Spec means written on speculation, aka for free. You invest your time and your talent into a spec script that serves as a writing sample and maybe even something you can sell. In an ideal world, your writing portfolio will consist of multiple TV or feature length spec scripts to showcase your expertise.
Why write a spec?
No one pays you to write a spec, so why do it?
So many reasons. A spec showcases your talent, your voice, and your strengths in screenwriting – both in features and television. People use specs as writing samples to break into the industry: submitting to contests, queries to agencies, etc. The other reason you would write a spec is to sell it (harder than it sounds).
When It’s Okay to Write for Free V.S. When It’s Not
Do not trust fake “producers” who offer their services for a fee. These types of people run under the guise of making your script better, if you pay them to do so, with the promise of getting it made or something. DO NOT get hoodwinked into paying someone to write for them.
It’s okay to work with your manager or agent on something you’re not getting paid to write because they do not make money until you make money. These are the people who help you sell your material.
Lastly, this is all different than a coverage service, which is a service you specifically seek out to get feedback on your script. They may offer different in depth packages to work with you on your material, but you do this to get objective help. Use trusted companies with quality readers to ensure that what you pay for is worth it.
There are 2 types of TV “specs.” Know the difference.
In TV, a “spec” is an episode of an existing show; however, an original show is called an “original pilot” or a “spec pilot”. Confusing, I know. Just remember, if you hear “pilot” you know it’s an original show.
A spec of an existing show demonstrates that you can write in someone else’s voice and in the structure of that show – that you can write for their “brand” basically. An example would be writing a spec of Quantico, The Blacklist, or Broad City. The only time people still use these types of specs are generally for contests that want you to submit a TV spec of an existing show in addition to an original pilot.
An original pilot, or spec pilot, is an all original idea or concept written by you. Any adaptation requires that you own the rights, so typically you might want to steer clear of any IP (intellectual property). An original pilot showcases your unique voice, writing abilities, and so on. Talent agents and managers like original pilots because of the potential to sell one as a new show. And original pilots are the current currency of TV writers hoping to get staffed on a television show. The marketplace no longer looks at specs of existing shows.