When a client asks that question, they are really trying to find out whether you are too busy to talk to them about a project. That is an entirely different question. I’m never too busy to talk to a client or a prospective client about their writing needs. To tell someone that you are too busy to talk to them seems disrespectful and just plain wrong.
No one wants to feel undervalued, especially if they are looking to spend money. Case in point: Several years ago when I was in the midst of planning my wedding, I went into a bridal shop to look at gowns. I don’t recall how long I was there, but the memory of being asked to step out of that part of the store because it was “reserved for brides only” really stung. (I thought the gold and diamond engagement ring on my left hand would be a dead giveaway about my status, but apparently not.)
It would have taken the same amount of effort to ask,”Can I help you?” or even “Hello.” I wish I could report that I told that woman off or asked to speak to the manager, but the truth is that I just left. I bought my wedding dress from a store that had dialed down the snootiness factor and made me feel welcome.
If someone wants to talk to you about a freelance writing job and asks whether you are busy or how busy you are, resist the urge to answer only the question asked. A better strategy is to give the client the information they really want to know, which is whether you are too busy to talk to them. I don’t know of too many business owners who can afford to just walk a potential customer, so at least find out what the client has in mind. Then you can talk about scheduling and deadlines as necessary. Even if you have to pass on taking the assignment, you can preserve the relationship with the client so that they will come back to you next time they need some work done.
So…How busy are you?