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Writing On Spec – Should You?

over the transomWay back when, before the web, before google developed algorithms for search and before marketers discovered they could (sometimes) improve search results by seeding key words and phrases into articles and advertising, submitting an article to a print magazine on spec was an honored and honorable tradition.

It still is, as a matter of fact. New writers or writers new to a magazine can safely submit an unsolicited article and, assuming they include an SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) be assured they will receive payment (or other compensation) if the magazine decides to publish it.

Such a submission is called “over the transom.” Rumor has it writers used to hurl their articles through open doors or windows, not a recommended practice today.

Geri J. asked, in comments:

I have sent resumes to some people who have asked me to do a sample piece of work for their site before deciding on hiring. It seems to me that this might be a way to get a lot of free material for their sites. Anyone else have any experience with this type of potential client?

It is, in my opinion, risky to send samples to unknown sites for just this reason; your article is likely to be published without any compensation to you and probably without any credit. Once that happens it’s next to impossible to try and collect or even to claim your work.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all such ads are ripoffs. There are legitimate websites who want articles and ask for samples because they don’t know enough not to.


Probably the best way to sort these out is to have a website with several types of articles on it – either those that have appeared elsewhere or just as original samples. This way you can respond to those ads that interest you by pointing to the links to the articles. Those sites who are legit and want your talents will be happy with those; those trying to get something for nothing will just ignore you. Either way, you win.

How do you handle such ads?

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Image from http://www.sxc.hu

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • With people constantly trying to get lower and lower prices for writing, I find myself looking at practically every one with a cynical eye. It doesn’t help that I have years of experience in retail, another place where everyone is simply trying to score a deal and often have no qualms about abusing some poor peon until they get what they want.

    I wish I could be more optimistic, but I’ve seen far too much “gimme” attitude in the world.
    Amelia Ramstead recently posted..Patching the HolesMy Profile

    • Anne

      Amelia, at the risk of sounding airy-fairy or too new agy I find I pretty much get what I look for.

  • jorgekafkazar

    There is no reason that they need complete article “samples.” Just the fact that they ask for them is a tip-off.

  • As a freelance commercial writer, my philosophy is never give away your talent. If they want your work, make them pay for it. Most established or well known (read: won’t rip you off) companies won’t ask for spec work anyway, samples will suffice. Be weary of any company that does. They are looking for free work.

    Writing for magazines is another story. I spec essays to consumer pubs all the time. Since they’re personal narratives, it’s rarely something I can query. I’m going to write it anyway and if I can sell it great, if not, no problem. If, however, this is your main source of income (mine is commercial writing) then I suggest going the query route. You’re wasting your time (and money) otherwise.

  • Sending an unsolicited manuscript to a national magazine that’s been publishing for decades and has a reputation to protect is very different from sending a free sample article on spec to some fly-by-night Web site you’ve never heard of.

    I simply refuse to do the latter. (I actually don’t do the former, either — I query. Having worked in newsrooms, the percentage of those that get published is so teeny…I just don’t think it’s worth your time.) If one of these Craigslist-ad companies asks for a sample I say hey — I got like 800 articles bouncing around the Internet. That should be enough for you to be able to get a sense of whether I can do your gig for you.

    And every once in a while, you can just get the gig anyway, without the sample, even though they asked for it.

    I like Toni’s one paragraph idea! Then you’ve given them a short writing sample, without giving them a complete article they can rip off.

    But in general, in today’s market I think there is just WAY too much “write me a freebie” attitude out there. And most are scams. Just avoid them and move on!
    Carol Tice recently posted..Per Word or Per Hour — Which Earns Writers the MostMy Profile

  • I have changed my tactics when dealing with this type of ad. I used to send one sample and most of the time I didn’t hear anything. Now, I send a paragraph and that seems to be working much better.

    If someone is really interested in my writing, a paragraph should suffice. But, after reading your advice, I feel the need to go further. I have a blog and I’m going to implement this with several different types of articles. This is a very good idea and will save a lot of time, effort and will weed out those who are really interested from those who are scamming….

    Thanks, Anne….

    Toni
    Toni Star recently posted..Check Out My Latest Book- The Twisted Life of Julia KnightMy Profile

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