One LinuxWorld Expo, Maximum Linux and Linux Magazine had booths next to each other. Near the end of third day, as journalists lounged around the booths talking, a free software celebrity approached. “Look,” he said, singling out a single magazine from a display. “There’s my issue!”
He wasn’t talking about an issue featuring an interview with him. He was talking about an issue in which he had published a small and rather minor article.
The assembled journalists looked around, as embarrassed at this flash of ego as though a puppy had relieved itself on the carpet. No one wanted to point out the obvious: that most of the journalists had dozens of articles in the displayed magazines, and that bragging about your work just wasn’t done.
I was new to writing at the time, but I quickly absorbed this lesson about the difference between professionals and amateurs. Professionals take the work seriously, but not themselves. Amateurs and semi-professionals reverse the priority, so for them writing and publication is all about ego.
What other differences are there? Considering the number of people who describe themselves as writers in their Facebook and Twitter profiles, the question is worth answering.
Here are some of the other differences I’ve observed:
- Professionals work when they need to, amateurs when they feel like: If you graduate from university, publishing isn’t that difficult, especially if your editor is willing to guide you. Amateurs, though, are likely to sit back and glow in the bask of accomplishment when they sell an article, and not write another one until the mood strikes them. Professionals may celebrate sending off an article by taking the rest of the afternoon off, but usually they’ve no sooner finished one article before they need to start thinking of the next.
- Professionals are pragmatists, amateurs perfectionists: Professionals take pride in their work, but they also have a perspective on their work. They know they aren’t writing deathless prose most of the time, but something that will be forgotten in a few weeks. By contrast, amateurs will labor far past the point where improvements are worth the time and effort. Professionals don’t have time for endless tinkering.
- Professionals judge their work by results, amateurs by efforts: Like high school students, amateurs assume that their work should be judged by how hard they try. Professionals recognize that their work is judged by results – and that an article that is long or takes hours to write can fail as easily as a short, quick piece.
- Professionals make deadlines or explain why: To amateurs, submitting an article on time is less important than their perfectionism. Professionals know that when they miss deadlines, they are letting their editors and other people down. I’ve heard amateurs laugh about missing deadlines, but rarely a professional. If a professional does joke about deadlines, they sound distinctly guilty.
- Professionals accept criticism, amateurs are hostile to it: Sometimes professionals complain about editing, but they are usually sharp-tempered because of other matters when they do – or right. But, having invested so much more in their work, amateurs have trouble accepting that their work could be improved. In fact, many amateurs become angry if their work receives anything except praise.
- Professionals edit to improve the work, amateurs to make it sound more like them: To a degree, all editing is affected by the editor’s own habits of writing (in fact, I can predict fairly accurately what changes an editor is likely to ask in a piece once I’ve worked with them a few times). The difference is that professionals try not to rewrite a piece by someone else as though they had written it. Amateurs don’t make this distinction, imagining through inexperience or ego that the way they write is the only possible way to write.
There are probably other differences, but these are the most common ones. Professionals, I suspect, will nod in agreement at them. Amateurs will probably either be angered by what I said, or else guiltily recognize their own faults.
Needless to say, it’s those who recognize themselves in my comments who have the best chance of making the transition to professionals. Other amateurs might also make the transition, but their progression is likely to be rockier, and include longer and more frequent detours.