Writer, Professional, Good

Here are three questions I was recently asked about writing. I’m going to condense the questions, because when they were asked, they meandered across several paragraphs; they boil down to three sentences, which are:

When may you call yourself a writer? When may you call yourself a professional writer? When may you say you are a good writer?

These are three separate but related questions. Let’s start with the most fundamental.

When may you call yourself a writer?

I tend to be very small-c catholic on this question and say that if you write at all, you can consider yourself a writer. This annoys people who think that tweeting about your lunch or posting on Facebook that your cat horked up a hairball does not rise to the level of true writing, but, look, writing is an act of setting down in words the things about which you have a concern. If you are literate and you can manage to create meaning from the written word, you are, on a very basic level, a writer, even if what you’re writing is “I’ve gone to the store for milk. Be back soon.”

But for the sake of argument, let’s tighten this up a bit. Let’s say that just being able to write a meaningful sentence doesn’t make you a writer, any more than being able to lie with a straight face makes you an actor, or doodling in a boring meeting makes you an artist. So where does the line exist, over which one may say “I’m a writer”?

In this scenario, the line manifests with intent. Does the person sending out an e-mail about where everyone is meeting for after-work drinks intend to write? Other than in the most practical and mechanical sense, no. E-mailing everyone is simply the easiest way to get the information to the largest number of people involved, with the best chance those people will get the information. If it were easier and more practical to send a group voice mail, that would be what would happen.

A writer, on the other hand, chooses written words, and chooses them not just for mechanical and practical reasons, but for (or also for) esthetic and artistic purposes. Writers want to write, rather than have to write. In presenting an idea, the medium they intend for it to be in is the written word.

This is still a bar too low for some people, but screw them, those guys are snobs. I say that if you want to write, and then you do write, then you are writer.

However, it doesn’t make you a good writer. I’ll give you an example, using a different creative field. I recently got a ukulele, and I enjoy playing it, and I actively make music with it. I am a musician. But I’m not a good musician, because right now my chording is merely adequate and my strumming is marginal. I’m no Jake Shimabukuro, nor am I likely ever to be. But that’s fine because I don’t play ukulele to be the best ukulele player ever; I play it because I enjoy it and it’s fun.

Likewise, people may call themselves “writers” even if they recognize they are not very good at it at the moment, or if they suspect they may never be, but just enjoy it anyway. The act of writing — of putting ideas into the medium of the written word — is sufficient. You write? You meant to do that? What you’ve written is intelligible to other humans? Congratulations, you’re a writer.

When may you call yourself a professional writer?

Are you writing with the intent to be paid? Are you being paid? Is writing consistently one of the ways in which you make your living over time? If the answers to each of these is “yes,” then you can probably get away with calling yourself a “professional writer.”

Note that writing, in general, is not a profession in the same manner as being a medical doctor is a profession. You don’t have to go to school to be a writer (I didn’t), you don’t need to have a degree or a certification in the subject to practice it (I don’t), you don’t have to be licensed to do it (at least not in the US) and there are few if any laws that govern its practice. Now, you can go to school for writing, get degrees in the field and even join associations or unions of writers, who may have their own definitions of what constitutes a professional level of achievement (see, as an example, the membership requirements for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I am currently president). But those are choices, not requirements. If you write science fiction and fantasy, you should belong to SFWA (thus ends my plug). But if you don’t, it’s not as if the police will come to the door and arrest you for fraud.

“Professional” in this sense means that you are in the stream of commerce — which is to say, you offer your writing (or your talents as a writer) for sale, and your writing and/or talents are being used and compensated for by others. In my own opinion, for saying that you’re a professional writer, it helps to be able to show that you’ve been able to make money at writing over time. Getting paid for any writing is not a bad thing, mind you. If you get paid for it, whatever the circumstance, then good for you. But let me give you an example from my own experience. When I was in college, I took third place in a student writing competition for a short story, for which I received $250. I got paid for that writing. Did it make me a professional writer of fiction? Not really, since I didn’t then write another piece of fiction for sale for another decade.

I sold a science fiction short to Strange Horizons in 2001, but it too was something of a one-off, more of an experiment to see if I could sell a short story than an entrance into the field as a profession. I date my professional entry into the world of fiction with my sale of Old Man’s War to Tor in 2002, because among other things it was part of a two-book deal, i.e., I’d be getting paid for my fiction work over time. Even then, it wasn’t until Old Man’s War was published in 2005 that I felt comfortable saying I was a professional fiction writer. Now, that’s just me (and note that since I could call myself a pro writer for other reasons, having patience on that part was not difficult for me). Some folks really really really want to call themselves a pro writer the first time they get a check. I’m not going to go out of my way to crap on them for it if they do.

It’s important to note that “professional” is not the same thing as “good,” although in my opinion it does correlate pretty well with “competent”; it’s hard to make money from writing if you can’t actually write. But it’s entirely possible to be a professional, published writer and be only competent. This is because, as I noted long ago, publishing is about what is competent rather than what is “good;” “good” is a value judgement, where “competent” is a standard that’s as objective as we can get when we talk about language. Even in the realm of self-publishing, financially successful writing has to be competent at least.

Which brings us to the third question:

When may you call yourself a good writer?

When you are in control of your instrument. In the case of fiction in particular, this means having the ability to make your reader have the emotional response you intended for them to have, when you set down to write. To put it another way, when a competent writer tells you a story, you know what happened. When a good writer tells you a story, you feel it happen to you.

(When a great writer tells you a story, you feel your life change because of it. But let’s not worry about that one now.)

Caveat: there is no bright line between “competent” and “good.” Some writers can be good in some aspects of writing and merely competent in others. Other writers are competent today and good tomorrow, and vice versa. Good writers can have bad days; competent writers can have really good days, and then later be unable to repeat the performance at will. Writers often can’t tell when what they’re writing is good or just competent (or worse). This is one reason why so many of us are completely neurotic.

And here’s something that really sucks — being a good writer doesn’t necessarily mean that any particular thing you’ve written will get published, because being published is contingent on several things, some of which are not about the writing. I’ve noted here before that when I guest-edited Subterranean Magazine, I had to reject about half the stories I really wanted to buy because I only had so much space and money. I had to pick and choose. The stories I rejected were good, and it killed me to have to let them go.

For all of that, a good writer is good at writing more often than not; the baseline skill is established and it’s at a high level. How a writer becomes good is pretty much like how anyone becomes good at anything: Practice, practice, practice. Talent plays into it but I think talent is overrated and overprivileged, and there are lots of writers with raw talent who never pan out because they expect that raw talent should be all they have to bring to the game. Surprise! It’s not. Lots of good writers are good simply because they’ve learned their craft and they’ve honed their skill.

I am a good writer, but I was a published writer before I was a good writer. The dividing line for me happened in 1997, after I spent a year as an editor for a humor magazine that ran on AOL. Before then I was a competent writer who assumed he was good because he was arrogant; after I had been an editor and spent time dealing with other people’s writing I was able to see the flaws and problems in mine, and it made a difference. I think being a published writer before one is a good writer is not unusual. Lots of competent writers learn to be good writers on the job. It’s part of that whole “practice, practice, practice” thing.

My advice to anyone who wants to be a good writer is simple: Stop thinking about being a good writer and start thinking about being a better writer. Work on the things you know you want to improve on. Stop thinking that you’re going to cross some line and then suddenly you’ll be a good writer. It doesn’t work that way, and even good writers still have things to work on (trust me on this).

You’ll know when you’re a good writer when your craft is good enough that you don’t worry about whether you can do what you want to do with your writing, and instead you wonder about how you’re going to do it. You probably won’t notice the first time this happens. When you do notice it, it probably won’t be a big deal. You’ll be more focused on the writing.

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