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.

>How much is enough?

>When it comes to payment for articles, the answer to that question varies. At some publications, a writer is lucky to get a byline and a copy of the newspaper or magazine. At others, pay may go as high as a dollar or two per word. Quick, do the math. If you sell a 1,000-word story at a dollar a word, you get . . . $1,000. Nice. However, write a story for your local community weekly, and you’re more likely to get something ranging from $25 to $100. Maybe you’ll get your expenses paid. Maybe you’ll get a copy without having to track it down yourself.

If you’re just starting out, looking for clips and experience, take whatever they offer, especially if you don’t need the money to pay your bills and you’re having fun writing the articles. But if you’ve been at it for a while, maybe it’s time to ask for a raise or seek higher-paying markets. And if you need the money, it’s definitely time to do something.

A friend and I were both writing $75 articles for the same publication earlier this week, and we both came to the same conclusion: We should be getting more money for this.

My friend has lots of other work and is pressed for time. For me, the realization came because I can no longer count on my husband’s income when I don’t make much money. He’s in a nursing home, and his pension checks go to Medicaid now, so I’m on my own. Suddenly, maybe because I have been talking to my attorney a lot, I’m thinking “billable hours.” How does my pay look when I count the hours and materials I spent doing the story? Not so good. Ironically, the same day I was finishing my article and thinking about being underpaid, I got an e-mail from an editor who wants to reprint something I wrote a long time ago. She apologized for paying only $75. I have been paid for this story before. I don’t have to do a lick of work on it, just sign the contract and accept the money. Talk about a reality check.

I know times are tough, but most publications haven’t raised their freelance rates in decades. We all have to pay our dues, but if you feel, as I do, that you have already paid them, start asking for more money. As a woman I interviewed for my Freelancing for Newspapers book recommended, whatever they offer, respond, “That sounds a little low.” See what happens.