The Joy of Refusal By Wendy J. Meyeroff

It was the early 90’s and after freelancing for a year or two, I had gotten some top-notch assignments; e.g. Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, and Weight Watchers. Still, pay was often less than stellar.

Periodically, something came up that sounded like it might have potential – but the pay stank. Despite various misgivings, at that stage of my career I rarely refused – and kept getting burned.

Changing Tide

Then came the turning point. The editor of a highly respected NYC business magazine had seen a query of mine. He couldn’t use that story but was impressed and wanted to know if I’d tackle something else.

At least I didn’t just yell, “Sure…anything you want!” Instead, I asked, “What do you have in mind?” He wanted a story on the trend towards employee wellness programs, which were first gaining traction as a way to keep down an employer’s health expenses.

His original description asked me to interview several execs–HR people, owners, whoever were instituting this program…and develop 750 words. The fee: $500. Sounded good except:

  1. The editor also wanted 500-word profiles on three different companies that had instituted this policy.
  2. He had no idea where I could find ANY of these sources. Since it was way before the ‘Net, it would probably take a LOT of time/effort to find qualified sources.
  3. He wanted all rights, including “in perpetuity” (at a time when first rights were still fairly common), so I wouldn’t make any residual dollars.
  4. AND…he needed it all in about 10 days!

Basic Arithmetic

This meant I was writing 2250 words at not even 30¢/word. Still, I tell my “Succeeding As a Magazine Writer” class to look beyond the per-word rate and determine what you’re making per hour. One of my first consumer breakthroughs was a weekly health/beauty column that only paid $25/week. But it took two hours or less to write, meaning I made $12.50/hr. – a pretty good rate back then, especially since I had a staff job at the time, so this fee wasn’t feeding my family.

Given the humongous amount of research, interviews, and writing, I’d probably make a horrific hourly rate for this wellness story. The tight deadline meant I was likely to forgo truly profitable work, or put a less-than-stellar effort into something either already paying good money or more likely to reap better rewards later on.

AND he had all rights to the work. I couldn’t recycle – a great way to glean extra money for an otherwise unprofitable assignment. That clause is now difficult to avoid, but the rest? There wasn’t then, and there aren’t now, many good reasons to accept a contract so unrewarding.

What’s YOUR Reward?

There are some reasons to work “on spec” or for a measly fee. Example: building your portfolio. That weekly column showed I was a viable consumer health writer–and led to my work with the major consumer magazines. If that’s how you’re using some dot-coms, fine. Just don’t ignore true money-making options.

Maybe you’re helping a cause or group you believe in. Blogs that arise from passions can lead to amazing careers. You may be able to use free profiles for your PTA’s newsletter as samples to get paid profile work – or even recycle them for pay.

But, if the work DOESN’T build your portfolio, it’s not a cause you’re helping, the timeline is unreasonable, it doesn’t seem recyclable, AND it doesn’t pay well…then why are you taking this job?

Take a Deep Breath and Say…

With chat rooms, it’s now fairly easy to sniff out a “client” that’s likely to stiff you, or otherwise be rewarding. The odds are if something doesn’t seem good, it won’t be. Still, you all have to determine what constitutes an unrewarding job and when you must take one, especially when times are hard. But I could find no good reason for accepting this job. So (not easily), I said, “No”.

And, you know what? I didn’t regret it. Rather, I hung up the phone – and danced around my office in triumph! (Literally.) Refusal can have a very positive effect: it reinforces that you ARE good at what you do, and deserve to be paid accordingly.

So go ahead. Practice saying “No.” Start small: turn down your best friend when she tries to entice you to lunch when you know you’re on deadline. Or refuse that “little favor” your sister says you have time for since you “only work from home”. Eventually turn down the PTA when you no longer have the time to write free newsletter stories. Just rehearse the dreaded “No” and soon you’ll turn down those less-than-worthwhile projects.

Wendy Meyeroff is president of WM Medical Communications, in Baltimore, MD. She supplies not only magazine and newsletter articles to the media, but also to Fortune 500 companies, hospitals, non-profits, et al – along with custom web content, white papers, and other marketing materials.


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