If you've been trying to write and publish non-fiction, namely articles, should you write on speculation or assignment? You'll notice I said that's the $100 question since there's no way the everyday freelance writer can make a million bucks answering it.
As a non-fictioin writer, I have a choice of working in two modes--on speculation or on assignment. Naturally, I prefer to work on assignment, but sometimes, for instance when entering a new market or at least a new one for me, I need to work on speculation.
What's the difference between these two modes, besides the obvious? When working on speculation, I decide what to write and how to write it, and then market what I produce. While this may seem an easy method and one that many writers follow, there one element missing--the reader. Unless I write for a particular group of readers all the time, there's no way for me to know what their needs are. Consequently, I can't assume to know the needs of editors, either. So writing on speculation is risky at best.
On the other hand, when I write on assignment for a magazine, the editor already has an idea in mind and does know his or her readers very well. Sometimes, an editor will give me specific instructions on what to write, how to write it, and how long to make the article. Some even give me suggestions of where to go for information or contact information for sources of quotes. At other times, working on assignment is a cooperative effort. Perhaps I approach an editor with an idea. He or she then offers their input, and I offer mine--it's an even exchange. The result is knowing exactly what the editor wants and needs. This method works best with an editor with whom I have a good working relationship.
The other problem with writing on speculation is not knowing exactly when my article will be published. The first article I had published, for example, took a full year to the day from the date I sent it in until it appeared in print. It took another month or so to get paid. At that rate, I'd have died of starvation if working full time! Luckily, at the time I had a full-time salaried job, so it didn't matter when I got paid. Today, as a full-time writer, it does. Even if an editor agrees to publish my article, that's all he or she agrees to. In fact, at other times, my articles never made it into print because the magazine went under before they did.