Professional vs Non-Professional Writer: The Definition is Awkward

professional vs non-professional writerI see these two terms bandied about in articles, blog comments and on discussion boards. And I do get why people want to draw distinctions in the professional vs non-professional writer debate. But I think we need a different approach.

Generally the distinction is drawn something like this:

Professional writer: Someone who has a publishing contract. Many specify large publishing company only, while others are open to including small presses.

Non-professional writer: Someone who has never had a publishing contract.

Any freelance writers out there see the glaring problem with these? Exactly. There are an awful lot of people out there who write for a living who have never had a publishing contract, according to the above definitions. Some of them are also self-published (for fiction/non-fiction or both.) We are professionals, and some of us bristle at the label of “non-professional.”

I won’t even touch the argument that “if you’ve made money off your self-published books, you are by definition, a professional.” I’ve certainly seen that one debated on many a board, and while the idea (arguably) has some merit, it could apply to someone who’s sold one copy. So let’s set that one aside.

I recently read an excellent piece by Dean Wesley Smith in his “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing” series–in my opinion required reading for all aspiring writers, and worth a look even for readers. In part 6 of the series, he tackles the myth that Selling to a Big Publisher Insures Quality. Most readers of TeleRead will laugh out loud at that myth, but here’s the section I wanted to highlight:

1… How many words have you written in fiction since you started trying to write? Mystery Grand Master John D. McDonald used to say that all writers starting out had a million words of crap in them. I started selling stories just short of the million word mark and have sold some of my stories that I wrote between half-million and that first million. However, because of a house fire, I can’t look back on any of the words before that.

But if you have a bunch of stories done, maybe a novel, and have been working at writing for a time, I think you are more than safe to let readers be the judge.

2… Realize that you may have paid your storytelling dues in other areas besides fiction. Say if you have written a couple dozen plays and had a couple produced, your storytelling skills are probably pretty good. If you’ve been a reporter or worked nonfiction. Things like that. Lots of other areas transfer over into fiction writing. In that case you might be writing quality fiction right from the first hundred thousand words.

The bolding is mine. Good writing has more to do with, well, writing consistently and learning your craft. It has little to nothing to do with landing a publishing contract. It doesn’t even necessarily require being paid for your writing. I know some fanfic writers who aren’t professional in any paid sense of the word (though they are in their conduct) who are fantastic storytellers and definitely could do well as self-published authors.

Here’s my challenge to potential readers of self-published works. Don’t draw the professional vs non-professional distinction as many do. Before you reject new (to you) writers because they are self-published only, do some research. Have they written articles? Are they free-lancers? Have they written scads of (decent) fanfiction? If you like their style in other areas, maybe you’ll also like their self-published wors

Oh, and of course, download a sample first. Sadly, good writing doesn’t automatically translate to good formatting or even proofreading skills.

I ran the draft of this article past Joanna, and she had this to say in response.

To me, the distinction is more about how seriously you take it. Do you have an editor who proof-reads your work? Are you willing to spend some time on the business side of it, not just the writing side? Do you edit your writing to at least in part service a genuine market of readers? To me, the amateurs are the ones who say things like ‘the writer’s job is just to write’ or the ones who want to just write what they want without an editor touching their precious words :-)

I don’t disagree with her, but I’m not sure how many readers looking for books on Amazon (or other sites) pay attention to writers being good business people (beyond the obvious issue of looking for good proofreading). Open to thoughts on all sides of the issue, though.

5 Comments on Professional vs Non-Professional Writer: The Definition is Awkward

  1. I addressed this issue on a blog post a few years ago … the definition of “professional” is certainly nebulous, and the traditional definitions are often meaningless and ignore actual quality of writing.

    http://www.davidderrico.com/what-makes-a-professional/

  2. I like the version of “professional” that the Olympics uses for its athletes. If you’ve gotten paid for it, you’re a professional.

  3. @David, looks like you and I basically agree.

    @Chris, I don’t disagree with you, but it does bring up the “what if I sold just one book” argument. On the one hand, I was paid for it. Does that make me a professional? Many would say no, which is why I was trying for something more nuanced. I don’t think there is an answer to it, but I do want people to think before they dismiss all self-published authors an “non-professional.”

  4. Susan Lulgjuraj // December 23, 2013 at 9:15 pm //

    I’ve spent about 15 years getting paid to write — all non-fiction for newspapers and magazines. Obviously, I’m a “professional” writer.

    What happens if I decide to self-publish a fiction book tomorrow? Am I a “non-professional” fiction writer?

    There are different levels of professionalism, but I think anyone who works hard at their craft should be considered one.

  5. I once read the sample of a self-published science by an author who was so proud and happy to achieve his dream of becoming a “real” writer. I assume by “real” he meant “professional” but maybe I’m reaching. In any case, the novel was unreadable and incompetent by any normal standards, but he still to got a few star reviews on Goodreads. Friends and family? Who knows. Should this type of authors be called a professional?

    As I see it, if someone else pays you to write, be it a big publisher, small publisher, or free lance assignment, then you have the right to call your self a “Professional” writer. If you just self-publish then you’re a “Non-professional” or “amateur” if you prefer a word with a lessor sting.

    Where it can get interesting is when an established “professional” author decides to self-publish. That is ok, I think; it’s not a label you can take away, but it isn’t something you can give to yourself either.

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