What makes a writer a professional?

Yesterday, someone implied that I wasn’t a professional writer because I’m not completely supporting myself with the money I make with my writing. I bristled at this because I am a professional writer, have been for 40 years. I write, get published and get paid for it. I have boxes of clips, a resume full of publishing credits, and six published books. I file a Schedule C on my tax return as a person running a writing business.

Can I pay all my bills with what I make writing? No. The only time I have ever done that was when I was working full-time as a newspaper staff writer or editor—and even then I didn’t make quite enough money to pay for everything I needed. Did that make me not a professional? No. I was an underpaid professional but I was a professional.

This is hard for new writers to accept, but most writers cannot live off their writing income alone. Most of the writers I admire teach or edit or give talks. Some do ghostwriting or corporate writing. Some do something completely unrelated to writing, not a bad thing because it often clears the mind and feeds the muse.

I used to joke with my writing students that I was free to write because I had a “sugar daddy,” a husband who paid the mortgage with his job. I’d tell them, don’t expect to make a living writing anytime soon. It takes time to build up a writing practice, to move from assignments that pay little or nothing to features in national publications that might actually pay the mortgage. A one thousand-dollar paycheck is pretty good for a piece of writing. But how long will that pay your bills? You’d have to do it again and again. A self-supporting freelancer spends way more than 40 hours a week marketing, networking, and yes, writing.

As for books, only a blessed few make the kind of gigantic advances that allow them to stop whatever they used to do and write full-time. It can happen to any of us if we work hard enough and get the right breaks, but as the saying goes, don’t quit your day job.

But if we write all the time and our achievements are limited to a publication here and there, $50 here and $500 there, are we any less professional than the author of that bestseller who works less and makes more money? Not in my eyes.

My Webster’s dictionary offers several definitions for “professional.” One is “participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.” Well, that pretty much says it. But that isn’t the first definition. The first says a professional is someone who is “engaged in one of the learned professions, characterized by or conforming to the technical and ethical standards of a profession.” That doesn’t say anything about money. And how do they define a profession? “A principal calling, vocation, or employment.” I think that makes me—and probably you—a professional writer.The important thing is what we do, not how much money we make.

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5 Comments on “What makes a writer a professional?”

  1. Abby says:

    How do you feel about the 3.5mm Lena Dunham received as a book deal?

    • Such huge advances, especially for people who are not career writers, seem insane. But the publishers believe the book will sell millions of copies, so it’s worth it to them. For those of us who are not famous, all we can do is shake our heads and keep writing. Maybe Lena will make one of our books into a movie.

  2. Bruce Liebowitz says:

    Hello Susan, I just read your article on professional songwriting and you had asked a very good question. Firstly, I think being hung up on what people say is a negative us songwriters can live without. Especially, if they are counter productive to your thinking. I do get hung up on the professional thing way too much. I think you are describing the semi-pro definition. I have written songs for a local commercial business and was paid $300 for it. I have had a song considered in Nashville for Gary Allen, a pro country performer, the top three picked for consideration, but my song was passed on. What I am thinking here is if my songs are that good, then I consider myself in the arena of the professional due to the fact that my material can be construed as better than most. I also think of it as a state of mind as well. Do we think we are good enough? I was told by a publisher that I am as good as anyone out there, but still I haven’t got “The Break” yet. Stephen Foster was the first pro songwriter who had receive scant amounts of money but still was considered a pro songwriter. In summary, it is not how much money you make. it’s the love and passion behind your career that make us a professional. What do you think?

  3. Bruce, I totally agree. It’s not the money; it’s the love and passion. Thank you for sharing this.


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