The magic phrase that lets you say no to copywriting clients (without burning your reputation forever)

Could you tell a client no and keep them smiling?.

It’s a well-known marketing mantra: Only work with your ideal clients. The flip side of this is to say no to clients who aren’t right for you and your business.

As a seasoned copywriter, I’ve got a checklist of warning signs that let me know when a potential customer and I aren’t right for each other. If you’re a new copywriter, you might be thinking, “Say no to customers? I wish”!

But… it will happen.

The truth is that the wrong copywriting clients will do more damage than good. Why? Because you don’t ‘get’ them and they don’t ‘get’ you, which results in…

  • Spending way more time than you quoted on project management and revisions.
  • A confidence crisis that makes you rethink your copywriting skills and processes.
  • An unhappy client.
  • An unhappy copywriter.

Unless you catch it early, by the time you decide it’s not working you think it’s too late to back out.

Pro tip: It’s actually never too late to back out of a copywriting project. Lose money before you lose your mind.

Your goal as a copywriter is to develop your own early warning system for the wrong type of clients.

Signs you’re talking to the wrong copywriting client


They haggle with you on your quote

Someone who doesn’t respect your price doesn’t respect your value. If your copywriting quote is above your client’s budget but they still want to work with you, reduce the scope of the project before you reduce your hourly rate.

They won’t pay the deposit

If a soon-to-be client won’t pay the project deposit, you can count on spending time chasing up the final payment too. Trust me, make the deposit non-negotiable. And call it a commencement invoice to give it a great sense of action.

They don’t have time to complete the copywriting brief

You can’t write great copy out of thin air. If a client doesn’t have (or won’t make) time to give you the information you need to write the copy, you can bet the project is going to drag on. And that time is money out of your pocket.

They are rude

This is about personality, and getting along with your copywriting client is just as important as the money stuff. You don’t need to be best friends—but work should fun! For you and your client.

I invite you to add to this list to create your own copywriting client checklist. Hopefully, these points will help you avoid some of the pain I experienced over the years!

But, how exactly do you turn copywriting work away?

What about the dreaded famine of freelance life?

Shouldn’t you make hay while the copywriting work is available?

Can I mix any more metaphors?

Two strategies to turn away work without losing face

If you’re feeling uncertain about saying no straight out, you can use one of these two strategies.

  1. Name a ridiculous price. Jack your copywriting quote up so high, they’d have to be a little crazy to say yes. Beware, they might say yes! Hopefully, the sweet price you named will sweeten any tough moments along the way.
  1. Name a ridiculous lead time. You can say you’re happy to help, but you can’t get to the project for several months. The danger, of course, is that they will wait, but you have plenty of time to steady yourself.

If the thought of working with some copywriting clients makes you feel like your gut is filled with bricks and no amount of money or time will help, heed the warning. Just suck it up and say NO.

Now we get to the meat of the matter…

How do you turn work away without burning your reputation?

Is it possible to say no to a client so they actually think you’re amazing?


My magic phrase for saying no, with style.

Are you ready?

“I’m not the right copywriter for your project”.

Say it again with me.

“I’m not the right copywriter for your project”.

You can even add in an apology: “I’m sorry, but I’m not the right copywriter for your project”.

This phrase works so well because:

  • It acknowledges that copywriting isn’t a one-size-fits-all skill.
  • It flatters a client that their project requires the skills of a specialist.

It might be enough to leave it at that. Or, you have to explain why just use a few phrases such as:

“I think you’ll be more successful with a copywriter experienced in [insert area]”.

“I’m not confident that I have the right skills to achieve your objectives”.

These statements tell the client that you care more about their results than your ego. Even if it’s not true, it sounds amazing.

And if it’s about personality—and you’re getting pushed to explain why—just explain it.

“I don’t think we will work well together—and to achieve the best possible results, it’s important that you work well with your copywriter”.

Then you stop talking.

Tips for making this magic phrase work for you

  • Be polite. Always be polite.
  • Be grateful—and thank them for considering you.
  • Refer them to others. That’s right.

That last tip takes you from being a professional copywriter to being an awesome, helpful super-copywriter that this client will refer to their friends. Because the clients you say no to could know your ideal client! That’s why it’s worth your time and effort to leave them smiling (even when you’re gritting your teeth).

So remember, when your gut is screaming no, smile and say, “I’m not the right copywriter for your project, but I can refer you to other copywriters who will be able to help”.

Have you got your own tips for turning work away gracefully? I’d love to hear them!


20 Responses

  1. So true Belinda. sometimes, personalities or communication styles just don’t meld. While you may not be a great fit for your client, another copywriter could fit brilliantly.

    It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, so we shouldn’t feel bad about turning someone away. And it sure doesn’t hurt to refer to another copywriter – the favour is always appreciated (so long as you fully disclose the reason you’re referring).

    Certainly I’ve used the “I’m not sure I’m the best fit for your project, but I’m happy to refer you to someone who is” line before and it gives all parties a graceful out.

  2. Absolutely Anna. It’s hard to say no though, especially when we’re starting out and it feels like we can’t afford to be choosy. One of the biggest lessons I have learned over the years is that it’s okay to say no, even half way through the project. It’s obviously not your first response but it’s way better to lose some money than lose your mind.

    Thanks for stopping by 😀

  3. So very true, and your advice applies to so many other areas of business. I had a client in the IT business many years ago who said (with unconscious rhyming) “We didn’t start to grow until I learnt to say no!”

  4. After learning the hard way over the years I try to let my gut decide as it’s rarely been wrong. In fact, I turned a job down just the other day as I got the feeling from the initial communication that the client was going to want way more than his pound of flesh for a fairly small job. Interestingly enough, it was a referral from another copywriter…

  5. I’d definitely add that nagging feeling in your gut to the signs that you should turn down a client. Whenever I ignored it in the early years in my business I eventually had to “break up” with that client anyway. I’d have saved a lot of time, effort and frustration if I’d had the sense to pay more attention to my instincts. Love your winning tips for saying “no”. I have been doing this but not in such a systematic way. I do love a good process!

    1. Thanks Robbie!

      I agree about trusting your gut although I only really learned to trust it after a few years in business. Until then I thought I could solve anything with enough friendliness and a strong process. That’s not always the case though!!

  6. Hi Belinda
    Really true Belinda. sometimes, personalities or communication styles just don’t meld. While you may not be a great fit for your client, another copywriter could fit brilliantly. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault, so we shouldn’t feel bad about turning someone away. And it sure doesn’t hurt to refer to another copywriter – the favour is always appreciated

    1. Thanks Priya. I think it can be appreciated from all sides too. The copywriter gets a job, the client gets a copywriter and you don’t have to stress out about a client that isn’t right for you. Winning!

  7. As a copywriter, we must try aiming at satisfying our clients under all circumstances. But a client also has few responsibilities. This particular write-up teaches us how to detect a wrong client, and how exactly we can refuse to offer services to him or her without obviously hampering our reputation in the market. Please give it a read now.

  8. Sometimes a writing project is not a good fit depending on the client and their expectations. Another good way of solving the problem is to give them a more expensive quote, and mention the reason why is because it is not in your area of expertise, in other words you don’t feel that you are the right copywriter for the job. If they still take the proposal it will be more worth it to you.

  9. Now what if all of your clients are on a copywriting platform and you don’t control the outcome. You can still say no to certain people from the get-go, BUT and this is important … if you have decided on just 1 revision as part of the quote, they can dangle (and do dangle) the threat of a bad review on the platform if you don’t keep revising, which they often hear as ‘re-writing’. This is driving me bananas. Any suggestions to a new freelancer not yet ready to leave the comfort of a platform that provides steady work??

    1. Good question. I hear you that off-platform is intimidating but I would honestly concentrate on boosting your marketing off that platform. It’s not the only game in town and clearly the buyers have all the power. Build relationships with people who can refer work to you – designers, agencies, other copywriters.

      Relationships don’t come in an instant… they are nurtured and involve a lot of giving. Meet people. Try and help them. Be online. Be generous. Get off those platforms 🙂

  10. Thanks for the advice. I’m just starting out in copywriting and I have dreaded working with a-holes. I feel much better now about being picky about who I work with. I already have a “real” job that’s not fun and I want copywriting to be fun.

    Thanks again!

    1. It’s hard to curate our clients when we’re starting out but invest in your marketing and your craft and you’ll have a steady stream of clients you WANT to work with “) — Belinda

  11. Content marketing is indeed important because it helps to improve conversions because it allows you to connect with and educate your leads and customers. Not only are you working to build trust and relationships, but you are also encouraged conversions by giving consumers the information they need to make an educated purchasing decision
    This pandemic, taught me to give time to myself and learn more about myself. I took advantage to take a Digital Media , so I could do something very productive and enhance my knowledge. It is best if we can maximize our time to learn something new that can help us to develop ourselves to become a better version of you.

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