Writers often find themselves doing unpaid work in the hope it'll lead to a paying gig. This endeavour tends to divide into two categories, specs and samples. Speculative writing is uncommissioned work a writer does in the hope they might get paid for it later [or or that it will lead to an offer of work]. Samples are work done free for a potential employer, in the hope of securing a commission.
Let's talk about specs first. Novels are often a speculative effort, written by an author or wannabe without a commission or contract in hand. There's no guarantee the book will ever get published, let alone make anybody any money. That doesn't make the effort any less rewarding, so long as publication isn't your sole source of validation. [If it is, you could be in for a bumpy ride with no happy ending.]
Spec scripts are often written by scribes between commissions, or those changing career direction [e.g. from comedy to drama, from kids' TV to adult shows, or from film to TV]. In Hollywood a spec screenplay is written to be sold. Elsewhere the spec is known as a calling card script, which has a different purpose. These showcase what a writer can do, demonstrate their skills, talent and unique authorial voice.
These days most people expect a TV calling card script to be original, like a pilot for a new show. Creating a great calling card script takes a lot of time and effort, but it's a necessary evil to get yourself noticed as a writer. I'm working on a new calling card script at the moment. I've already got several in my portfolio, but it's time to add something fresh and contemporary. I work on that between paid gigs.
In short a piece of speculative writing is a gamble, undertaken willingly, in the hope it will lead to a commission of some sorts. The spec is a multi-purpose investment in your future as a writer. Even if one particular editor or producer or script editor doesn't like your spec, you can always send it to another. You own your spec and you control it. The spec remains yours until contracts say otherwise.
A sample is more like an audition piece. It is written for a specific purpose, often to a supplied brief. It's a try-out designed to win you a particular commission - some games writing, a tie-in novel, an open slot in somebody's schedule. My Doctor Who audio drama Enemy of the Daleks was commissioned on the basis of a sample. If I hadn't got the gig, I'd have struggled to reconfigure it for use elsewhere.
When I devise, develop and write story of the day pitches for the BBC1 drama series Doctors, the results are samples. The show requires a specific style of storytelling and narrative that can't easily be reworked for submission elsewhere. [That proves the show has its own distinctive voice and format.] Creating new pitches is a speculative process, but the show's specificity means those pitches are samples.
[Ironically, I've been using a rejected Doctors pitch as the basis for one plot strand in the new calling card script I'm developing at the moment. But as my spec project develops its own style and voice, so I find myself being able to use less and less of my rejected Doctors pitch. One simply doesn't translate into the other. That's a good sign, but it had me stumbling for days before reaching this realisation.]
Much as we would love to be paid for every piece of work we do, writers know that you will hear no far more often than you'll get the much desired yes. Specs and samples are a necessary evil in that process, something you have to do to get a commission. But there should be limits on how much free work you're willing to undertake in the hope of securing paid future work. Where do you draw the line?
It's tricky. My batting average on Doctors is roughly five or six rejections for every story pitch banked. A full two-page pitch can take a week of effort [albeit spread out around other work]. So that's seven weeks of work to get one idea banked. In return for that I'm getting TV drama credits and gaining invaluable experience. It's a long process with no guarantees, but one that's worth it for me.
I've spent far longer on other free samples that came to naught. There was a Warhammer 40K novel that haunted me off and on for six months before I pulled the plug. I spent just as much time developing storylines for a TV tie-in novel that worked well for the show's producers, but couldn't find a publisher. And there are plenty more examples that led to nothing except frustration and overdraft.
That's the danger of doing free samples as a writer: you end up with nothing. You can't easily rework the material you created for submission elsewhere. No only did you get no money for the samples, you could have been doing other work - paying work, potentially - while devoting yourself to the free samples. But a successful sample can open all sorts of doors, as my Doctors experiences show.
By comparison, spec writing is portable. It is less likely to lead directly to a new commission, but it's yours to keep. A spec will tend to be more creatively satisfying, as it's all your own work. [It can also be more frustrating, as the infinite canvas of creativity has no boundaries, making it hard to know when you've finished.] When a spec pays off, all the effort's worth it - even if the spec goes unmade.
I've got a clutch of scripts in my writing portfolio - two short film scripts that have won awards and placed in competions, a pilot script for a returning drama series and another for a serial, plus my new kids' TV pilot. By September I hope to have the first draft of another returning TV drama series pilot in hand. In the meantime I've got some story of the day sample pitches to write for Doctors. Onwards!