Thursday, May 6, 2010

What makes a writer a professional?

What defines a “professional author?”

Recently I got into a discussion with someone about the restrictive admission requirements of a particular writers’ organization, and we had quite a few (very civil) exchanges of emails about the subject. I don’t think we convinced each other, but we did get to air out some opinions, and maybe make each other think.

Let’s look at what defines a profession, first, and then look at the word professional.

According to my two-volume Thorndike-Barnhart dictionary, a profession is: “(1) an occupation requiring special education, such as law, medicine, teaching or the ministry. (2) an calling or occupation by which a person habitually earns his living.”

I think we can agree that being a writer doesn’t necessarily require a special degree or certificate from a college or university. It definitely does require a special aptitude, a love for words, and (ultimately) a thick skin to handle all the rejections. But there is no requirement that a person have special education or training to be a writer. So, I guess we can leave that one out of the picture.

How about earning a living? Holy cow, that will restrict things a lot. I don’t know too many people who earn their entire living from writing… well, let me back up. I know many technical writers who make really good money (I was once one), and there are copy writers who make a decent living, too, creating advertising verbiage.

But we’re talking about fiction writers here. The last figures I saw from the Authors’ Guild said that there were a little over 300 people in the U.S. who make their living strictly as novelists. I don’t know how accurate that is, but the AG does have its finger on the pulse of writing in America, as it were. That doesn’t include short-story writers, or poets, but I think we can agree that it’s pretty darn hard to make a living at those things, too.

OK. Let’s move on to the definition of professional, from the same source. As a noun, there are two definitions: “(1) a person who makes a business or trade of something that others do for pleasure, such as singing or dancing. (2) a person engaged in a profession.”

I think we’ve finally hit on it with definition (1) there. A writer who writes just for fun or as a hobby, and really doesn’t worry about getting paid for it, is an amateur. But a writer who gets paid for his or her work is a professional.

But I think it goes beyond that, too.

If a guy gets out on the golf course a lot, and even wins a local tourney or two, he won't have the temerity to call himself a professional. If a woman bakes cakes and sells them at bake sales to raise money for the local school, she probably won't call herself a professional. If a guy likes woodworking and occasionally does some work for a neighbor and gets paid for it, he probably won't say he is a professional woodworker.

It has to do not only with money received, I believe, but also with an attitude.

If I look at the definition of a third word in that dictionary, it points this out. The word is professionalism and it is defined as “the practice or methods of a professional as distinguished from those of an amateur.” There it is. Professional writers not only get paid for their work, but they are always trying to meet standards that are higher than those for an amateur.

I hope that every time I write, I am working at being more professional, at achieving a higher level of expertise. I may not always make it--even pro golfers sometimes miss a shot. But I’m trying.


Mark Troy said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking ideas. I think another aspect to consider is your competition. As with athletics, amateurs compete against other amateurs and professionals compete against other professionals. If you sell your books in the same bookstores as other professionals or if you get reviews in the same media as other professionals, you can consider yourself a professional.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I think that defines professional very well.

J D Webb said...

Well said. I'm a professional because I get paid (The word paltry may be applied here) for my novels and plays. I also believe a professional is one who dedicates a significant amount of time and effort to his/her work in an attempt to sell a product. Varying degrees of success follow.

Tony Burton said...

Mark, your comment about who you are competing against is well-considered. Then again, that line is getting more and more blurred, as some very unprofessional and unpolished work manages to end up in bookstores nowadays. But that's very probably just a matter of my opinion rather than any sort of independent benchmark.

J D, your definition follows the same definition established by the International Olympic Committee, as Jim Thorpe learned to his sorrow. And self-promotion is definitely important to becoming a pro.

Thanks for the comments!

Suzanne Adair said...

Good points, Tony. To build on your comments and J.D.'s, I think a professional always seeks ways to improve his or her craft, even after reaching the point of receiving payment for products or services.

Many unpublished writers persist in seeking publication for a first novel, statistically likely to remain unpublished forever for several reasons. Two of my blog entries this week, 4 May and 6 May at, discuss these reasons and spring from excellent presentations by Jeffrey Deaver and Chris Roerden at last Saturday's SkillBuild.

Someone who is unwilling to consider an expert's opinion that their product may be unsaleable or their craft may need improvement isn't a professional.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article, Tony.


Maggie Toussaint said...

I considered myself a "professional writer" long before I sold a book. It was what I was doing fulltime and I was actively working to improve my craft. The fact that it took me years to make a sale didn't diminuish my professionalism.

Writing organizations and the IRS are quick to label people one thing or the other because of their publisher, sales or lack thereof, and conduct.

Writing in two genres, romance and mystery, brings even more murk into the picture. Because I haven't sold to an advance-paying publisher in romance (or had over $1000 in royalites from any one title), I'm not considered a member of the Published Author Network in my romance groups, while I am considered given full memberhsip status within mystery groups for my sales there.

Hey, if publishing was easy, everyone would be doing it.

romance, danger, mystery

Tony Burton said...

Professional writer-what a conundrum! Maggie, I understand what you are saying. You were dedicated to your craft, constantly striving to improve. I would guess that a lawyer is a professional even before he or she has a single client, too. It's not always easy to convince those people who are the organizational gatekeepers, though.

Tony Burton said...

Suzanne, I was involved in an online discussion about just that point earlier this week. There is a lot of value in having a professional editor look at your work. A writer was posting rather heatedly about professional editors, and basically asking "What makes them special, anyway?" All editors are not created equal, true, but good editors have the advantages of not being so close to the work, and of working within the industry so they know what acquisition editors and agents look for in a manuscript.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

As long as we're getting paid for our writing, we're professionals, end of debate.


Mike Orenduff said...

Good analysis, Tony. The topic is complicated by the fact that some writers want to be seen as professionals because they feel insulted by the word amateur. But amateur has two meanings: 1) someone who does something poorly (as in "you could tell he was an amateur the moment he picked up the tennis racket.") 2) someone who does something out of the love of doing it (the original etymological meaning). I write because I love to write. I also get paid for it, which is a nice bonus.

EchelonPress said...

I think Mike has hit on something. there are far too many writers who manage to get contracts, but don't want to do the actual work that goes with beibng a published author. I thnk Maggie is correct in how she considered herself a professional writer, she was abdibg by the laws of business and working toward a specific end. Once she sold that book, she (IMO) became a professional author.

If you are writing as a hobby just for your friends and family, don't pretend to be a professional, that is a hobby. Period.

Thanks for this post, Tony.

Karen Syed

Tony Burton said...

Mike, you're right in that it's funny that some people get so offended by being called amateurs, but the truth is that's what they are. And that's not necessarily a bad thing--we know that many amateurs are very, very skilled at what they do, whether it's in sports or crafts or whatever.

Karen,I understand that point of view, too. There is more to being a pro writer than just writing the book or story. Professionals get out there and hustle their book, or they don't stay professional for very long. (They stop making money.)

There are some people who would say that it devalues their writing to be so "commercial." You know, if they didn't want someone to read what they wrote, why did they put it out for public consumption in the first place? Sure, I write for fun sometimes, but I differentiate between my hobby writing and what I'm trying to use to make money. No doubt pro golfers get out and knock a few balls around when they aren't trying to win money, either. They're honing their game. We writers have to do that, too, and often it's with the things we don't get paid to do... like blogging, maybe???

jenny milchman said...

To my mind the word professional--in writing and other contexts--has to do with an attitude of seriousness first and foremost. I agree that there are other layers that can be applied--probably most particularly payment--but for those who are struggling to feel valid in this field, I would say that if you feel like this is your calling and intend to give it all the blood, sweat, laughter and joy it requires, then you're a fair way along toward being a professional.

Of course, I don't consider myself a professional writer yet, despite applying copious amounts of all the above, so this perspective may be easier to tout than to accept!

Morgan Mandel said...

I'm still in Wisconsin on vacation where online cruising is slow. I got this message from a reader who had trouble posting here comment, so I'll add it to the ones already up.

From Mary Reed

Leaving aside the technical aspects of writing and editing, my votes on what professionalism means include considering if not always accepting editorial criticisms, remembering your manners at all times, and never badmouthing other writers, publishers, agents, or anyone else in public.

Mary R