Reading the labels

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach


“I don’t believe any of you suffer as I do,” cried Amy, “for you don’t have to go to school with impertinent girls, who plague you if you don’t know your lessons, and laugh at your dresses, and label your father if he isn’t rich, and insult you when your nose isn’t nice.”

“If you mean libel, I’d say so, and not talk about labels, as if Papa was a pickle bottle,” advised Jo, laughing.

– Louisa May Alcott, from Little Women

Lately I’ve been thinking about the term “professional,” as in “professional writer,” and how it gets defined. I almost wish there was something in between professional and amateur. It seems that a lot of people (maybe most?) define professional as making your living from writing, which (barring some unexpected bestseller) is something I don’t really expect to be able to do. It might be nice (or it might not–there’s a certain freedom in not having to write), but I don’t look at that as a realistic goal right now. So from that perspective, perhaps I’m an amateur and will always be one.

On the other hand, amateur — despite all the clichéd attempts to reclaim its original meaning of “one who loves” — still has a certain connotation of hobbyist, and by extension, someone who doesn’t take what they’re doing seriously or have ambition for it. (Never mind that there are lots of people who take their hobbies very, very seriously, perhaps more so than their day jobs.) I can’t help bristling a bit at the thought of calling myself an amateur/hobbyist, because I do take this seriously and have ambitions for it, even if I don’t meet all the criteria people want to put in place for what “real” or “serious” writers do (certain number of words per day, certain number of days per week, and so on). But again, even though it’s become a nice way to pick up a spare bit of pocket money, I don’t make my living from it, not even close.

On the other other hand, I’ve been published in pro-level markets, so in some circles I suppose that might qualify me to call myself a professional. And I’ve also come across a few people over the years who consider a writer a pro if they’ve been paid for their writing, regardless of how much or where. (From my perspective, the main qualification that comes to my mind when I think of professional is either having published a book with a major publisher or, at the very least, publishing one’s short stories in pro-level markets on a regular basis.)

Part of the issue, of course, is that sometimes I think we’re just using these terms in an us-versus-them kind of way, to size each other up. I remember being in a forum years ago where someone had asked a simple question about average word counts for different categories of fiction. I replied with some info I’d picked up probably from Writer’s Digest or somewhere — and then someone else came in and responded to me with “Spoken like a true unpublished amateur,” or something to that effect, and proceeded to correct me. I remember wanting to reply that if being a professional made me act like a condescending jerk to someone who was just trying to help, I’d just as soon stay an amateur, thank you very much. (Come to think of it, I may have actually said something like that. I picked a lot more fights — er, participated in lively debates — on the Internet in those days. These days I’ve learned it’s usually better to roll my eyes and move on in silence.)

And I don’t think the labels are really important to the reader. I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone reading my work truly cares whether I have a day job or whether I write every day — at least, not as more than just idle curiosity; there’s no value judgment in it.

The only useful purpose for these sorts of terms that I can think of, in the end, is to distinguish writers with different sorts of goals — ones who write mainly for personal satisfaction, versus ones who pursue publication, versus those who have the goal of earning the majority of their income from writing. Even then, though, something about the distinctions feels artificial — maybe because they’re all about income and publishing and not about the process of writing itself. Whether we’re going to post something to our website or send it to a zine or a pro market or an agent, whether we’ve written one short story or twenty books, published dozens of pieces or nothing at all, we’re all sitting in front of a blank page, trying to get the words right.

So am I a professional, or an amateur, or something in between, or something else? (I admit I kind of like Codex‘s term “neo-pro,” mainly because it both sounds cool and fits where I’m at right now, career-wise.)

All I’m sure about is that I’m a writer. I write with the goal of publishing what I write, somewhere, and with a strong preference for being paid for what I write, when feasible, and with the hope of constantly publishing in bigger and more widespread (and yes, better-paying) markets as I keep learning and getting better myself. Whatever that makes me, that’s what I am.


2 thoughts on “Reading the labels

  1. I love your definition, and you’re right. Readers don’t care. All they care about is the story, and if they like that, they care about whether you are going to produce a new story soon. Which means that, amateur or professional, we need to keep on writing! 🙂

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