To Spec or Not to Spec

Every time we get close to AWAI’s FastTrack to Copywriting Success Bootcamp, I start hearing two questions again and again …

  1. Should I work on spec?
  2. How much should I charge my web clients?

Today I’ll tackle the first question with help from web copy expert, Nick Usborne. And then next week, I’ll give you all the numbers you need for pricing projects.

RM: Ok, Nick. I’ll go ahead and ask the big question here … the one that’s debated almost as much as long copy vs. short. When you’re starting out, should you accept work on spec?

NU: No, you shouldn’t accept it. If someone comes to you and says, will you do this on spec? Your answer should be no.

But if you’re the instigator, that’s different. When you are just starting out and your deliberate strategy is to build your portfolio, that’s a different story. But if you are going to work on spec, then say to yourself, I’m going to do work on spec until I have four or five nice looking jobs in my portfolio. And once they’re complete, you need to stop working on spec completely. With those four samples you’ll have enough credibility and authority, to start negotiating for good project fees.

RM: So working on spec could be considered a marketing strategy?

NU: Yes. You don’t want to say yes to working on spec out of desperation. You want to say yes out of strategy, because you are looking to build your portfolio.

If you go to your dentist and say do my filling on spec, and if that goes well, I’ll let you do my bridge work. The answer will be no. As a professional, you don’t do work on spec.

RM: That makes sense. Just like a new copywriter, a new dentist has to build his practice. He may send out flyers saying come in for a free cleaning. It’s a way for him to show you what a great dentist he is, with the hopes that he can then do your crown and your bridgework. Just like a new copywriter offering to work on spec for a client he wants to add to his portfolio.

NU: Exactly. But if you reverse that scenario, and walk into that dentist’s office and ask him for that arrangement, the answer will be no.

You need to say, I’m a professional and I have set a fee. If you want to use me great. If not bye bye. You’ve got to get really comfortable about saying no.

There’s a temptation when you’re just starting out to say yes to everything. But you have to study your motives. If you’re saying yes to everything because you want to build up your portfolio then great. But if you’re saying yes because you’re desperate you need to pause and think for a bit …

Ask any salesman how much do he sells when he’s feeling desperate? The answer will be nothing. You can’t sell when you’re desperate. People smell it.

RM: When do you move on to a new marketing strategy?

NU: You need to plan that up front. Planning is key. Like I said earlier, your plan may be to get four good bits of work up on your website as your portfolio for samples. And you want those four projects to represent slightly different aspects of the niche you’re targeting.

So let’s say I’m into healthcare. I want one job that’s got to do with slimming supplements, one that’s got to do with exercise, one that’s got to do with healthy cooking, or whatever. In other words, I want my portfolio to represent the scope of work that I do. So I’ll say, “Okay, these are the kind of jobs I want, here are the companies then that I’m going to approach. And until I have this portfolio completed, I am prepared to work for less than I normally would.”

And I’d actually tell the companies what I’m doing. I’d say, “Hey, this is not the rate that I’ll be charging if you call me up a year from today, but it is the rate today because this is what I’m doing and this is why I’m doing it.”

As soon as your purpose is achieved, you tell the next client who calls “No. I don’t do stuff for $20 an hour. Look at my website, look at my testimonials, look at my articles, look at my samples. I’m a professional copywriter. Give me the scope of the project, and I’ll tell you what it will cost you.”

Use that early stage to build your confidence, your professional persona. The person you see in the mirror may still be shivering and quaking, but that’s not the copywriter who’s making the sale. The professional copywriter who is reflected in your portfolio is making the sale.

RM: So then it would be ok to work on spec for a client you want in your portfolio, and/or do work with in the future. It might get their foot in the door, right?

NU: Well, in that very specific circumstance, then yes they should do the work on spec. But if Yahoo came to me and said, “Oh Nick, will you do this first job free and if we like it we’ll give you $50 trillion worth of work afterwards” - well no, I exaggerate but no matter what they promise, the answer is still no.

RM: So other than working on spec, what’s another easy way to build your portfolio?

NU: You can go to places like and and pickup copywriting jobs. And they’ll pay you about $5 an hour. Should you ever go to those sites? If you want to build up your portfolio and you’re willing to put in the time, sure. Just find a range of jobs that give you a good spread for your portfolio, do the work, get the job done, and there – you’ve got your portfolio. And then never go back there again. Because all of those sites are just a race to the bottom – and the winner is whoever charges the least.

RM: What other advice do you have for our members just starting out?

NU: Look, there are probably a million web pages out there urgently in need of updating. It’s not hard to find a page that really flies in the face of best practices. A lot of these pages have been written horridly by people who don’t know what they’re doing. They’re not written by professional copywriters.

In the early months, it’s a big mind game within yourself a lot of the time because you feel anxious, you feel insecure, you feel worried … and that drives you to accept jobs that are perhaps not right for you, and that don’t pay enough. The big problem with that, is you can actually get overwhelmed with work that is the wrong work at the wrong price. And then two things will happen …

You’ll no longer have time to get the right work at the right price because you’re working so darn hard for $20 an hour that you don’t have the time. You’ll also start to feel discouraged.

What you need to do in that circumstance is say, “Okay, what is the minimum that I have to make this month to meet my bills and commitments?”

Then put a line down the center of a piece of paper. And in the left-hand side write down what your need to make this month, and what you have to do in order to make it. And then work like crazy to make sure you’ve covered your bills for the month.

In the right-hand column, answer the following question: What am I going to do to find myself some smarter work for the future that is more like the work that I want to do, at the price that I want to earn?”

Each month you need to spend time marketing yourself. If you go through a whole month or a whole week, and you’ve just been working non-stop on copywriting, you’ve got a problem. Start using the first hour of every day to figure out how to get out of the cycle of working so hard for so little. Just spend one hour a day on marketing and positioning yourself on approaching better clients that you’re better suited for, where you can double or triple your rates. And as soon as you get one or two of those clients, start stripping away all the deadwood stuff.

And then you’ll have a little time for yourself. A little breathing space and you can really continue to build your brand, build your credibility, raise your fees, and get better work that you enjoy more. But when you’re starting out it can be really hard because you’re feeling desperate to get anything and everything. Just remember that’s okay, so long as it’s part of a deliberate marketing strategy and you’ve already planned your escape.

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Published: November 12, 2008

1 Response to “To Spec or Not to Spec”

  1. I love the article and would like to add: I NEVER use the word "cost" in a presentation. It is always "investment". It's a psychological thing, but I believe we all tend to relate to Return on Investment as positive and "cost" in a negative way.

    CK Williams

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