Creativity coaches hear some problems more often than others. “I’ve started 10 projects and finished none of them,” and “I just can’t seem to find time to write/paint/practice,” are probably the two problems that bring clients to me most often. Today, a writer client who is busy writing, but hasn’t published in a while, got an offer to write on spec. “Should I take it?” he asked.
Writing on spec
I hadn’t heard the term in a long time. ‘Spec’ is short for speculation and it can have two meanings. Both meanings are often directed at freelance writers, although illustrators and composers can be asked, too. The first (and not so common) meaning covers articles that a writer researches, gets quotes on, writes, and then offers to a magazine or publisher without knowing if it will be accepted. If it is accepted, the writer gets paid only if–and only when–the article gets published.
The second definition is the more common one. A magazine or newsletter, for a variety of reasons, doesn’t pay for the work. The writer knows this ahead of time, so there is no deception. The question is, should a writer accept these conditions?
Circumstances make a difference
Sometimes writers who have trouble publishing will write on spec because it is more important for them to be published than to get paid. New writers who want to have a publication on their resume will often reach for this way to get the notice. Other writers will “donate” an article to a cause they believe in, because they want their opinion heard more than they want to get paid. Or they consider it a way to “give back” to a cause they support passionately.
Seeing the other side
Writing is a skill. It is often a highly focused skill that can’t be automated or easily outsourced. In that light, writing is a valuable commodity. It should be paid, as is any other commodity. I have never been able to go to a grocery story and announce, “I have never shopped here before, so I don’t know if your produce is fresh and your butcher skilled. I want to take home a week’s worth of meat and vegetables today. If they please me, I will begin to buy here and pay you.” I’d get laughed out of the store. Or more likely, dragged out by the police called in by the store owner. With gas prices over $3.10 in my area, I’d love to drive in with the van, tell the person behind the window that I don’t know if their gas is good and demand a free tank full, promising to come back if I like the gas. I won’t get far, though.
Solid communication solves most problems
No doubt, some editors have been burned by new and established writers who don’t hand in the work expected of them. The solution lies in good communication up front. Any smart writer will hand in a draft, expect edits and will make changes as part of the original price. If the piece has to be re-written because of poor communication on the editor’s part, or because a client changes his mind about the main point or the people interviewed, the writer gets paid for both the original and the new piece. If the writer was given a point to drive home or a call to action to end with, and didn’t deliver, the writer needs to rewrite until the client’s original request is satisfied. Communication, even during the interviewing and writing stage, is vital.
Self confidence is another answer
Just as often, a company will create a policy that demands one or two articles on spec. The writer does the draft and the changes for no payment at all. Often the writer lacks the self confidence to turn down jobs that don’t pay. They want to “get along” or be thought of as “nice to work with.” Frequently, the writer is intimidated or doesn’t want to stand up for the profession as a whole and the years of practice it took to get to this point as a writer.
Making a decision
When my creativity coaching client asked me what to do, I asked, “Why would you consider doing it?” He thought it over and said, “If I refuse, the editor won’t use me again.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“I just think that’s why I’m being tapped for spec,” he said.
“When you worked in a business, did your boss ever ask you to work a day for free?” I asked
“No, but I did put in a lot of overtime that I didn’t get paid for because I was on salary,” he said.
“And you did that because. . . ” I asked.
“I wanted to show my loyalty,” he said.
“What is the advantage of showing loyalty in this case?” I asked.
“Well, if I write the first article for free, I might get more work,” he said.
“Do you know you will?” I asked.
“No. I just think I will,” he said.
“I don’t hear a lot of enthusiasm for this project in your voice. How long will it take you to write that article?” I asked.
“Well, with the research and interviews, maybe 12 hours or so,” he said.
“You’ve been writing a while. What are you getting paid by other clients?” I asked.
“Well, hourly it’s $75 an hour. Some clients pay me per word. But that depends a lot on the publication. A well-known national publication will pay me $5 a word, a small start-up maybe fifty cents a word,” he said.
“So we’re talking about $900 dollars on an hourly rate, maybe $750 for a 1,500-word article for a start-up. Would you risk that on a stock that may turn into something? Would you bet it on a horse race, knowing you could lose it all or win a lot?”
“No,” he said, “And I’m starting to see that giving away what I’ve taken a long time to perfect doesn’t sound like a good business decision. I was making it out of fear,” he said.
Another great lesson: never make a business decision out of fear.
–For more on life coaching and creativity coaching, visit Quinn McDonald’s website, quinncreative.com
(c) 2006, Quinn McDonald. All rights reserved.