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.

>Don’t Believe Everything You Read

>A recent article on how to get a newspaper job had me writing comments in the margins along the lines of “No!” and “Not a chance.” I worry about the bad advice that circulates in the writing business, playing on people’s hopes with misinformation. Please, don’t believe everything you read.

Let me refute some of the things in this article.

1) Part-time newspaper jobs can be gained by writers with little experience. No. This is unlikely. The smallest of small-town rags may hire students as interns or cub reporters, but even they need some training and some proof they can put a story together.

2) Letters to the editor can lead to a job on a newspaper. Not a chance. Letters to the editor are not articles, and editors do not hire writers based on their letters.

3) After you study the paper and write some letters, the next logical step is to do a job shadow. Most companies welcome people to do this. Maybe in other businesses, but I can’t imagine having someone follow me around all day while I work. It might be okay to have company while doing interviews, but when it comes to writing and meeting deadlines, I assure you no reporter or editor wants somebody hanging around to watch.

4) You can become a stringer—freelancer—for a paper with little or no experience, just a desire to learn. Again, no. Newspaper editors do not have time to teach you how to write. They need you to show up with the necessary skills already in hand.

5) When you want to write for a paper, call and keep calling. God, no. Every time you interrupt the editor’s work with your phone call, you make a negative impression. Do not keep calling and begging. Instead, query with your best ideas, follow up briefly and politely, and accept no for an answer if that is the response. If they encourage you to try again, do it.

Next time, I’ll discuss five more pieces of misinformation given to wannabe writers. Meanwhile, have a great Thanksgiving. While you’re passing the turkey, can you think of a few article ideas? I’ll bet you can.
Have you purchased your copy of Freelancing for Newspapers yet?