On writing

Are you a professional writer?

Note. This article has been extensively edited. If you want to read the new version, please see An Exercise in Rewriting instead.
Are you a ‘professional’ writer

Wow. Poor Lisa Morton. I bet she didn’t expect the outpouring of vitriol in response to her article ‘Ten questions to know if you’re a pro‘ on the Horror Writers’ Association Los Angeles site.

In her article Lisa gives a pop-quiz list of ten things that define whether you’re a professional writer or a hobbyist. Answer yes to at least eight of the ten questions and you’re a professional writer, rather than a hobbyist.

Most of the people arguing about her article seem to take umbrage at her definition of ‘professional writer’. They argue that you are only a professional writer if you have been paid for your work.

They object to her using the term in any other way.

They also object to questions like:

  • Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing?
  • Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead?

with answers like, “No, my place is not messy because I like a clean house,” and “So because I want to spend time with my friends I’m not a professional writer”.


If you write full-time and make money out of it, the article wasn’t aimed at you

Despite John Palisano’s note at the bottom of the article

… I also believe Lisa was not intending to include most writers who need to work day jobs in order to support their writing habits.

I’m choosing to interpret Lisa’s article as intended exactly for writers who do need to work day jobs to support their writing habits. So John, I’m assuming you meant to put a don’t in there, in front of need.

… I also believe Lisa was not intending to include most writers who [don’t] need to work day jobs in order to support their writing habits.

I’m basing my assumption on an article Lisa wrote back in 2011 for Cemetery Dance Extras, where she says:

Let’s chat briefly first about your day job. Unless you’re lucky enough to be living on a trust fund or have a rich family, you have a day job. I’m going to assume that you have a day job that doesn’t leave you so overworked or stressed out that you’re simply too exhausted to write. If you’ve got one of those jobs that requires you to work 70 or 80 hours a week, just stop reading this article right now. Seriously. You’ve already committed to one job to such an extent that you’ve left no time for a second one, and you need to think of writing as a full-time job in order to succeed. You’re probably already late getting back to work anyway; go, be happy, make a zillion dollars, and leave the writing to those of us who are willing to work day jobs that allow us enough time and energy to write in our off hours.

Focus! How Writers Can Improve Their Productivity by Lisa Morton

If I’m wrong, apologies to both Lisa and John. I can’t pretend to know exactly what Lisa meant. There’s an implied author and an implied reader in between what she wrote and how I read it, but this is how I understood the article to be.

If you write full time this article wasn’t meant for you. You have an extra 40 hours in the week the rest of us don’t. You have time to write. You need to take a break from it, in the same way the rest of us need time away from the job that pays our bills.

Many published authors work part or full time. These people make time to write. Whether that be to turn of the television or to pay for services. N. K. Jemsin, for example, talks about what she is prepared to pay for to give her extra writing time in The Price of Time.


The many different meanings of ‘professional’

My Macquarie dictionary defines professional as:

  • Following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain
  • Relating or appropriate to a profession
  • Engaged in one of the learned professions
  • Following as a business an occupation ordinarily engaged in as a pastime
  • Making a business of something not properly regarded as a business
  • Someone belonging to one of the learned or skilled professions
  • Someone who makes a business of an occupation, etc., especially of an art or sport, in which amateurs engage for amusement or recreation
  • An expert in a game or sport, hired by a sports club to instruct members.

Macquarie Concise Dictionary Fourth Edition 2006

Sure, making money is one way of defining profession, and Morton agrees with that.

Working in any job at a professional level involves not just making money at that job …

Then she continues on to say

… but [also] thinking of that job as your career. When you have a career (as compared to simply a job), you sacrifice for that career and you look for ways to advance in that career and practice it way more than just forty hours a week.

The way I read the article I assumed she was talking about the writers who say they want to write but never have time to, because they’re too busy doing other things. I know writers like that. Most of us do.

This was confirmed by a comment John Palisano made on Brian Keene’s On Professional Elitism, and Things More Important (about Morton’s article) where he said:

I knew the story behind it, which we/I should’ve posted. It was aimed at a group of folks she’d interacted with that complained they never had time to write, but then went on and on about their favorite TV shows, what they were making for dinner, the weather…so it wasn’t really intended as a broad swath against all writers.

John Palisano, commenting on Brian Keen’s On Professional Elitism, and Things More Important. Comment on August 6, 2013 at 12:20pm

Note that while I agree that if you’re serious about writing you should knuckle down and work at it, rather than just something you do as a hobby, you still need a work-life balance. Life is for living. Don’t become too caught up with your career that you forget you have a life.


What I think Morton was really trying to say

You don’t become a ballet dancer by sitting around talking about how great a dancer you are going to be. You dance. You make time to practise every day. After you finish dance school you might be lucky enough to get a job in a dance troupe, but you’re equally likely to have to take a job waiting on tables while you’re looking for that job. What do you do? Sit around every night after work and talk about what a great dancer you’re going to be? Spend all your spare time watching television? Of course not. You work at your craft. If you really want to be a dancer you’ll spend hours every day practising. You’ll sacrifice other parts of your life—parties, television, even friends sometimes—to work at your craft. You know you can’t stop, because there are hundreds of other talented people out there just like you who want to make it as a dancer.

Auditions? You’re working a full-time job just to pay the rent. When do you get to do auditions? Outside working hours. Otherwise you take leave.

If you’re serious about your dancing career—dare I say, professional—then you work at it.

It’s exactly the same principle if you want to be a writer. You work at it. You have a goal and work toward it. Your life revolves around that goal.


Morton isn’t the only one saying it

The same day I read Morton’s article (which I initially heard about via other outraged author sites) the August issue of the [WQ] magazine arrived in my mailbox. In it, Linda Stewart has an article called Making Time to Write, where she suggests some simple strategies for making time to write.  Some of these are very similar to Morton’s, such as:

  • Turn off the TV
  • Get off the internet
  • Learn to say no.


My take

To me, Lisa Morton was saying that if you’re serious about being a professional writer then you should be working toward that goal, not just sitting around talking about it.

You know what? I agree with her.

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