Thursday, November 17, 2011

Must Writers Be Professional?

As a recap from my post last week, let's look back at Merriam-Webster for a some pertinent definitions (according to the unabridged online dictionary):

participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs (definition 2a)
the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or a professional person" (definition 1a)

Ergo, if you're seeking financial return from your writing, you're a professional. If you're not seeking financial return, you're not.

Notice that there's no time limiter in there. Someone who has a plan for financial return in the long run despite a plan for no financial return in the short term would still count as a professional.

But must writers be professionals?

In self-publishing, in freelance writing, there's a common attitude that you must be professional, else you shouldn't be writing.

Funny. It was my dabbling (for fun) as a teenager that gave me the skills to be what I am now: author, proofreader, tutor, etc. I didn't even know freelancing existed at the time, but I unprofessionally wrote articles to help friends, critiqued their papers (and they mine), and proofread everything I saw or heard. (There's a reason my mother adds "Do NOT proofread this!" to notes she leaves around the house for me.)

I would spend hours teaching basic grammar to fellow fan fiction writers. Some of you readers even know me from way back when. I remember reading comments on someone's story, to see someone respond to my comment: "Oh, don't mind her; she's rude and a little mean." I remember the time I spent a good hour per (short) chapter, critiquing someone's story per that author's request, and the author having to defend me publicly when her other readers came after me.

Any hobby has its dabblers. The artist who takes a year to make a painting for a friend. The sculptor who produces clay objects now and again when she wants them. The knitter who makes toys to give away. The poet who only bothers to write poetry if she forgets to buy a card for a friend's wedding. (Only those last two are me.)

Okay, so others might tell such creative folks that they should sell their work, but if they don't want to, nobody will flip out and ask them why they even bother with their hobby.

Whereas a writer who insists on being "unprofessional" and giving their work away for free gets insulted and pressured to stop writing.


Okay, so I suspect I know why. Writers are generally under-appreciated and underpaid. Look at how often writers are pressured to accept "exposure" as appropriate payment for something. (Dude, if I want exposure instead of payment, I'll make that call, thanks.) Newbie freelance writers, seeking work online, are often pressured to take paltry amounts of a few cents per word—

And I bet that paltry amount, offered to freelance writers, stems from fiction markets. See, magazines and e-zines are deemed as "pro" 'zines if they pay a minimum of 5¢ per word for fiction. A would-be freelancer (or someone looking to hire freelancers) might see that, not realize the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—or between FNASR and "all rights"—and therefore offer something that seems reasonable to them… with it actually being a fraction of standard freelance rates.

Many types of freelancers give up all rights to what they produce. Add a "0" to the end of what's generally offered for fiction, and you'll be closer to hitting a standard freelance rate.

That difficulty many writers have finding respect and appropriate payment probably makes them a wee sensitive when someone waltzes in and says, "I don't care about the money! I just want to be read!"

You know, there are music artists who offer their music free, too, as downloads or just for streaming online. Maybe it's just where I hang out online, but I haven't heard anyone accusing such artists of devaluing music.

Not everyone's trying to write for their "day job", just like not everyone's trying to paint or sculpt or knit or sing as a job. They might do it for fun and share it for fun.

So no, I don't think writers must be professional, whether they write fiction or non-fiction.

What's your take?


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