You Ask, I Answer: Should I Write on Spec?

You send a pitch to a magazine or website and the editor writes back asking you to send in the full article for consideration.

This is called writing on spec, and it means you write the article with no contract and no guarantee that your article will be accepted or that you’ll be paid.

So…is it worth it to write on spec?

I generally avoid writing on spec due to a bad experience I had early in my career. The editor of a magazine that rhymes with Cat Schmancy asked me to write an article on spec and I agreed. Since the was no deadline and I had other assignments, I put the article on the back burner — but the editor kept emailing me asking when I’d be turning in the piece, so I rearranged my schedule to fit it in.

Two weeks after turning in the article, I got — wait for it — a form rejection. Not even a personal note!

I had rearranged my schedule and spent time on an article on spec, and ended up with a blowoff and no money.

However, if you’re not totally jaded like me, you may still be wondering if there are any times you should write an article on spec.

To determine if it’s worth it, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you a new writer and you really need/want the clip?
  • Are you in love with the publication and really, really want to write for them?
  • Are you fairly confident that the editor will accept your article?
  • If the editor rejects your article, do you have a list of several other good markets you can send it to instead?

If you answered Yes to any of these questions, then you may want to say Yes to writing on spec. But if you answered all of them No, it may be a better idea to turn it down and spend the time you would have spent on the article pitching other markets or writing new queries.

How about you? Have you had a good/bad experience writing on spec? How do you decide whether to write on spec? Share your experiences in the Comments below! [lf]

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17 comments… add one
  • Jacqueline

    I wrote an article on spec for The Philadelphia Inquirer about museums in Philly. I have never had anything published before and had a real interest in the topic so it seemed worth a try.

    I had very little communication with the editor so I really had no idea if she would accept it. I wrote 1500+ words because I could not figure out what to cut. Luckily, editor accepted the article and still there was virtually no communication or edits to review…

    Article ended up on the front page of the Sunday travel section above the fold with virtually not edits!

    Planning to pitch my next article, so hopefully this clip will get me an assignment.

    So if you have the time to spare have confidence, sometimes it is worth the gamble!

  • Saeema

    It so happened with me that I fell in love with this local magazine in my country that publishes articles on management and leadership issues. With an interest in writing and zeal to see my name in print, I approached the editor and offered a pitch to a related topic.

    The editor responded positively though asked me to submit the full article since I had no clips (I mean that’s one reason she gave me for being novice and mailing the article).

    This is an year old tale and to date I have no response from her.

    I spend potful of time penning it down yet had neither a rejection nor a acceptance.

  • Thanks Linda, this was very helpful.

  • Linda, I have to agree with you 100%. I too have been burned by the “writing on spec” concept. I had pitched an idea to an editor back in July of last year. She responded favorably to one of the ideas in my email and said she liked to see it completed before extending an assignment. I hastily agreed. Since I wasn’t getting paid for it, had no specifics, word count or due date spelled out (even though I asked), I put it on the back burner. After all, I had other paying assignments to get too.

    After some time she emailed about when she would get it. Since she seemed urgent, I dropped everything and completed it in August. After turning it in, I never heard back from her again. I emailed a few times to make sure she got it and heard nothing. Finally, I copied someone else on the email to make sure she got it and find out if she had any questions. I didn’t get a response till November. And it was a negative one. She didn’t like the story!

    What’s even crazier is during our initial response we had discovered that we were actually very distant relatives. (She had attended a funeral I was at a few years before even though we never formally met) She even suggested we meet to find out about other relatives during our first conversation. Obviously, that never happened. I was dissed by family!! Needless, to see I never wrote anything on spec again.

    • Wow, this story is eerily familiar. 🙂 And dissed by family too! Ouch. So sorry this happened to you.

  • I recently completed an “on spec” assignment for a national magazine, didn’t receive a reply, and when I followed up, got the generic “if you don’t hear from us within three weeks, your story hasn’t been chosen”. I thought I would at least get a “sorry, it doesn’t fit within our editorial line-up right now”, or “nice article, but no thanks”. In my case, I agreed to send the article on spec because I was writing it for a class assignment (I was taking a course in magazine writing). I’ve never written anything for free and have always been against giving up my valuable work time for a “maybe”, but I had other paying jobs on the burner and I figured it wouldn’t hurt since I had to submit something to my instructor anyway. I’m a little bummed, but I think it’s a good story, so I’m going to keep pitching it around until it finds a good home. I suppose the shining light is that my interviews are already done and the story is written, so my turn around time will be very short!

    • I hope you score a hit soon! I think one time when it’s definitely worth it to write an article on spec is when you’re doing it for a class assignment! It’s a bonus if you manage to get it published too.

  • I actually had a pretty good experience with one of the first magazines I freelanced for. I wrote one article on spec that the editor couldn’t use it, but he very kindly told me what they were looking for. I wrote another story that was accepted, then pitched another two that were also accepted.
    The personal attention of the editor will definitely bring me back to them in the future.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience! It’s good to get more confirmation that sometimes writing on spec can pay off.

  • I have written many on spec articles and a few have been published. Just minutes ago, I got a rejection to a 2000 word travel piece. That will be the end of it. I will no longer write on spec. I’ve had several articles published and I’m a working reporter. Writing on spec is longer acceptable to me. Thanks for talking about this subject. I know several new writers, and established writers who write on spec as the norm.

    • Good for you for drawing the line! You can never guarantee, when you write on spec, that you’re not busting your butt to turn out an article you can never sell. I hope this decision turns out great for you!

      • ha ha..I guess you picked up that I meant to say “no longer acceptable to me”. Now that I’ve made the decision, I feel liberated and no longer at the mercy of busy editors who will say “yes, on spec” to a million ideas just to turn around and reject it once all the work has been done. It’s a big issue within my writing circle and many writers think this is the only way “in”.

        • It’s certainly NOT the only way in, especially once you have clips to show. I know lots of writers, like some of my own students, who break into magazines — even for the very first time — with assigned articles, not on spec.

  • Jade

    Ive recently been burned writing on spec. Im new to frelancing and didn’t realise that this is what i was doing, when i was accepted as a contributor for a website.

    My job is to source well known individuals in my target market to interview. I am supposed to get as much information as possible, so i can write multiple articles with various angles.

    I interviewed someone, and wrote my first article. Before i submitted it my editor decided to send me additional information in regards to interview questions. This information came too late as i had already conducted the interview.

    On the same day i received other emails with new information, again it would have been better to have received it before i started working.

    Feeling confused, i held off on writing my other articles, and asked my editor if he could take a look at the draft article i had already written. As the new information made me question my approach to the topic.

    I let him know, its not edited but i needed to know if it was on point or way off base. But when he responded, he acted like i had submitted a complete piece and rejected it, and informed me that he had handed it higher up the food chain for further feedback.

    I realised omg, i just spent hours on this, you changed the game with new information, and now im going to have to spend even more time making it fit in light of all this. Also i feel like a fool, because i told him it was a rough draft, i just needed to know if i was on the right track, now others wre reading my rough draft, possibly thinking this is the best i can do.

    His lack of clear communication and my nativity has meant that i spent time on a project i wont be getting paid for, unless i spend God knows how much more time and effort on re-writing it.

    In that case the small amount of money earned if it does get published wouldn’t add up to the time and effort spent on it.

    Im honestly thinking of walking away, i accepted the position to refine my interviewing skills and to have an article published on the web for my portfolio.

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