STOP PAY TOLLI know working on spec is an oft-discussed issue throughout the freelance community, so why am I revisiting a topic that has been blogged about ad nauseam? Because it seems that for some of us, the dreaded “On Spec” offer tends to rear its ugly head when we least expect it.

You know what I’m talking about. You spot an ad listing a need for freelance writers, craft a lovely cover letter that makes you sound awesome, yet humble, then attach your best clips before hitting “send”. Days, weeks, sometimes months pass until you hear from a company contact or editor and Ta-Da! You’ve been chosen. Woo-hoo! New income!  Yay me!

Except — and you knew this was coming — the editor would like you to write a small article for them to see if your writing truly fits their publication style. You pause and think to yourself: “Isn’t that why I sent you the clips?”  [insert long sigh here]

Now, you must decide whether to spec or not to spec. And the mixed messages are plenty. How many professional freelancers chastise newbies for writing for free or low-balling a quote on a project? How many books on starting out in the freelance game tell you that you often need to build up a portfolio of writing samples and clips by-hook-or-by-crook, at times working for peanuts even if you’re allergic to peanuts?

See the conundrum. I won’t tell you what choices I made, and, trust me, I’ve been in this position more than once. I suspect I may be there again some day. However, I think the final decision always lies with the individual. You need to take a hard look at your career, where you want to be in, say, 5 years, and how you’re feeling in that moment when you receive the initial offer. It sounds simplistic, but true. If you feel as if someone is wasting your time and often relies on suckers hungry freelancers to provide content for free, then you’re probably right.

TipsOn the more hopeful side of the equation, there are a few freelance pros who will advise you on how to reply to an editor’s offer to work on spec. Freelance writing veterans like Susan Johnston won’t tell you if you’re better off walking away, but she has several suggestions on how to turn an offer to write on spec or POP (pay on publication) into an opportunity to bargain for a bigger piece of the pie. Many freelancers will find comfort in learning about options other than an immediate yes and no.

In my own little world, I recently spotted a well-respected magazine’s submission guidelines stating that if you’ve never written for their publication before, you may be “asked to submit the completed manuscript on speculation.” Although I’m eager to pitch to this magazine, I must admit that stipulation makes me think twice about sending in my query. I’ll soon need to take my own advice before deciding my next step. I just hope that after years of good and bad experiences, if I remember my goals, weigh my options, and trust my gut, I’ll ultimately make the right decision.

Have you ever produced a piece on spec? Do you think less of freelancers who do?
What is your advice for anyone who’s been asked to create a project on spec?