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 do I get my article published?

I received an email request recently from a reader named Ron. He tells me he has been journaling and writing letters to pen pals and to newspapers for years. He has also self-published a book which sold all 500 copies. What follows is an excerpt from that letter, as well as my reply.

I have a small, painless favor to ask for which I’d be very grateful for help with. I want to write a newspaper article on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the passing of a legendary singer who is often over-looked and forgotten. The date is in February but I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject. I don’t know anything about freelancing or the business but I want it to be one of those articles that gets picked up by papers all across the country. I don’t know where to begin on how to make that happen. But if you could point me in that direction with step one or step two I’d be forever grateful.

Dear Ron,

I’m going to respond to your letter both here and in my blog because your request is a common one, and many readers would be interested in the answer.

First, congratulations for your life-long love of writing. All those journal entries and letters have no doubt made you comfortable with the written word, and that’s a wonderful thing. Congratulations on selling 500 copies of your book. That’s quite an accomplishment.

However, what you ask is not “a small, painless favor.” What you are asking me to do is to distill the entire contents of my Freelancing for Newspapers book into one email. That’s neither small nor painless, especially right after Christmas when I’m typing in my sleep because my day job (and yes, like most freelance writers with bills to pay, I have one) is playing and singing music at church.

I hate to say it, but it would take a small miracle to get the article you describe published. First, you have a blatant grammatical error in your first paragraph. An editor reading “I must have wrote” would stop reading right there.

Second, journal entries and letters to the editor do not qualify one to write newspaper articles. Neither does a self-published book unless it’s on the same subject that you want to write about.

Third, when you say “I can easily write the article in no time as I am an expert on the subject,” you have totally cut off any chance of being accepted. A good article takes time and effort, and your lack of humility is a real red flag to an editor.

Fourth, when you say you don’t know anything about freelancing but you want your article to get picked up by papers all across the country, you show that you have no clue how that happens.

If you truly want to sell this article to an editor, you must:

1) Research the market and find a suitable newspaper to approach

2) Write a query letter that includes an attention-getting opening, an explanation of why that newspaper’s readers would be interested in your article, a description of why you’re qualified to write it, and some samples of your previous work

3) If you get the assignment, you must research, write and revise until it’s the best article you could possibly write, following whatever guidelines you get from the editor, and hope that it’s published in ONE newspaper.

You might approach some of the syndicated news services listed in Writers Market, but only a few take one-shot submissions, and they won’t assign a piece to a writer with no experience writing articles of the sort they use.

I don’t want to burst your bubble on the day after Christmas. There are all kinds of writing, and it’s good that you’ve done well with letters and with your mom’s obituary. That’s a real gift. I’m impressed with the success of your book. But that doesn’t necessarily qualify you to write a newspaper article. You can learn, you can get experience and clips and move into article-writing, but you have to work your way up.

If you’re still determined to try, talk to a local editor to get a clear picture of what you need to do to write an article they will publish. Send out some queries and see what happens.

Don’t stop writing.

Best of luck,


I welcome your comments and questions.

Lesson from the Other Side of the Editor’s Desk: They Want What?

You spend 20 hours researching a great idea, e.g., why kids join gangs, and it’s rejected. Three months (or six months or a year) later, the editor calls: Will you write an article on how to plan the perfect wedding?

Despite the way writing publications constantly encourage us to query with our great ideas, most magazines are planned in-house. Editors and staff decide what stories they want to have written, then find writers to do it. They have annual special sections and departments to fill, and they always have to think about their advertisers. The wedding story fits into their bridal section and will help sell ads to every business that deals with weddings. The gangs article may be fantastic, but it doesn’t fit anywhere, and it doesn’t sell anything. There are publications that handle serious issues, but most of them are newspapers or journals with private funding, not the slick magazines sold at Safeway.

Why did they call you to write about weddings? Your query showed them you were a competent writer. They decided you were worth a try. Pat yourelf on the back and start calling wedding consultants. Once they know you, they’ll be open to your ideas and might even find a way to work that gangs story into a future issue.

One way to get inside the process is to look at magazines’ editorial calendars. These rough out the themes and featured topics for upcoming issues. They are routinely given to advertisers to encourage them to buy ads. Do a search for “editorial calendars” or, more specifically, your target magazine’s calendar and see where you can match your talents to their desires. For example, I just looked up the Horizon airline magazine’s calendar. It’s listed under its parent publication at http://alaskaairlinesmagazine.com/horizonedition/editorial. I see that they’re featuring Southern Oregon, the 2012 summer Olympics in England, and gourmet ice cream in July and doing a special section on Idaho in October. Hmmm.

If you really want to write for a specific magazine, study it so well that you know exactly what the editor is looking for and when, then offer to provide it. A good query may get your foot in the door, but the right query will have them inviting you in and offering you a chair.

Lessons from the Other Side of the Editor’s Desk: Response time

I thought I knew a lot about magazines. When I agreed to substitute as editor at a local regional magazine a while back, I figured my years of newspaper work and freelance writing made me an expert on how magazines were planned, put together and published. Wrong!

Writers who think editors are monsters who mangle their manuscripts and laugh at their frustrations have not yet learned the lessons I learned working as one of them. In the next few posts, I will share what I found out. You may be surprised.

1. Why is it taking so long?

You send out the query or manuscript, wait a month, and start to get antsy. Geez, they should have responded by now; what’s holding this up? Maybe they like my idea. No, maybe they hate it. No, maybe . . .

The truth? Maybe nobody has even looked at it yet. It could have gone to an editor who no longer works there and now it’s sitting in a pile of letters nobody knows what to do with. The editor might have opened it, read it, and set it aside to deal with after deadline or until the story meeting, at which the editor, publisher and various staff members discuss content for upcoming issues.

If your submission arrives in the wrong part of the cycle, it could be two months before anyone gives it any serious thought. Or, maybe the editor likes it, but someone else on the staff has to approve it and that someone is too busy to look at it. Or, they like it, but your article on the new sea otter farm doesn’t fit into the special issue they’re preparing on June weddings, so they want to “keep it on file” indefinitely.

Lesson: Be patient. It seems like a long time, and it is, but you can’t change the system by nagging the editor. You can only annoy her until she rejects you just to get you off her back. Wait under the response time stated in their guidelines has passed, then send an e-mail or make a polite phone call to see what’s happening. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer and you have a better place to sell your work, tell the editor and then do it. Meanwhile, take your mind off the delay by working on other writing projects.

Next week: Why would an editor ask me to write something completely different from what I proposed in my query letter?

>Have you seen these sites?

>Dear friends,
I admit that I have been missing in action lately. In addition to being sick (still), I’ve been dealing with my husband’s illness, which is very bad and has me commuting 140 miles every other day. So, today I am sharing some sites that will give you plenty of good reading and resources while I’m off dealing with life beyond the computer.

If you don’t know about the Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ, check it out. This link,http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/freelance/?p=575 tips on freelancing for newspapers, will give you tips on freelancing for newspapers. From there, you can easily click to the home page and find out about the many benefits of joining SPJ or just reading their website.

Marcia Yudkin has been offering wonderful advice to freelancers through her books, articles and blogs for years. Her Freelance Writing FAQ is just loaded with information.

One of Writer’s Digests top 10 websites for writers is Michelle Rafter’s WordCount:Freelancing in the Digital Age. You’ll find plenty to keep you busy there.

Enjoy. See you when the smoke clears.
Have you purchased your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers yet?