Burning Question: Pitch or Write On Spec? (Plus Prompt)

In the world of journalism and freelance nonfiction writing, there are those (everyone from Hunter S. Thompson to some of my colleagues and writer friends) who say to never, ever, not even if you were the last writer on Earth and the editor of The New York Times (having also survived the zombie apocalypse) asked you to write a series of reflective cover-story personal essays on being the last writer alive, to never write a single freelanced word until you’ve pitched the material to an editor and she’s signed a contract to buy it.

Why waste your time working with no guarantee of ever being paid?

Which can be a valid question. But there are also those, like writer Art Spikol or nonfiction guru Susan Shapiro—the author of the latest advice in my Top 20 Tips from WD in 2009 series—who look at it a different way, and advocate that writing for free is a great use of downtime, and potentially an excellent way to prove yourself to an editor.

No. 10: Don’t Always Pitch—Write!

Some creative people—like me—are no good at pitching. I find it’s easier and more productive to craft the real thing than to try to write about what I’m going to be writing about. If you want to be a perfect pitchman, go into advertising. If you want to be a writer, read great writing and try to emulate it.
Susan Shapiro, as written in our January/February 2009 issue (click here to check it out).

From my highly biased tip, I’m sure you can tell which side of the debate I stand on. While it definitely varies depending on how much time you may spend on an assignment and how personally invested in the topic you are, I think writing on spec can be a great way to break in to a market or showcase a tough story that may not work (or may be impossible to properly convey) in a pitch. Moreover, when combing Writer’s Digest’s submissions inbox, I’ve bought pieces that I wouldn’t have had they been sent with only the query, which often paled in comparison to the actual article.

It has also worked for me with freelanced pieces, and I believe the technique’s great power is that it takes an often overstated writing maxim and puts it to an entirely different use: With on-spec submissions, you’re no longer telling—you’re showing. (Even with a topic as pitch-worthy as being the last writer in the wake of the zombie apocalypse.)

13 Hours

Feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

“Only 13 hours?!”
“It’s not possible.”
The dog barks, the child coughs.
“It’s what you’re going to have to do.”

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4 thoughts on “Burning Question: Pitch or Write On Spec? (Plus Prompt)

  1. Mark James

    Spring Cleaning

    “Only 13 hours?!”


    “It’s not possible.”

    The dog barks, the child coughs.

    “It’s what you’re going to have to do.”

    “But Sir, you live in Hell.”

    Beelzebub raised a finger; the park around us disintegrated, showing charred walls. “There’s an eternity of circles, you know.”

    I swallowed. “But – -”

    “Few mortal souls keep their sanity past the thirteenth circle,” the Lord of Hell said.

    Why didn’t I turn down this job? “It could take longer than thirteen hours.”

    “If it does, I’ll start you off in the fourteenth circle.”

    I tried not to see the way his horns glowed, or how his tail swished along the filthy floor. “I better get to work, Sir.”

    “Use all the imps you need.”

    A circle of fire grew around him, solidified into a wall of flames. “Thirteen hours, Mr. Edwards,” his voice said from inside the flames, then the fire was gone.

    “Don’t mind him.”

    I turned round. A blue imp was watching me.

    “He likes all that showy stuff. I’m Zaz”

    “How many chambers like this are there?”

    He scratched between his mini horns. “About two hundred thousand, last count. But he’s always adding more.”

    If I wasn’t already in Hell, I would have keeled over. “And the last time they were cleaned?”

    Zaz looked offended. “You playing with me? Cause I might be just a Third Level imp, but I got things to do.”

    “No, not at all Mr. – – ”

    “Just Zaz. Let’s go.”

    He spun around in a tight little circle, then stopped. “You coming?”

    I was hesitant to offend the only help I had. “You want me to spin?”

    “How else you gonna get anywhere in Hell, except chasing your own tail?” He looked behind me, saw that I had nothing to chase. “Oh. Alright. Just turn in a circle and close your eyes.”

    I did it, feeling more than a little foolish. But what choice did I have? After all, I’d signed a cleaning contract with the Lord of Hell.

    “You can open your eyes,” Zaz said.

    I looked out the window across from me and saw the depths of Hell spiraling away.

    Zaz held out his small arms, smiled, showing a double row of sharp fangs. “This is the Rock of Chaos, where nothing goes right.”

    It was the cleanest place I’d ever seen. “You keep it quite clean.”

    “It keeps itself clean,” Zaz said. “If it was all dirty like every place else, it wouldn’t be Chaos.”

    I sensed a glimmer of hope. “Can imps carry Chaos?”

    He tapped his small chest. “Nobody brings Chaos like us.”

    “Excellent. Gather – – ” I stopped to do a quick calculation. “Get about three hundred thousand imps. Can you do that?”

    He rolled his red eyes. “Where do you want them?”

    “In every chamber in Hell, on all levels.” My voice was crisp, smooth; I was in control again. “Tell me when they’re ready.”

    “Ready,” Zaz said.

    “So soon?”

    “I talk, imps listen.”

    “Very well,” I said. “Have them all spin in here, pick up a speck of Chaos, then spin back to their assigned chambers.”


    Against all odds, it worked. I cleaned every corner of Hell in just under twelve and a half hours.

    There’s one problem. Beelzebub likes it so much, he’ll be calling me back every year for Spring Cleaning in Hell.

  2. Martha W

    Oh, goody! I get to post first! Great thoughts, Zac. So many of us writers get wrapped up in what we want to sell that we forget the most important thing – writing!

    Awesome prompt, too!



    “It’s not possible.”

    The dog barks, the child coughs.

    “It’s what you’re going to have to do.”

    Jen sighed. "I know."

    Dan pressed a kiss to her forehead. "It’ll be okay."

    Her eyes clenched shut at the pain. How was she ever going to get through this? Her baby. Had she struggled through her pregnancy and labor just to leave her? "I know." Jen pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes, trying to stem the threat of tears. It shouldn’t be like this.


    Her face crumpled as she leaned into her husband’s supportive embrace. Dan smoothed his palms down her back and hugged her tight. She always felt better when he held her. "We’ll be okay. She’ll be okay"

    Why wasn’t he more upset? Didn’t he love Emma as much as she did? Jen straightened and stared at his handsome face, so like their daughter’s with his blonde hair and green eyes. In fact, the only thing Emma got from her was her pert little nose. Tears brimmed again, threatening to spill over. "We could keep her with us." Hope filled her, soaking into her voice.

    "No. She’s better off here."

    Hope shattered like glass inside her. "Why?"

    Dan sat quiet for a moment, looking back into her own brown eyes. Gently, her cupped her cheek, brushing his thumb over her lips. "I love you, Jen. And I love Emma."

    She nodded expectantly.

    "But we’re not taking her on vacation with us. She’s fine with Mom."