Why I don’t write copy on ‘spec’

This piece, written in letter format and titled ‘Why I don’t write copy on spec’ originally appeared on www.marketingweb.co.za. But here it is again, for your edification and/or permitted professional use. Enjoy.


They ask for it often: A quick paragraph. A small logo. Some web design ideas. A photo or two. On spec, so they can decide if you’re the right creative for them. And if you’re desperate enough for the work, or to “get in” with that client, you’ll do it. But if you’re not, here’s my answer.

Dear [Prospective Client],

Thank you for making contact with me, and for asking me to work on your copy. I’d love to. However, even though you asked nicely, I’m not able to write up some spec copy for you, as a sample, so you can decide whether or not you want to use me.

I completely understand that, as we’ve never collaborated before, you want to be 100{7aef4e5c6853be3cc4d057a807069aa9f2ae8fd184061eb63ea53e14fedec9bd} sure I understand your brand language and corporate ID, as well as your needs, before committing to use me as your service provider. I also understand that you want some guarantee of what I can do before you approve my quotation.

But I don’t work on “spec”.

And here are six reasons:

  • Good copy is informed copy. And informed copy can only emerge from client input, because you know your audience best. I need to understand your objectives, criteria for success, brand personality, competitors and many other things in order to produce the right content for you. And this is a process.
  • Good copy comes from partnership. It’s not about a copywriter having a moment of inspiration and producing a quick masterpiece. If I work in isolation I can’t hope to write the right copy – because it will only tell half the story.
  • Good copy takes time. Intelligent, relevant, appropriate copy needs to emerge from a sound understanding of your target market. Until I can interact and empathise with your users, or until I can learn everything there is to know about them via you, I can produce nothing more than a superficial content solution.
  • Spec copy is a pretty picture, not a meaningful conversation. A “best guess”, created upfront as a sales tactic, is never going to be good copy. Yes, it may “wow” you. It may impress. But will it express what you need it to? Unlikely.
  • Web copy, in particular, is more technical than you think. The writing of web copy starts quite far down the line; after I’ve had a chance to get to know you, your business, your users and your competition. And after several hours of Google tools, research, reading, review and SEO analysis. It’s not something that can be done right at the start of a project, before I’ve been awarded the job.
  • Spec work makes other work more costly. If I took on spec work, I’d have to charge higher fees to cover work I produced but didn’t win. You’d be paying for failed pitches, as well as the one piece of work you were interested in. And for that kind of money, you may as well use an agency, not cost-effective little me.

Because I am a freelancer and not a big advertising agency, I’m not in the business of acquiring as many retainers as I can. I’m in the business of writing clean and high-quality copy that hits all of the clients’ important notes and that I can be proud of.

I’ve spent 10 years in the business, so I know my stuff. But more than that, I love my work and I’m proud of the diversity of projects I’ve worked on. Every copy deck has been crafted with thought and research, and with respect for the client.

Finally, I put all of my resources into every client that engages me because I don’t need to save my best ideas to sell myself to potential new clients, on a spec basis.

So, where does that leave you? Well, I’ve worked on copy for [180 clients over the last 10 years] – many of them, in your industry or in similar environments to yours. Why not have a look at the client list on my website, and let me know whose copy you’d be interested in reviewing… If I need their permission, I’ll get it. How’s that?

Thank you.

Best regards,

[Your Hopeful Freelancer]


[Note from Tiffany: This letter, tongue-in-cheek as it is, is not intended to be a blanket condemnation of spec work and anyone who takes it on. It’s merely an explanation of why I choose not to. Having said that, if I were a beginner writer without a piece to my name, I’d consider writing on spec if the prospective client a) seemed serious, b) had a clear idea of brief and c) appeared to have a solid reputation; if I could use the work elsewhere if they turned it down; and if the spec work seemed likely to lead to other assignments and writing opportunities.]