Monday, June 21, 2010

Hobbyist or Pro

Terri Main

I've been writing  "professionally" for right at 40 years. I've taught several hundred writing students and have been on many writing oriented email discussion lists and forums. During that time, I have met two types of writers: Hobbyists and Pros.

This distinction has nothing to do with number of sales. Some who have yet to make their first sale, I would call a pro, and some who have sold a few things, I would still call a hobbyist.

No, it is an attitude and a way of approaching writing. Hobbyists enjoy writing, but they tend not to take it seriously. Pros do. There is nothing wrong with being a hobbyist, but a hobbyist cannot expect to sell consistently or garner much respect from the writing and publishing community. Still, as a hobby, there are worse ones than writing.

So you are asking, "What makes a pro?"

There seem to be five  characteristics of a writing Pro:

A Pro is Consistent. What would happen on your job if you only came in when you felt like it? How would your boss react if you said, "I just wasn't 'inspired' to sell shoes/teach math/treat patients etc."? You wouldn't even get away with that in the publishing business. I could not walk into one of the newspaper or radio stations where I worked and claim that my muse wasn't cooperating so I couldn't cover that city council meeting or write those commercials for that new client.

A pro is consistent. He or she writes when inspired and drags the words out of the depths of his or her intellect when not. A pro shows up to work every day. A pro commits to a job and carries it through. A pro can be counted on to deliver.

A Pro is Committed to Continuing Education. Would you want to go to a doctor who hadn't read a medical journal since graduation from medical school in 1975? Would you want to go to an attorney who said he believed that legal talent was enough, and he didn't  need law school? Professionals learn their craft and then they keep honing it. As Alexander Pope wrote:

True ease in writing comes through art not chance
As those move easiest who have learned to dance
There are many ways to learn your craft. There are good books to read on the art of writing. True many of them are contradictory, but that's part of any profession. Read critically. Read the arguments in favor and opposed to certain approaches and make your own decision.

Attach yourself to a mentor. Learn from someone who already knows the ropes.

Take classes. You can find them online, at your local community college, university, recreation department, community center and other great places.

A professional also commits to lifelong learning. What worked writing magazine articles in 1980 may not work writing e-zine articles in 2010. Stay current by reading the journals like Writer's Digest and The Writer. Check out good quality writing websites and blogs. Attend conferences (and for more than trying to get your fifteen minutes with an editor or agent.) If you can't make it in person, the internet can bring the conference to you. The Muse Online Conference and The Catholic Writers Conference Online  are two examples.

A Pro is Self Motivated.  Sometimes writing can be lonely. You sit in your office or den or the library typing away on your computer knowing that if you write two thousand words, one thousand of them will be garbage and have to be cut. You struggle to give a character life, only to kill that character in Chapter 25. You fear your well of ideas will run dry. And you struggle with all this alone.

People who don't do what we do can't understand what we do and why we do it. Some may be patronizing. Some may be awed. Some may be deprecating.  Few will understand. Don't get discouraged. Draw your strength from within. When you get those words just right, you know a feeling the others will never feel.

A Pro Works in Spite of Feelings. Right now, my back is aching, I have an earache, and I think I'm coming down with the flu. Nevertheless, I set out a goal to write the first draft of this article tonight. When I finish, I will crawl into bed, snuggle down under my covers and pamper myself.  Sometimes you have to resign yourself to writing a thousand words of drivel because that's how you warm up to writing the good stuff. Sometimes you just write because you have a goal set for the day and you push yourself to meet that goal. How you feel is irrelevant.

A Pro is Open to Competent Criticism.  Once I begin to consider myself perfect and my words sacrosanct, that's when I need to pack up my writing career. I have to understand that my vision is not always perfect. I have an editor at Muse It Up who is great at catching things I missed. I find myself slapping my forehead and saying, "Why didn't I see that?" Professional integrity is not the same as bullheaded stubbornness.You sacrifice nothing by listening to competent criticism. You gain much by taking it to heart.

It's okay to be a hobbyist. As a pastime, writing offers great opportunities for enjoyment and satisfaction. For some of us, though, that is not enough. We want to be professionals. That means, though, we have to stop acting like hobbyists.


Krista D. Ball said...

Thanks Terri. Writing is my profession. I do other things, but my goal is to make writing my career, my profession, my job - whatever you want to call it. Just like I can't tell my magazine editor that I don't feel like writing an article, I can't tell my fiction that I don't feel like writing it.

But I do understand why some people are hobbyists. I love wild plants. I love going through the woods with a guide book and identifying edible wild plants. But to make a job out of that? Go to school and be a botanist? Oh lord, no. That would ruin all of the fun.

So, I do get the difference.

Heather Haven said...

Terri, you are so on the money. I have always said that I may write light and fluffy stuff but I take the writing of it very seriously. Thanks for a very thought-provoking article and a reaffirmation of what we do.

Krista D. Ball said...


Why are there people who think that your level of seriousness in writing is directly related to lack of fluff? Granted it, I generally write dark, heavy fantasy, but I also write some crazy, silly science fiction.

Further, I don't see why *other writers* come down on romance and erotica authors, thinking that these folks don't have the same talent as other authors. Sorry, I don't buy that at all. Romance is not easy for me to write; erotica is impossible. It's a skill set that not everyone has. Why on earth is fun stuff considered less in the writing world by *some*?

/ends rant before getting worked up

Unknown said...

Great article, Terri. I've moved my writing hobby to a business recently. Just like at my primary job, there are days I don't want to research, outline, and build a product/draft. I write even when I'm not feeling totally artistic. I push through and have seen my "productive word count" become more consistent, even in those rougher days.

Oddly enough, I've also see less unproductive days that are associated with emotions/moods. (Maybe not so odd when you think about it.)

Lin said...

I am constantly impressed with you, Terri and your wide range of brilliance. I envy the students who have been the beneificiaries of your wisdom over those 40 years, and am grateful to now be one of the lucky Muse family who daily is enriched by sharing this ground breaking new dream with you. Rock on Terri.

Christine London said...

This is a discussion that is seldom brought into the light. We as artists have a special sort of challenge when the so called muse is silent. Yet in this business there are so many things for an author to do with promotion, research and administrative tasks there simply is not a good reason not to have finger on keys seriously for a professional portion of the day. It is this variety that keeps the profession interesting IMHO. Yes...a writer can allow him/herself to become distracted by the allure available online, but in the end I believe much of what is available adds to the expertise required to be a professional author. Like athletes, we may spend a relatively small percentage of the work day flexing our literary muscles, but preparedness to do so can not be underestimated. What is the famous bit of wisdom?? Success comes when preparedness meets opportunity.
The Mona Lisa was not painted by a novice to the feel, texture and craft of painting. How long did the actual piece of art take to paint?? A few days or weeks with brush to canvas...a lifetime preparing to express the beauty garnered through study, attention to detail and expertise.
Great article, Terri. Thanks.
Christine London

Beth Reinke said...

You make many good points, Terri. Thank you for sharing your wisdom gleaned over the years.

And Christine, I love how you compared writers to athletes, with preparing taking more time than the actual "performance." So true, but a new way of looking at it that will help me feel good about the time spent on organizing, learning and marketing. :o)

J.Q. Rose said...

Eye-opening explanation of a pro writer. I always think of a pro as being paid for the work, but you do make a case for not basing professionalism on monetary gain. Great points.

Kay Dee said...

Hi Terri,
Awesome article. You may have poked the bear inside me, just a little - is there a possibility there's an in between hobbyist and pro writer? Pro-hobb...probable? Hmmm