons to learn as a freelancer is when to turn down work, but you have to trust your gut.

    I had someone approach me to do some copywriting work about a year ago. This client instantly launched into sending me 10-15 emails per day, requesting immediate responses. After trying to establish expectations with the client (which didn’t help), I ended up telling her nicely that I just didn’t think we were a good fit. I also didn’t recommend her to any of my colleagues because of her problem behavior.

    Sometimes you just can’t “help” a problem client, and it’s best to amicably part ways. Your mental health will thank you! Great post πŸ™‚

    • Yes, over-communication is just as wearing as never hearing from the client, Molly. An amicable parting is definitely the best approach. πŸ™‚