Archive for June 8th, 2007

I’ve thought of myself as an aspiring writer for so long that I took several years to realize that I had become a professional. The regular checks from Linux Journal and SourceForge should have tipped me off earlier, but somehow my situation seemed more a fantasy than a reality. My change of status only sunk in when I tried to describe what was happening to an acquaintance from school, and – more importantly – when a couple of people emailed me recently asking how they could break in to professional journalism.

The first time, I didn’t know what to say, but, the second time, I started to codify the differences between a professional and an amateur writer, based on my own experiences and observations:

Professionals don’t wait for inspiration before working
Often, of course, profesionals can’t wait for inspiration because they have deadlines. But, even more fundamentally, professionals have learned that word done when you’re inspired is not necessarily better than work done when you’re not in the mood. What’s far more important is to keep in practice by writing regularly.

Professionals don’t obsess over grammar
Naturally, professional writer care about clarity and precision. But grammar is only one of the means to those ends. I’ve yet to meet a practicing writer who doesn’t cheerfully break any rule in the textbook if they can write more effectively by doing so.

Professionals submit work in readable form
Remember the story of great writers who submit work full of spelling and presentation errors and written on the back of napkins and paper bags? Some of them are true – but very few. And even in those cases that are true, the writers are often handicapping themselves by creating a reputation as difficult.

For anyone else, ignoring the advantages of a clean presentation that follows the publishers’ style guides is career suicide. The less work that editors need to do in order to make your work ready for publication, the more likely they are to accept it – assuming, of course, that it is at least minimally competent. It takes very unique content to make an editor accept the extra work required to correct poor presentation.

Anyway, you don’t want mistakes to distract from what you say. Think of the editors to whom you submit work as people with Adult Attention Deffict Disorder. Anything you can do to ensure that they’re not distracted from your content is only going to help you.

Professionals meet deadlines
At Linux.com, the editors regularly accept story pitches from amateurs. Yet a surprising number – maybe as many as two-thirds – never return with the finished story. For editors who constantly need content, writers who do what they promise when they promise are rare assets. In fact, writers who finish what they start are so valuable that editors may prefer them to people who write better stories but are more erratic.

Professionals accept editing (mostly)
Edit amateurs, and you are likely to get protests. They’ve usually worked long and hard to produce their writing, so they’ve become fiercely attached to the results. Professionals don’t like editing any better than amateurs, but they’ve learned to accept it. They know that publications may have style guides that differ from their personal preferences, and that writing may have to be edited to fit a given space. They’ve learned, too, that a trustworthy editor can make them look better, or at least keep them from making mistakes in public. Professonals may complain if an editior changes the sense of what they’re saying – but then they will try to respond calmly. Those who do otherwise rarely last in the ranks of professionals.

Professionals take the work seriously, not themselves
For amateurs, writing is tangled up with their sense of who they like to be. Accepted professionals, by contrast, don’t have anything to prove. They know that their work is going to be uneven, and that they’re going to make mistakes sometimes. Having done the best they could under the circumstances, they know enough to let the work go. They still find praise gratifying or abuse deflating, but they realize that their work is not them.

Professionals write
At some point or other, anyone who has hung around amateur writers has been cornered by someone willing to talk at great length about their plans for some great work. My own worst experience was a house guest who kept wanting me to read her fan fiction when the kindest comment I could muster was, “Oh. Typed, I see.”

By contrast, few professionals will give more than a sentence or two about their current work. Some are afraid that talking will replace writing – and, considering the example of amateurs, they might be right. However, the basic reason that professionals don’t talk about works in progress is that they are too busy planning or working. Writers, by definition, save their efforts for writing.

You may notice that I only talk about work habits and say nothing about the differences between how amateurs and professional use language. The reason for this omission is not that I’m a crass commercialist, but that there is little to say.

Many amateurs show that they have a love of language and some skill in using it, yet they never become professionals. Conversely, I know several professionals who have no more than basic competence in the way they use language. So, I conclude that talent alone does not distinguish the professional from the amateur.

Instead, the difference is your willlingness to work and your attitude towards the way things are done. Amateurs are unwilling or unable to adjust, so their love of language remains a part-time interest. Professionals work and adjust, and are rewarded by being able to do what they love for a living. In the end, the difference comes down to attitude rather than talent.

That suggestion is both good new and bad news to amateurs. On the one hand, it suggests that you don’t need to be special — or not very — to become professional. On the other hand, it does sugges that you need discipline and flexibility — and those may be even rarer than talent.

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