Even though it’s always preferable to have a contract in hand before writing an article, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to write on spec. Let’s say you’ve nabbed an interview with an elusive subject — the Dalai Lama, maybe, or Brad Pitt. Chances are good that you’re going to be able to sell your piece somewhere, so it’s not a huge gamble to go ahead and write up the interview. This scenario brings up another point: always have backup markets in mind when writing on spec.
I currently have an essay under consideration at a national parenting magazine I’ve been dying to break into. I floated my idea past the editor before I wrote it, which is always a good idea if you can do it. She liked the concept, but said I’d need to submit the piece on spec. My essay is now making its way up the chain of editors. Of course I’m hoping it’s accepted, but if not I have at least three alternate markets in mind that might buy my essay.
When is it not a good idea to write on spec? If your piece is so specific to your intended market that you can’t think of another angle or publication that may buy it, it’s probably not worth it. If your op-ed is on a topic that’s going to be old news by the weekend, it may not be worth your time.
Sometimes, though, submitting a piece on spec can actually help you get your foot in the door. I pitched Self magazine a half dozen ideas that were shot down for various reasons. Then I submitted a first-person essay on female friendships. They bought it. Alas, it never ran. But I did get a big fat check for more than $1/word-and at the time, that was worth more to me than the clip.
I firmly believe that Self purchased my essay because I submitted it on spec. After all, the piece was already written, so even as a new-to-them writer, I wasn’t much of a risk. Next time, maybe they’ll even publish my work!