I was talking to one of them a few months ago. She's a clinical social worker in private practice, and she told me that when she's contacted by a prospective client, she always sets the first appointment at least two weeks away from the date of first contact, even if she has availability before then.
"Why?" I asked.
She smiled. "Because I want to let them know that I'm a therapist who is worth waiting for."
After we spoke, I played over her idea in my mind. Would a similar tactic work for writers? I didn't see why not. In fact, I saw many advantages to not dropping everything to chase after a new client.
First, having a waiting list projects an air of confidence rather than desperation. If you spring at any hint of new work and bend over backwards to get the gig done sooner than immediately, your behavior communicates that you are willing to do just about anything for paying work. This gives him or her the upper hand in negotiations and all but guarantees a series of low-paying quick turnaround assignments. I don't think that's what any of us are looking for.
Second, having a waiting list allows you to maintain control of your schedule and your work/life balance. If taking on one more project this week will push you to the point of overwhelm, simply let the client know that you'd love to work with him/her but won't have any time on your schedule until next week. Most clients are impressed by the fact that you're in such high demand that they won't mind the wait.
Third, keeping a regular schedule allows you to charge more for rush orders. When I first started freelancing, I made the mistake of accepting a large assignment with a 24-hour turnaround. Worse, I didn't make it clear that being able to take on such a large project on such short notice was the exception rather than the rule. The result was that every time the client wanted something done on a whim, he expected me to make time for it instantly.
I finally screwed up my courage enough to explain to him that my business had grown and I know longer had the instant availability that he was used to. I would be glad to make time for rush orders, but it would cost double my usual rate. The client tried to test these boundaries a few times by asking for an overnight turnaround "just this once," but he backed off quickly when I reminded him of my rates for rush projects.
The moral of the story: If you do go out of your way to disrupt your schedule for a client in need, make sure you are paid for your time.
Ever since my talk with my friend, I've kept a far more realistic writing schedule. Rather than losing sleep or tearing out my hair trying to squeeze one more assignment into a packed schedule, I simply tell the client that I'd love to work with him/her, but my earliest availability is [insert date]. I haven't yet had a single client walk away. I'm also a much happier and calmer, not to mention better compensated writer.
Does your freelance business have a waiting list?