On spec. As a writer, you’ll hear that a lot. It’s short for “on speculation,” and it means that you write an article, a short story, a screenplay, book, whatever, with no contract and no promise of publication. You send it in and hope the editor wants to publish it.
It’s a gamble, for sure. You can increase your odds of getting that contract, though, if you know when to roll the dice.
WHEN WRITING ON SPEC CAN PAY OFF
When you’re just breaking in. If you don’t have experience or prior publications, but you know you did a good job, your best bet is to let your work speak for itself. And I mean that. Do not (NO!), do not tell the editor that God wants your story to reach the world, that your manuscript is a great opportunity for them, or that you can see it made into a feature film. All those things might be true. Do not say them.
When an editor answers your query and asks for more. The first couple of articles that I ever got published were in Home School Enrichment magazine. I first queried the editor, expressing that my experience and philosophy matched the magazine’s focus, and that I’d been doing volunteer writing for my local homeschool group. I pitched a few ideas, and he asked to see specific finished articles on spec, which I then wrote furiously, because the editor was clearly interested. The magazine published a couple of my articles, and that led to re-publishing at Crosswalk.com. And, just like that, I had publishing credits to list on my query letters to other publications.
When you have no samples to show. Are you seeing a theme? When you’re just breaking in, writing on spec can get your foot in the door. There’s no risk to the publisher, and you get the opportunity to show what you can do. Sometimes the editor even takes the time to comment on specifics about your manuscript, and that’s free professional advice.
When you already wrote what you’re selling. One of the articles that I’d written on spec for Home School Enrichment, and that was rejected, I sold to another homeschooling magazine that accepted unsolicited manuscripts. (If I remembered which one, I’d tell you, but I know it was a national glossy.) The thing is, once you’ve already written an article or short story, or even a screenplay or novel, you can pitch it without taking up a lot of time or effort. While you’re pitching it, keep writing the next piece.
When your piece is short. Most short pieces have to be on spec. An editor cannot tell how good or suitable your poem, short story, or essay will be by your credentials, even if they’re stellar.
When you haven’t gotten anywhere with queries. We’ve all heard stories about writers who were getting nowhere by following all the rules, so they just went for it, and sent unsolicited manuscripts. This is a Hail Mary pass. Your manuscript will most likely end up in the recycle bin, but if you write an enticing cover letter and a compelling hook, you just might get noticed.
WHEN WRITING ON SPEC PROBABLY ISN’T WORTH IT
It will take a long time. If you have an idea for an article, for example, that will take a lot of time and research, and you have not written any of it yet, it’s probably not worth it. There are exceptions. If the payoff is extraordinary, if the editor asked to see it, and if you can sell it to another publisher if this one declines, it might be worth it.
It cannot be sold in any other market. If you plan to write something that is based on copyrighted material (eg, writing a companion workbook for a specific textbook), or that fits only a small niche market, you probably should get a contract before writing, because you will not be able to sell or use the work if the publisher declines.
It’s time sensitive. If you’ve written something about current events, or a speculative work about a possible event that will come to pass quickly, you don’t have time to offer it to one publication after another on spec. Strike while the iron’s hot. Self-publish or send out query letters instead.
When the publication specifically says not to. If you’re looking at writer’s guidelines and you see the words Absolutely no unsolicited manuscripts! don’t send an unsolicited manuscript.
GUIDELINES FOR SUBMITTING ON SPEC
Always follow writer’s guidelines exactly. Something as simple as the wrong font can make the difference between an editor reading your manuscript and tossing it. Remember that editors are detail oriented. They notice.
Make sure you know what the publisher wants. Read recently published articles to tell you not only the subject, but the tone (friendly, emotional, factual, etc.) and the vocabulary (reading level, profanity, etc.).
Know the targeted reader to know if your submission is a good fit. Studying the publication’s advertising is useful for getting to know the reader. If what you’ve written is a close fit, but not quite right, tweak it to fit better before submitting.
Include a cover letter. Find out the name of the editor of the department to which you’re submitting, and address a cover letter to that specific editor. You can usually find the editor’s name and contact information on the publication’s website. If you’re not sure, call and ask the receptionist. If you don’t know the gender of the editor, or you don’t know how the editor wishes to be addressed, don’t guess. Don’t use slashes, like Mr./Ms./Mrs., or any variation of that. Instead, use the full name. For example, “Dear Robin Jones,” or “Dear E.S. Smith.” Under no circumstances should you address your cover letter to “To Whom it May Concern.” Don’t do it. Just don’t.
Boiling it down to its essense, the guideline is: Does the benefit outweigh the risk? If so, go with God. I’m in your corner, too.
Have you written anything on spec? How was that experience for you? Let’s talk about it in the comments. We’re all in this together.
Kathryn A. Frazier is a freelance copyeditor, proofreader, and writer. She lives in Tampa, Florida with her beloved family, Scruffy Dog and Valentino the Ridiculously Tiny Dog. It's hot there. And swampy. With gators. She's really brave.