The Freelancer’s Phrase Book: “On Spec”

By Abigail GreenAbby Green
Back in my March column, I discussed submitting queries versus complete articles. If you recall, I gave a few examples of when a freelancer might submit a piece to a publication “on speculation” or “on spec” for short. Basically, that means the writer has no contract and no guarantee of payment or publication. Essays will usually only be considered on spec; and for timely travel stories and short pieces, it’s often in a writer’s best interest to write them first and then submit them.
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!
Abigail Green has published more than 150 articles and essays in regional and national publications including American Baby, Baltimore Magazine, Bride’s, Cooking Light, and Health. Her work also appears in the new book, “A Cup of Comfort for New Mothers.” (Adams Media, 2009). Abby holds a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. in publishing from the University of Baltimore. She writes the “Crib Notes” column for The Writer Mama e-zine and the “Understanding Personal Essays” column for Writers on the Rise. A mother of two boys, she blogs about parenting, publishing and more at She also teaches the six-week e-course Personal Essays that Get Published.

1 Response to “The Freelancer’s Phrase Book: “On Spec””

  1. 1 Kati Neville November 4, 2009 at 8:10 am

    Glad to hear someone else uses this method also!

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