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Writing On Spec

It’s not unusual for established publishers, of magazines, books, and even websites to ask writers new to them to initially write on spec or speculation. It often works like this:

  • You send a query.
  • The publication says they’re interested and asks to see the piece.
  • You send your writing knowing that if the editor likes it you’ll get paid. You don’t fear they will use it without paying you or even giving you credit.
  • Or, you may send the whole manuscript, secure you won’t be ripped off.
Enter online job postings. Most online job postings placed on services like Criaigslist, Monster, etc. are placed anonymously or close to it. Often legitimate writing and editing gigs are placed by individuals or by tiny organizations most of us would never have heard of if it weren’t for the ‘net.
It’s generally impossible to tell from the ads if the advertiser is legitimate or not. 
Jonathan Cohen gave us some good hints in his 10 Warning Words and Phrases in Online Job Postings for Writers, but there are those iffy situations.
Some are obvious potential problems, like the ads that say one way or another, “we’ll need to use x number of your articles before we pay you.” Those are to be avoided like the plague because there is simply no way to guarantee they will ever want you to write for pay.
But what about an ad that asks for one or two sample articles? Is this a scam or is this someone who has a legitimate opportunity but doesn’t know how to ask for clips or tear sheets?  Beleive me, lots of websites that need articles have been started by people who haven’t a clue about publishing terms.
The safest thing, of course, is to ignore those ads entirely. Another approach is to send a link to articles you’ve already written and been paid for, although this isn’t exactly what they asked for and you may just be ignored. Finally, you can send one or two short articles knowing you may be ripped off.
Trust your gut. If you decide to send a sample be willing to let it go, knowing you can use it or a version of it elsewhere. There’s no point in getting caught up in a “they didn’t pay me” lament – that’s just wasted energy.
Write well and often,

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Well, sure, Anne. If it is a very reputable media outlet, that will add significantly to your resume, and as Meg says, if it’s something you could sell elsewhere. I would only warn that some of those top magazines are pretty damn snobby. If you don’t have some credentials already, it’s hard to get published.

  • Meg

    I’d write on spec for a dream gig or if I was sure I could sell the piece to someone else if it didn’t work out, but I would NEVER write something all-new to send to an anon Craig’s List address! I now have enough relevant, published clips that I can send in without writing something new, so when CL ads demand an all-new post (especially while being vague on payment and publication) it sets off my warning bells.
    .-= Meg´s last blog ..No Zombies Allowed =-.

  • I just can’t imagine writing much more than a paragraph without a commitment to pay. Between the hundreds of previously published samples I can provide and one good paragraph about their specific project, they should be able to assess my skills.

    I’ve used that approach a few times and won business. Anyone who wants more than that is likely a crook.


    • Anne

      Ron, I’d still like to get published in The Atlantic – I’ve come close – it will mean doing an article on spec for them. Not sure I’ll ever get around to it again, but there are places for spec writing… not many.

  • “…The other option is to negotiate for a payment for samples specific to the company. Most legitimate companies will do this type of trial, even though the rate is generally lower (about half) of what the regular going rate is. At least you know you get paid something.”–Devon Ellington

    But as soon as you do that, you’ve given the client a reason to cut his regular rate by 50%. You’ve bid against yourself. Polish people have an expression for this.
    .-= jorgekafkazar´s last blog ..Tenirax, Ch V =-.

  • This is what I do when applying to a writing job that requests samples:

    If the ad is not specific in requesting a sample, I find a written sample that relates or is relevant to the job I am applying for. I send the entire sample but with my name and where it was published at on the bottom of the sample just to show them that I can do the job. That way I don’t feel as if I’ll be “ripped off” because it’s already been published somewheres and my mind is then at rest.

    Generally I tend to stay away from the ads that request a specific sample for a specific company with a specific word count. Unless I’m applying to a magazine or something to that effect.

    Michelle Kafka’s last blog post..Writing Tool For The Writer/Virtual Office – Zoho

  • The other option is to negotiate for a payment for samples specific to the company. Most legitimate companies will do this type of trial, even though the rate is generally lower (about half) of what the regular going rate is. At least you know you get paid something.

    If you’ve checked out the site and know it’s legitimate and choose to do a spec piece without pay, I suggest adding your own copyright to the piece and stating clearly that they do NOT have permission to use the piece without contract and payment. Keep copies of this correspondence handy in case you need it.

    Devon Ellington’s last blog post..Wednesday, December 10, 2008

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