Refusing to submit speculatively (Mistake #37)

Some people will tell you that it is their policy to never submit speculatively, and advise you to follow suit. When they add that submitting ‘on spec’ is unprofessional, they’re basically choosing to distance themselves from those who have done it or do do it, and subtly marking these writers down as amateurs. I don’t much care for this attitude.

My first ten published articles – I went back to my 1996 records and counted – were speculative submissions. The eleventh was a commissioned piece. I was new to writing, I was keen, and I was enjoying myself. I wanted to do it, but knew I had to do it anyway. It doesn’t have to be the same for you, of course. Perhaps you won’t need to write speculatively in your whole writing career. I am just saying what it was like for me.

It’s very easy, of course, for established writers with regular clients to say you shouldn’t submit speculatively when they’re earning a comfortable living. I’ll concede, though, that for these individuals it’s not a mistake: after all, they’re doing well. They don’t need to submit on spec.

Beginners, at the other end of the spectrum, don’t, in my experience, make this mistake. Instead, it’s writers who have perhaps sold a handful of pieces, maybe one to a lucrative market, and feel they have ‘arrived’. Have hit the ‘big time’. Are playing with the big guys now. And leaving the little boys behind.

For many, getting established in this game takes time – we’re talking months, possibly years – and progress and success come from the cumulative effect of many tiny hops not one or few giant leaps. If you want to keep cracking new markets in the early days, and keep up that momentum, I’d say you will probably need to submit on spec occasionally, even regularly. (I carried on, on and off, until 2000.)

The reason, if it isn’t obvious, is that some editors will only consider speculative submissions. More experienced hacks among you may be aghast at this. And if you think submitting on spec is unprofessional, then you may (or you may not) like to consider that it is more unprofessional to submit an idea rather than a completed piece to an editor who has expressed a preference for the latter over the former. Editors are the bosses, after all.

It’s not always easy to tell who does and who doesn’t prefer which. As a rough rule, the nationals, the glossies, the women’s nationals, the lifestyle magazines, and the professional journals will want outline proposals and pitches. The niche, small circulation, modest, shoestring-budget, and ‘hobby-horsey’ (that’s not intended to be pejorative) titles will prefer speculative submissions. (A lot of the markets I list on this blog in the pages above prefer full submissions.) If you’re unsure, call up.

If you can’t get a clear answer – send an idea. If they like the idea but prefer submissions on spec then they’ll ask you to write it up without guarantee. My view on this has always been that the sale is there to be made, and it is your job, as a writer, to write it right and complete the transaction. Not everyone agrees. This happened to me with my first pitch to the Guardian Weekend in 2006. Which just goes to show that even as a fairly experienced writer – as ten years in I considered myself to be – you may be asked to submit on spec by an editor – on a major national – who doesn’t know you from Eve or Adam. (I wrote it right and got three subsequent commissions.)

And if the editor is easy going and accepts both ideas and completed pieces? Generally, again I’d advise you send the idea – but it may be better in some circumstances to submit the full piece. Examples? Well, say your idea is difficult to express or précis and you want to get it all out and put it before an editor. If you’re itching to write it and want to let your fingers loose. If you’re convinced the whole would carry more saleability and wow factor than the summary. Maybe if it’s a humour piece or a comment piece too. (You may find that, once written, the first paragraph can be used as the basis for the pitch.)

Perhaps, in an ideal world, it would be outlines and commissions only (I’ve still not convinced myself of this and have been thinking about it for an hour). But we don’t live in an ideal world. Sometimes, I think you’ve just got to suck it up and write the thing.

Comments 6

  • Great post, and I agree that as writers we should be following the individual editor's preferred style of submission whether that be just sending the idea or the whole piece – you don't want to start off on the wrong foot. You have nothing to lose by sending an idea in or the whole piece of the editor wants it that way. Sometimes I think editors don't really know what they want until they see it so sending the entire piece, unless instructed not to, can result in a sale and more comissioned work.

    Julie

  • "Sometimes I think editors don't really know what they want until they see it"

    Excellent point, Julie – and worth remembering.

  • Excellent points – my first piece for a national paper was a speculative submission. It helped that it was timely (related to an upcoming music festival) and could be chopped up to fit into a regular slot in that paper, but it was definitely the right thing to do then.

    I think one thing to bear in mind is that all editors – at every level of publication – have pages that they need to fill. Having a great article that is really in tune with their publication and is ready to go just land in their inbox can make their job a lot easier!

  • Thanks Tim. You're right – big blank pages to fill. I wonder whether those editing dailies and weeklies are more inclined to pick up on on-specs than those at the helm of monthlies, bimonthlies and quarterlies – simply because they need more copy and having it land in their lap can be a godsend? Any other experiences?

  • I agree, there's nothing wrong with on spec submissions. If I'm working on a commission, I'll be looking at ways of repackaging the information for a different market – and some of those markets I'll send off on spec. It's the on spec stuff that leads to bigger things. I once sent an article on spec to a local magazine. They liked it and bought it. Two months later, I had a regular monthly column with them, which ran for over six years.

  • Great anecdote. Just goes to show the local magazines are ideal for on-specs. You just never know…

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