What Makes You a Professional Writer?

So, last night on Twitter I came across a link to a quiz–if you answered “yes” to eight out of ten questions, the blogger asserted, you could truly claim to be a professional writer. Otherwise you’re just a hobbyist!

I’m not going to link to the quiz itself, for various reasons, but I’ll link to Scalzi’s post about it.

He does a fine job taking down at least one of the assumptions behind the quiz–that one person’s process is the one and the only way achieve a particular result.

There are other assumptions in that list of questions, assumptions that bug me. And I’m saying that as someone who actually did answer “yes” to a fair number of those questions. The one about your living space being a mess because you’d rather write–yeah, I’m a crap housekeeper. But, you know, I’ve always been a crap housekeeper and I hate cleaning stuff with the fire of a dozen supernovas, so my choosing to write or read rather than clean isn’t a sign of my devotion to my art. And people have varying tolerances for different states of messiness–I can easily imagine a writer who just can’t work when the room around them isn’t straight. For such a writer, taking the time to clean would, in fact, be a necessary precondition to becoming a professional writer.

And let’s look at the question about whether you’ve taken a lower-paying job so you can have more time to write. I have also done this. But, see, Mr Leckie has a job that pays enough to keep us fed and housed, plus that job has benefits. If that weren’t the case, it would not have been possible for me to do that. And if one were to go by that list of questions, no single parents could ever be professional writers. Not really. No one with serious medical needs, or kids with serious medical needs, could ever really claim to be a pro.

In fact, the entire list assumes a level of privilege that’s really pretty offensive. Which is why the folks in my twitter feed were agape at that quiz last night.

So, if you’re an aspiring writer looking for direction and advice, or if you’re working seriously on your writing and wondering if you can or might be a pro, I would urge you not to take the advice or judgement implied by that quiz. There’s nothing helpful there, and most likely it will only leave you feeling like you never can be, like you’ll always be found wanting.

Which is, in fact, the point of the quiz. The blogger begins by explaining how disappointing it is to meet people who talk as though they’re pros but come to find out they’re really only hobbyists. The quiz only tells you the grounds on which the blogger makes this judgement–they have not sacrificed sufficiently for that coveted professional status.*

It’s pretty obvious that knowing where that distinction is, knowing who is and who isn’t in the club (and making sure those who don’t make the cut are aware of that fact), is the important bit.

But, see, why is this distinction even a thing? I get why SFWA, for instance, would want to put definite boundaries around who is and isn’t a member (whether where they’ve placed those boundaries makes sense is its own, entirely different issue, and not under discussion here). But aside from that, who the hell cares? Scalzi points out, sensibly, that if you’re getting paid for your writing you have every right to call yourself professional. I would ask, “Do you consider yourself to be a professional?” And your answer is your answer. Why would I bother to police that? Why do I care if you’ve met any other requirements? My sense of myself as a writer doesn’t require that I be better or different from anyone else, whether “anyone else” is a writer or not.**

Of course, if I saw writing as a status thing, if I envisioned myself as somehow nobler than the average Jane because of my GREAT SACRIFICES to Art, then, yes, I’d want to put a boundary there, and a Border Patrol. Because if any slob in a sweaty t-shirt could claim they were a professional writer, where would that leave me? Where would I get that sense of superiority that gets me through the day?

Writing is hard. Writing for money is hard. It does, indeed, require hard work and sacrifices–every writer is different, and every writer’s work and sacrifices will be particular to their situation. Nobody needs the extra burden of people drawing arbitrary, self-serving lines around what it means to be a “real” writer. And I’d suggest that if you’re tempted to do that, you might want to consider whether spending time drawing those lines isn’t in itself a waste of time. Shouldn’t you actually be spending that time writing?

*The sufficient sacrifices, of course, are ones that its only possible for certain people to make, as I mention above. If you don’t have the spouse with a good income, or if you have kids with medical needs, or if you’re in a position where cutting your hours so you can write more means getting evicted because you can’t pay rent and where’s supper coming from anyway, well, you aren’t a pro because you haven’t sacrificed enough for your art. (Honestly, I cannot roll my eyes hard enough.)

**That way lies madness! IMO, of course. Maybe you get energy from comparing yourself to others, and can do it without losing your mind. Me, I become a gibbering mess of anxiety and panic if I compete with anyone but myself. And I’d much rather invite people into the club than keep people out.

5 thoughts on “What Makes You a Professional Writer?

  1. The post, besides reeking of smug assumptions, is equating writer with “writer of fiction.” I realize it was originally posted on the HWA site but Ms. Morton doesn’t say “novelist,” “horror or writer,” she says “writer.”

    I am a writer. I don’t write fiction. I am not an artist; I am a highly skilled craftsman and I write for money.

    I don’t particularly enjoy writing; it’s not exactly the career I trained for. But it does mean I can spend more time with my partner, which makes it worthwhile.

    So here’s what that quiz looks like from my perspective.

    1. Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing?
    No. I manage my time effectively, and my partner and I share work around our home.

    2. Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead?
    No. I write for money; it’s a job. I don’t write 24/7, I manage time and deadlines. Sometimes I do things with friends instead of writing, because I’ve made my deadline/quota.

    3. Do you turn off the television in order to write?
    No. We don’t own a television.

    4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise?
    No. I don’t care about either; I care about the check. If an editor says revise, I revise because I want the check. Also, because most of my editors have been very very good at what they do. They know some stuff.

    5. Do you plan vacations around writing opportunites [sic](either research or networking potential)?
    No. Vacation means “Not working now.”

    6. Would you rather be chatting about the business of writing with another writer than exchanging small talk with a good friend?
    No. Writing is my job and an area of professional expertise. If I am “chatting” about writing there had better be a check involved.

    7. Have you ever taken a day job that paid less money because it would give you more time/energy/material to write?
    No. Writing is my job. I make less at it than I might in other jobs, but I have much more time to spend the way I want.

    8. Are you willing to give up the nice home you know you could have if you devoted that time you spend writing to a more lucrative career?
    No. One of the things about being paid for writing that I like is that money can be used to pay for things.

    9. Have you done all these things for at least five years?
    No. I don’t do any of them now.

    10. Are you willing to live knowing that you will likely never meet your ambitions, but you hold to those ambitions nonetheless?
    No. A professional writer writes for money. If it didn’t involve money, I wouldn’t write.

    1. Ann says:

      equating writer with “writer of fiction.”

      Very true. I missed that one, because I do write fiction and start from that POV, but you’re absolutely right. There’s no room here for, say, people who write advertising copy or news articles for their day jobs to be considered “professional writers” when they are, if anyone is. And “well, you know what I mean” isn’t sufficient defense, particularly not for a writer who’s dispensing advice about who should or shouldn’t consider themselves a professional writer.

  2. C
    Chrisv says:

    Great article! I agree with you completely. And I especially love, love, love your final thought: “I’d much rather invite people into the club than keep people out.”

    Through my experience in writing groups, I’ve learned that writers come from all walks of life, have varying personalities and needs, and all write for different reasons. Pigeon holes can be attempted at, I suppose, if someone’s into that, but as with anything else, people are people, and I ascribe to the idea: If you write, you’re a writer. If you don’t, you’re not.

    Thank you!

  3. Not to mention, writing is one of the rare artforms where work of the highest caliber is done by non-professionals.

    For instance, no SF short story writer ever even comes close to making a living off writing, but Ted Chiang and James Tiptree (among dozens of others) have produced work that equals the best that’s ever been done by professional writers.

    1. Ann says:

      So much this, yes!

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