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.