Finding constant work is key aspect for most freelancers, often causing them to accept work that is not necessarily profitable or within their talent scope. This is not always a bad thing since such work is sometimes necessary (or at least instructive) during the initial growth of a freelance career. But hopefully, as your freelance business grows, you will begin to elicit more requests than you have time to attend to. So it helps to set some loose guidelines in determing what freelance work you will turn down. Such predetermined guidelines are necessary because people will naturally say yes to most if not all freelance requests, even if the work may negatively affect the freelancer or the client. So let's look at a few aspects of freelance work and see why certain work should sometimes be avoided.
Kindness can be a two-edged sword -- it's great to be excited about helping others who need a website but it's not so great to have you or your family's income suffer as a result. Unfortunately, many small businesses don't assign much value to websites, and believe that a few hundred dollars is more than enough to pay for an entire website. Furthermore, I've often heard individuals outside the industry express surprise when they find out our hourly rates or learn that some websites or print designs can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. But from a full-time freelancer's perspective, even if every one of your jobs net you a few thousand dollars, you still need to book and complete 20+ projects a year to compete with a salary in the corporate world.
Every freelancer should know what kind of jobs are profitable enough. Figure out how much you hope to make in a given time span and let that number guide your decisions about project acceptances. Furthermore, figure out a billing structure that allows you to keep up with living expenses and be wary of projects that deviate greatly from your structure. I personally use a simple 1/2 at start, 1/2 at finish payment structure for smaller projects. For larger projects, I'll break up payments into thirds with the second payment coming after a middle milestone. Ongoing hourly maintenance work is billed monthly. Rarely will I start a project without an invoice (and never for new clients). So if a potential project is too low in value or cannot meet cash flow requirements, I'll pass.
The creative industry, which includes everything from branding to print to websites, is a very big world, and both the freelancer and client should be aware of this fact. As much as I enjoy photography and print design, I have realized I cannot compete in quality or fees with most of the excellent workers in these fields. Even as a freelancer who focuses on websites, there is still a wide range of subjects to cover, and there are certain technologies I am much weaker in than others. Such realization of your limitations is good, and should admonish you to focus on what you can be excellent at. If I receive a request for work that uses a technology that I cannot adequately utilize well, I will tell the potential client up front. Of course, you can always use outsourcing to complete jobs that you have no expertise in, but in general, I try not to accept work that I can't be excellent in.
Building a sustainable freelancing career takes patience and wise decisions. It's not always about taking a profitable job. When looking at any project, you should consider two aspects.
I try and see if the client has the potential to send me recurring work in the future. Acquiring new work is a costly endeavour and anytime I can generate business from loyal clients, I am doing well. But if a project is low-income and a "one time deal," I will often pass.
Secondly, I consider whether the type of work is the kind I can build on and maintain moving forward. I've used little PHP and Java in my work, and although I can complete projects that require these, I'm not sure I want to be their go-to guy in the future since it's not my bread-and-butter.
At the end of the day, every freelancer has to live with his decision about the jobs he will turn down. There may be additional factors affecting such decisions such as stress potential or schedule flexibility. Just remember that knowing when to pass on a project is as important as knowing when to accept one.