Monday, September 6, 2010

Who is a professional writer?

In my college training to become a professional teacher, I was reminded by a professor that a true professional is something like a hired gun. Paid to bring understanding and edification to a group, a professional teacher, using his own skills, must teach what he's being paid to teach.
Using that standard, a professional writer would be paid to write what readers demand, would he not? Employing all the skills and devices at his command, the writer would write cozy mysteries if that was most in demand; or historical romance if that the hot button of the day.
Where then, does that leave the writer who knows what's in his head and his heart to write, regardless of whether it is popular or not? Assuming that writer uses equal skill and devices, would his work not be the equal of the other?
This is not rhetorical. I honestly do not know the answer. In fact, I was never able to blithely accept that professor's assertion at face value. When I was active in the field, I often found myself challenged by local citizens who wanted my band to play nothing but Sousa marches, or sports addicts who insisted my band play only pop tunes 'everybody' would appreciate. Where, I asked myself, did the musical education of my students enter that picture?
In much the same way, I find myself tempted now to fill a burgeoning market; one I've been assured will bring me more sales and spread my reputation as a fiction author. Therein lies the rub--that the reputation I want spread is that I have something significant to say to my reader. If I'm only a diversion, a few hours of distraction from the cares of the world, why should I care?
Chime in here. Tell me if you think I'm going wrong. I read and consider every comment that comes my way and I appreciate those of you who have shared your thoughts. I hope you'll continue to do so.
Pat Dale


  1. Hello Pat,

    I consider a professional to be someone who gets paid for their writing. I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be the same definition across professions...but for a writer, I believe this to be true. Once you are getting paid for your work, in the writing field, you're a professional. I've been a freelance writer for years, writing for magazines, newsletters, newspapers and even radio and the stage. I feel this makes me a professional. One of my occupations, on my income tax return, is WRITER.

  2. Hi Pat,

    I suppose writing is like most things in life, it's about finding a balance between what the market demands and the stories inside. I had written a historical western romance which had been rejected numerous times because westerns are "out." I was told to sit on it until they were popular again and write a paranormal or erotica if I wanted to be published. I didn't because those stories are not in my heart and I think they would be forced. Instead I found a publisher who did want my story and I realized there is a fan base for westerns. As for being a professional, if I'm getting paid for my stories and maintaining a professional attitude on the loops and in public...if it walks like a duck... Just my 2 cents.

  3. Write what people want...To me that's a loaded gun. What do people want? Do they really know? Did all the people in the world just say one day they wanted to read a good love story about a vampires? I personally never found that rage tempting. That's just me. But I know many others have. I believe a GOOD story, with interesting characters, can and will create its own following. I hate the thought of all the wonderful stories we've missed out on because a writer was told it wasn't what the people wanted.

  4. People want to read what they enjoy, and it's hard to sum up what actually brings them that enjoyment. I think that's why there are so many genres offered and why I've dabbled a little in most. I agree with Charlie about missing out on stories. When we query, the opinion of our manuscript is usually based on one person's opinion. Of those rejected, who knows how many other folks might have felt differently about the plot, content and characters. I just plug along and hope if one person reads one of my books, they'll be hungry for more of my style. It's the best an author can do.

  5. I know what you're talking about, Dale. I took a literary piece I wrote and added a werewolf. Right away I knew it would sell BUT I didn't want to be branded as a werewolf writer so I didn't bother subbing it (and changed it back to a literary piece).

    I think what we need to do is find the niche/genre that suits us, and then write what people want in that genre.

  6. "Therein lies the rub--that the reputation I want spread is that I have something significant to say to my reader. If I'm only a diversion, a few hours of distraction from the cares of the world, why should I care?"

    I really wanted to comment on this part of your post especially. Never underestimate the power of the distraction of words! Never. A LOT of people count this distraction among their favourite pasttimes. I love to have the opportunity to be this kind of diversion. You have to look at that opportunity as a gift. People cherish a good story forever. That's why you should care. I'm guessing that's WHY you DO care.

  7. I would respectfully disagree that a professional writer is one who gets paid. Yes, that is the ultimate goal, but what about the year I spent attending school to hone my craft before embarking upon my writing career? Was I less professional then, just because I wasn't drawing a salary? No, I invested in an instructional program to strengthen the areas that might be weak, in order to reach my goal of being a published writer.

    To me, being a professional means creating a writing schedule and sticking to it, despite the many distractions that come our way, and involving yourself in programs to help strengthen your skills; but of course, writing also has to be involved. :)

    As for writing to trends, I don't do it. I wrote a Christmas picture book because I love Christmas, which was just published last month. I have a first draft completed of a women's fiction story because it was a story my sister and I wanted to tell. I'm working on an historical geared toward middle grade students now. Good storytelling will find a market, even if it takes time.


  8. Pat, I'm also a reader and I know the type of stories I like to read. Therefore, I write what I want to read, whether it's what others want or not. :) I've been blessed that it turns out that other people HAVE wanted to read what I write.

    Pegging writing as one definitive way only simply doesn't make sense to me. It's as varied as M&M's candies; there's plenty there to satisfy everyone's taste. :)

  9. IRS says the instant you earn money with writing that you are a professional. until then it's a hobby. I was offended by the term but it didn't change the definition. For me, I considered the what's popular what's not long enough to start an erotic and then a werewolf one. neither got finished. I am a writer whether others consider me professional or not by what ever standard they use. I think I'm a writer, my readers think I'm a writer and that's enough for me. I also know for me it's not just a hobby.

  10. I was a "professional" writer when I wrote technical documentation. I wrote thousands of pages and made huge bucks for doing it (along with seven awards of excellence). I'm definitely a pro.

    Now I'm writing fiction, I'm like a virgin (snark!) all over again. I've sold my work, but I'm hardly living off the proceeds. I'll be come a professional fiction writer when I have enough income from that pursuit to match minimum wage. Ain't there yet.

    I have to say that going to school to learn your profession is a good step, but that doesn't make you a professional; it makes you a student.

  11. This is a loaded question. I've gotten writing awards (over $20,000 worth), win contests, have one book out and get Royalties from that and teach Essay Writing seminars, so I guess I'm a writer.
    But I would never discourage anyone from taking a shot.
    The reading public is so fickle and they seem to praise a lot of really bad writing. Same is true of movies. I always look to the best of anything, no matter what field I'm working in. I read my favorite writer's work, try to take in some of their greatness. In the end, it's a crapshoot, but still I love it, just have to do it...

  12. I've made my living as a writer, and done pretty well, for more than 35 years. Most of that time (at least during my peak earning years) I was writing on assignment, whether for magazines, TV series or nonfiction books. So I would have to say that I wrote what my employer or editor wanted and left it to him or her to decide what the reader (or audience) wanted.

    That's all changing now. The marketplaces are all changing. Most of my traditional markets have dried up in the last decade. Episodic TV has no freelance market anymore and staffing is so ageist that the Writer's Guild has so far racked up $75 million dollars in class action age discrimination settlements against Hollywood agencies and studios. The magazine market pays nothing anymore as people are turning to the web for free content. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of nonfiction books. So I've decided to branch out into another dying marketplace: fiction publishing. I'm currently shopping my first novel and working on my second. There's no way to second-guess what readers want to if you're writing a novel that won't hit the market for a year or two. So, for the first time in my career, I'm writing for myself. Trusting that if it's something I enjoy reading, it's something that others will, too. It feels great to be free of constraints.

    Writing a novel on spec is not exactly a guaranteed income. And these days, even getting published by a reputable house is no guarantee of anything more than a pittance of an advance. So what does that make me? Am I still a professional writer? Or am I a retired writer? Or am I a professional on sabbatical? Or am I an aspiring writer? Or am I a dilettante?

    Professional writers go through hot spells and dry spells as a matter of course. It comes with the territory. This may be the beginning of my final dry spell or it may be the calm before the hot spell. Either way, in writing without a master or without too much concern for the marketplace, I'm having a hell of a good time. And to answer my own question, I guess I must still be a professional writer. How else could I qualify for a piece of the age discrimination suit?

  13. Hi Pat,
    Loved your topic and it made me think very seriously about what I write. I never intended to be a paranormal writer but one day I saw a contest and to enter it, I had to write in that genre. What I found out is that the characters took over, the story worked around them and I loved the outcome. I guess what I'm trying to say is that for me, it's about my characters and what they have to learn from the start of the story to the finish. No matter what genre you work in, making those people come to life and overcome huge obstacles - isn't that the ultimate goal for the author?