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

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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.)

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WRITING PROMPT: 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?!”
“Yes.”
“It’s not possible.”
The dog barks, the child coughs.
“It’s what you’re going to have to do.”

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