writing jobs, career advice
Storytelling Communications

How to Handle Those “On Spec” Writing Jobs We Hate So Much


“Hi Chelsea,

Like I said, I love your work.

Our marketing team decided they want to trial you by having you write three different pieces. The idea is that each piece takes you one hour, so three hours in total. This will be compensated at the agreed rate if we decide to hire you for more writing jobs after that.

We’ll provide you with a brief, samples, and other information for you to look at, and expect you to do the best you can from what we provide.”

Just when I thought things were looking up with a potential blogging client. This. A request for free labor before we’ve even decided if we like each other enough to work together long-term.

I wish I could say emails like this were uncommon, but they’re not. For some reason, there’s this myth that’s penetrated the business world that it’s okay to ask creatives to “prove themselves” beyond their portfolio with custom work tailored exactly to your business.

If it sounds a little ass backwards, that’s because it is. Visual communications designer, Con Kennedy, put it perfectly when talking about freelance designers:

“Neither the designer nor the client benefit from work created in a speculative manner,” he said on No!Spec. “Because designers have no guarantee of remuneration, those who work on spec are unlikely to engage in the full design process and conduct the research and analysis needed to produce effective work.”

But the thing is, because this request for spec work has become such an industry standard (and is even common career advice for freelancers), knowing what to do with these kinds of emails can be totally daunting.

Why Spec Work, Though Clearly Unethical, Can be So Freaking Hard to Say No To

On one hand, you want to send over a huge middle finger emoji, an all caps “F-you,” and this video:

But on the other hand, this could be SUCH a good opportunity.

And we’re all dying for good opportunities.

We know in theory that we should all stick up for ourselves at every single turn in our careers to get paid what we’re worth. But at the same time…exposure? Exposure is a really big deal. Exposure is the piece of career advice we online freelancers latch on to. And if this potential client has a REALLY popular blog?

Suddenly we find ourselves reconsidering our attitudes on spec writing jobs.

Because even if it’s not an ideal situation to be in right now, we’re in these careers for the long haul, right? And that promised exposure will definitely help us advance us toward our long-term goals. So how much is one inconvenience like this really going to harm us?

So, we take on that spec assignment, hoping for the best.

Woman working on a design project at her laptop

Where a Well-Timed Educational Email Could Save You

I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time I took an on-spec writing job and it actually worked out.

I hate seeing that in writing because it makes me feel so spineless, but it’s true.

But as I’ve gained confidence in myself as a writing expert, I’ve become more straightforward (not rude, mind you) in speaking up to clients, and I’ve discovered something: A lot of people sending out emails for spec work aren’t jerk cheapsters after all. They just don’t realize the gravity of what they’re asking for.

And in that case, a little education about why spec work isn’t a good idea could go a very, very long way. And that can come in the form of a very simple, polite, more or less copy and paste email:

Hi Potential Client,

I’m glad to hear you’ve found my portfolio samples up to scratch for your content goals.

However, as far as producing my first three pieces for you on spec, I’m afraid that’s something I can’t offer.

Filling parts of my work calendar up with unpaid work simply doesn’t allow me the time and mental energy it takes to consider your goals for that piece, do the extensive research required, and craft those gut-wrenching, attention-getting hooks you loved so much.

And I would hate to send over work for you to publish on your site that is anything less than the best that I have to offer.

I am, however, happy to work on a one-time agreement for one paid post at my stated rate, and I’m so confident in the work I do that I know that the work will speak for itself.

What do you say?



See what I did there? I turned it into their benefit to pay me for my first sample—to be able to put only my best work on their site, not anything sub-par. I also explained why I need to have my time spent working paid for.

Yes, this email does turn some potential clients away, but they’re really not the ones you want to have on your invoice list anyhow—so it saves you the agony of spending hours doing free writing jobs.

But for the right clients who are making an honest mistake with their spec requests, you’ll educate them politely and make the business world a better place for you and your fellow creatives to navigate in finding new, worthwhile clients.

“If a client disagrees with something you know to be right,” advises Paul Jarvis on 99U, “don’t get bent out of shape. Instead, go into research mode. Show them using examples why what they want doesn’t work.”

Fighting the Good Fight

I think the battle on spec requests will be a long and hard one, and as much as I hate to say it, one that we’ll never truly win.

But with a little friendly education via email, perspectives will start to shift and we’ll be able to wield off those companies that would have never made very good clients anyway—boosting our own confidence, job happiness, and ultimately, incomes.

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