If you’ve ever attended a ‘proper’ journalism or freelance writing class, you’ll probably have been warned about the dangers of writing an entire article on spec. But the world is changing, and many of us are writing for blogs, websites, ezines and other informal markets. Some editors want you to write on spec, some don’t. So let take a look at the pros and cons.
First, what exactly is ‘writing on spec’
On spec refers to a piece you write in full, even though you haven’t previously agreed with the editor that he or she will publish it. The spec is short for “speculation.” You’re writing and speculating (or assuming, or maybe just hoping) the editor will like it enough to pay.
When should you definitely not write on spec?
There’s a very simple answer to this one: when a publication specifically asks you not to. Many markets spell it out in their guidelines. No full articles please. Pitch us with an outline, or send a query with an idea. A lot of markets, however, give you a choice. The guidelines specify that they will look at both finished pieces and pitches. That’s when you have to make a choice.
Pros of Writing on Spec
When you write on spec you’re taking a risk. You’re putting hard work into a project with the potential that you might not get paid. So why do it?
You can wow an editor who might have ignored you otherwise
Writing on spec is a way to prove yourself. It can help you get your foot in the door with your ideal freelance market. You may be able to write the perfect piece for a particular publication, but until you show them, how will they know? This is often the case if you’re a brand new freelance writer, OR you’re trying to break into a new niche. If you don’t have any high quality, relevant clips (yet) to prove to the editor you can write for them, but you know you can, and you know the editor reads on spec submissions, it’s worth writing on spec.
You gain experience
Even if the editor says “No thank you” you still gain experience. You did the writing, even if they don’t want it. They might even invite you to try again. With some feedback you may be able to get it perfect the next time.
You can rewrite the piece and submit elsewhere
If the piece is wrong for this particular market, you can always re-jig it for another market. You should always write for each specific market you submit to, but you can use the bare bones of the article, including your research, quotes and references, and rewrite for someone else.
You get a writing sample
Regardless of whether you get paid or not, you can still add the project to your portfolio of samples. It may help you land another client in the future.
You might get paid
Finally, there is the chance that you might actually get paid for the work. Then you not only get your foot in the door you also get a pay check. You may also get a lifelong client who respects you for taking a risk.
Cons of Writing on Spec
Spoiler alert: There are only really two.
You may not get paid
The most obvious con for writing on spec is the risk that you don’t get paid for your work. The editor didn’t ask for this piece. There’s no obligation to accept it. There are many reasons why a client will reject your work. It may not fit their needs. They may have something similar ready for publication. They may just not like your piece.
You may be using your time unwisely
You can write a lot of queries and pitches in the time it takes you to perfect a piece for submission, so there’s a strong argument that you should spend time doing that rather than writing a fully honed piece on spec. Not sure how to query or pitch? There’s some useful information on this (and a template query letter you can adapt for any publication) in The Freelance Writer’s Success Kit.
Evaluate the risk versus reward before you write a whole article on spec. To sum up, consider writing on spec if:
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