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.

63 Comments on “Writer, Professional, Good”

  1. Excellent post. Especially for a guy who’s typing out the reams of handwritten pages of his stupid, weird, who the frig would read this anyway SF novel.

    I won’t consider myself a writer until I’m drinking champagne out the the polished upper half of John Irving’s skull. I have the champagne on ice. But the skull…

  2. I sent you an email to this effect the other day, but I’m glad to have a chance to write it as a relevant comment: Reading Whatever and following you and some other writers on Twitter has brought me to the point where, when I came up with what I think is a unique idea for a science fiction novel, I thought, “Hey! I can write that!” I’ve started on it. I think I’m on my path to being a writer if I can keep it up. Will I be a good writer? I’m not sure yet. Will I be a professional writer? Probably not, but I’ll give it a shot. Thanks for being one of the folks who has helped me feel like I can be a writer.

  3. 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).

    So much THIS! I think good writers are never entirely satisfied with their work (which is different from saying “Hey, this doesn’t suck Wookie dick time for the Happy Dance!”) because good writers also know you can always do something better.

  4. I am working on becoming a better writer by focusing in everything as a whole. I hope to be able to focus on specific elements of my writing this year, such as a story where I work character, another plot, etc.

    What are your thoughts on how to practice? Do you see a lot of difference in someone’s progress from competent to good based on medium? Will a plethora of shorts be better overall than a novel?

  5. Good to know where I fall in the great chain of writing. As a 41 year old lifelong writer now seriously working on my first novel, I’m finding that while I’m a good writer, I’m merely competent as a storyteller. Do you have any thoughts on the skills other than writing that producing a decent piece of long form fiction requires?

  6. This is just what I needed. Like Chang, I’m in that neither region between one tangible end of the spectrum and the other. I have good days and bad days and competent days in between but the necessary solitude of the craft opens up the opportunity for a lot of self-doubt and I get a little nutty some times, wondering if I’m good enough. Soon I’ll find out, once i finish this short story and sell it. Then time to finish the novel, and sell that. Then I’ll know, or at least have a better understanding.

  7. MikeT:

    Reading other writers who do what you love helps. So does watching people.

    B.J. Keeton:

    You practice by writing. Write what’s interesting to you. The rest of it varies from person to person, in my experience.

  8. Well shit, thanks. By your qualifications I’m a good writer, because those who have read my work generally feel how I want them to feel about the characters and story. Nice for me to realize, I always think I can get better and lose time in the neurosis a lot.

  9. “Stop thinking about being a good writer and start thinking about being a better writer.”

    This is the kind of advice that can change people’s lives. A person would do well to “stop thinking about being a good _______ and start thinking about being a better ______” in general; fill in the blank.

  10. Great post John! It does strike a chord with me, since your definitions of when one can call himself a professional writer, or a competent/good/great writer can also be adapted to my corner of the writing profession (translation) – with one addition: as a professional translator you cannot pass beyond being a “competent” translator until you realize that you also are, in fact, a writer.

  11. this is really well-put and i like what is… being put well… yes. that. thank you.

    (on several levels, mind, one neither ‘good standards!’ nor ‘good writing!’ but purely selfish — by these standards i’m at least part of the way to ‘good writer’. by which i mean ‘i have made my editor cry! on purpose! and not with semicolon abuse!’. so. um. thanks for the unexpected self-esteem boost, too.)

  12. I think this is a particular good piece on writing.

    I want to throw out a little addendum, for what it’s worth. That spectrum that runs from competent to good to great isn’t exactly written in stone. Perceptions changes and something that might only have been considered competent (or even good) might, after some time, be perceived as great. It’s not really so matter, I don’t think, that tastes change, but sometimes the environment/culture in which something is written change and the work itself gains a different kind of relevance. Without digging too deeply – and this is a subject best left for lit majors to argue about while drinking pitchers of beer – Jack Kerouac’s On The Road had possibly more relevance when it was published than it does now. Some written works gain power, some lose power.

  13. When I went to my 10 year high school reunion, I made a conscious decision to tell people I was a writer, even though I’d only sold a few short stories by that time. It was purely existential — to declare my commitment to the profession I intended to make a living at at some point. Some people called me on it — my office job was paying my bills at that point, so I wasn’t “really” a writer. But the next ten years bore out my declaration in spades. So I think it was a good call.

    I didn’t go to my 20 year reunion because I was at San Diego Comic Con instead, so I don’t know what people’s reactions would have been to me then.

  14. Very well put! Your criteria for “writer” reminds me of when I joined a marathon training group. They start 6 months before the local marathon, and mostly attract people who have never run (or walked) a marathon before. We met every Saturday morning to do the long distance for that week. The 1st week, that “long” distance was 3 miles. The speaker told us that we were athletes, and needed to think of ourselves that way. No, we weren’t professional athletes, or college athletes, but people who get out of bed at dawn on Saturday and go exercise are _athletes_, however schlumpy we might look, or slowly we might run. (He may not have brought up schlumpy or slow.) By the time our long distance of the week was 10 miles, we were more comfortable owning that label. At 21 miles — oh, yeah!

  15. Because my fantasy novel is a self-published e-book, I’m working on a short story to SELL so that I can become an associate member. Poor markets, I know, but I will succeed eventually!

  16. I write tech documents, patent disclosures, research reports, job procedures. My problem is I want to tweak them to death. I can’t just let them go. Usually I get a peer to read and critique and that seems to break the cycle. How do you fiction writers avoid this?

  17. Interesting. Engineering is my profession, but a large part of the job is to write documentation, specifications, procedures, etc. I’ve always made an effort at communicating clearly in these situations and winced when my colleagues do it poorly. So while I am often paid to write, strictly speaking I’m not a professional writer.

  18. Re: ukulele, these performance videos are, apparently, what our esteemed proprietor is not.

    (Those vids take a few clicks to find without searching.)

    @cturkel — if someone pays you for your writing and expects your best for the money, you are a professional. Too many are too willing to nurture the race to the bottom; they pay crap, they expect crap, and they get… crap. At least in the market I write for.

    “Best” is, of course, dependent on the market and any number of other variables. I am, for all intents and purposes, presently contracted for 150,000-ish words; my best will be a hell of a lot better if I can deliver them over the course of a year as opposed to, say, four months. Goodness knows that I need to put my best into them.

  19. “…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.”

    Excellent advice in a wonderful article. Thank you for posting this, I really enjoyed reading it. :-)

  20. When I emerged from college back in the 20th century with an honest-to-God Creative Writing degree, I ended up working at a grocery store as a cashier. Towards the end of one of my shifts, a co-worker asked me why I was dressed up (I was wearing a white-button down shirt instead of the dreary blue sweatshirt we normally wore) and I explained that I was going out afterwards to hang out with a bunch of writers.

    “You can write?” she asked.

    “Most literate people can,” I replied.

    It’s been my philosophy of writing ever since. I don’t think much of people who seem to be more interested in being a writer than actually writing, which is why the question “who is qualified to claim the title of ‘writer’?” annoys me perhaps more than it should.

  21. Excellent post. I was a “professional writer” until 2005, when I left journalism. I am still occasionally employed in a professional manner — i.e. I am sought out for paid work because i was once a full-time professional and my skills are still thought of well enough that someone might seek to employ those skills again– and like many hacks, I write often enough on blogs or pie-in-the-sky Great American Novel projects to not think I’m taking myself too seriously when I say I am a writer. I am even a “good” writer on occasion. I hope to be a “great” writer one day, which I think has more to do with being a consistently good writer (and thus consistently writing) than anything else.

    Thanks, John, for your blogs about writing. I always enjoy them and seldom fail to glean something useful.

  22. @ebrombaugh, I’m a tech writer/editor in the IT business. I’m not sure I agree with you. When I write documents like User Guides, I write to motivate my audience (the User) to do what I am asking them to do (the procedure). I’m getting paid for it* (between jobs at the moment, but that’s not strictly relevant), so by at least one of John’s measures, I’m a writer. I also have published a few columns on a business-related blog for actual, real money. So I suppose I’m a writer by being published.

    @KenS, in my tech writing experience, I’ve found that I usually don’t have lots of time to obsess over my work. Deadlines are kept pretty tight. As you do, we swap documents for what we call a “reality check.” Another reader is always a good thing for any writing.

    John, do you have a take on tech writing as “writing”?

    *So are you, from what you said in your post

  23. There are also “types” of writers. In my past I made a lot of money as a music industry columnist, but seeing as I never wrote any fiction at that time, I would be hard-pressed to call my self a “professional” writer at an SF Convention. I’ve sold a story professionally, but I still wouldn’t say that makes me a professional writer. I guess consistently selling in a professional market or markets would indicate a “professional” to me, even if the income is marginal (and, let’s be honest, even if you sell a LOT of short stories, the income is marginal).

  24. By the definition John’s put forth, I’m a writer. The first time that was really real for me was at last years Prix Aurora awards. It was my first time attending, and I went out of curiosity and to support my friend Marie as she was up for Best Novel (English). Now up to this point I’d been very careful to introduce myself as a fan and not a writer. I mean, I am a fan and while I do write I haven’t sold anything and I’m still in what I’d call the figuring what kind of writer I am stage.

    I go to sit with Marie and Derek, a member of her writing group I’d met that morning, and they both introduce me as a writer. That was the moment it became real to me. I am a writer. I could call myself whatever I wanted up to that point, but as soon as someone else believed I was one it changed everything.

    Now, as for being a good writer, I’m still working on that. I’ve seen myself grow over the last couple years and I’ve gotten much better. I’m hoping to get into Clarion or Clarion West this year so I can take the next step and see my skill level grow even more.

  25. I’ve been earning my living putting words to “paper” for a good twenty years. (Not so much on actual paper nowadays.) People ask me for my opinion about their writing, and I have specific things to say. Several periodicals asked me to write articles for them more than once. I suppose those things make me a professional.
    I care a lot about making the mechanics flawless, and making the meaning effortless for the reader to catch. I suppose that makes me a good writer, at least a good technical writer. I haven’t tried my hand at fiction yet, but my wife gets a nice poem every year on our anniversary.
    I also have a blog in which I regularly criticize bad writing (The Writing Rag; Google it). I suppose that makes me a curmudgeon!
    By the way—this year’s poem is on the blog, back in mid-December, and I spent about 20 minutes composing this comment to get it right.

  26. John, I second the request for a take on what Gregg Bender asks above–what about the ‘ego’ of the tech writer? Heinlein said “writers write”– is there room in the “writers” universe for non-fiction? ;) I wouldn’t claim to be a fiction writer…never made it past some bad stuff workshopped years ago….but I have a degree in English, and a large part of my daily work is user guides, policy, procedure, etc. that go out to thousands of people. It’s not aesthetic or creative at the root, except that you need people to be able to understand whatever the topic is.

  27. Hey!I just bought a ukulele too. And it sounds like we’re in the same place. Love it, do it only for my own entertainment…

  28. Ken S:

    I don’t know how other fiction writers do it but to avoid falling into the endless editing cycle I set myself a limit of revisions. Usually 2. First draft will get you 90% of the way, the second gets you 95% of the way and the third gets you 98% and that’s a solid publishable piece, if you know what you’re doing. You have to accept that you could revise forever and never get it 100%. You just have to accept this and move on.

  29. Beautiful post.
    I have been a professional tech writer for a decade now. In my arrogance, I believed I was good at it until I started teaching tech writing to grad students, a couple of years back. As I taught them the rules of technical writing, I discovered all the rules I have not been flouting in my own documents.
    I can see the improvement in my writing since I started teaching the course.

  30. John, great post. One related question: how would relate the definition/evolution of the “good writer” and writing speed?

    Is it not a second axis to consider?

  31. I’d count myself as a writer (and possibly as a professional writer, in that I did a bit of technical writing as part of my job about 6 years back) but not necessarily as a “good” writer. I’m certainly not a published writer in anything other than the loosest sense of the term – if one equates “publishing” with “making available for public consumption” then I’ve published stuff on the internet. Most of what I’ve written is fanfiction, and most of the time it isn’t very widely read (I think the first time I got into double-digits for reviews or comments on a piece of fanfic was when I wrote a fable piece about the way a particular young entrepreneurial type was attempting to “monetarize” a LOTR fan site). But most of the responses I get back are positive, even if they’re not prolific. I figure that’s enough for me.

    So I’d class myself as an amateur writer, and that suits me fine. I contend that doing something, and doing it well purely for the personal satisfaction obtained by so doing is a legitimate form of expression. Enjoyment doesn’t have to be monetarized (horrible phrase) in order to be worthwhile.

    My biggest problems with becoming a professional writer of fiction are firstly that I have extreme difficulty in spinning out a plot and a set of characters for more than 30,000 words (I think I’ve made it to the 30,000 mark approximately once so far; it was about eight years back, and I haven’t looked at the piece since!), and secondly, I have a lot of trouble with actually finishing pieces. I should explain this latter: I write, principally, to find out what the heck is going on with my characters; by a certain point in the plot, I’ve realised how things are going to end; at this point, it’s very hard to sustain the interest to write down all the rest of the “what happened next”, because I already know, so why bother carrying on? Which firstly explains the “petering out at around 20,000 words” effect, and secondly leaves me with an “Ongoing Projects” folder gradually filling up with unfinished pieces.

  32. I found myself nodding in agreement all the way until you got to your definition of a great writer. Not disagreement here–because it is true–more of a caveat: I’ve discovered that many people who talk about the book that changed their life will name something that I, or others, thought worth a shrug, even negligible. Especially when we’re young. Sometimes it’s the right book at the right time, even ten years-ten days-later, we scratch our head and wonder what we saw in that.

    My own feeling that a great writer’s work can be reread–even over a lifetime–and each rereading will reward the reader.

  33. I never quite understood this. I recall a few years back on some forum watching some ginormous conversation erupt about when a person could call themselves a “writer” and when they could call themselves an “author”. And folks had wildly different definitions of these two synonyms and some were pretty damned adamant about when to use one or the other.

    Labels obviously have benefits if for no other reason than they can be a shorthand way of explaining things, but sheesh. It seemed to me that the people who wanted exclusionary definitions of what “author” meant were often people who called themselves an “author”, thought it made them important, and didn’t want just any ol’ body joining their club. At which points, the labels were no longer about understanding or exlpaining something and had become some weird badge of importance.

    If you’re a pullitzer winning author, paid a bajillion bucks, congratulations. But that doesn’t make you good people. Or better than other people. It’s just what you do.

  34. John, I think you could replace writer with programmer, or a number of other pursuits, and pretty much everything you said would apply. Great post!

  35. Germano Stein:

    “how would relate the definition/evolution of the ‘good writer’ and writing speed?”

    I wouldn’t. Process is different for every writer.

  36. What a lot of unnecessary angst over writer identity! Want to call yourself a writer? Go ahead. Just be prepared to answer the inevitable question: what do you write? Want to call yourself a pro? Again, go for it. Print up some business cards even. You will not be picked up and interrogated by SFWA agents. Want to know if you’re a good writer? Too bad. That’s not for you to decide. Some of the worst people I’ve ever known were the kind that say, “I’m a good [occupation],” or, WORSE, “I’m very good at what I do.” (These statements are usually prompted by a question or problem with their performance, and a dodge of responsibility for that performance.) Worrying over your goodness as a writer will directly get in the way of doing what you need to do, which is figuring out what you have to say and how to say it. The voice that is asking whether you are a good writer is the same voice that is going to shit all over you when you actually finish something and want to show it around, so kill it now and stop making a thing of it. If you want others to appreciate your work, then the question you should be asking–and you should never stop asking it even after you’re a NYT number one bestselling author–is “How can I do better?”

    I guess I have an opinion on this. Who knew?

  37. @Germano Stein:
    One related question: how would relate the definition/evolution of the “good writer” and writing speed?

    In the decade or so before he burned out in the mid-70’s, Robert Silverberg was a good, professional – and quite often flat out great – writer who turned out publishable work at a clip that exhausts me just thinking about it. Flannery O’Connor, who is a stone cold American master IMO, published two short novels and 19 stories in the thirteen years before her early death.

    Silverberg may have been the “faster” writer by an order of magnitude, but O’Connor was no less meticulous about figuring out her craft and how to use conventions of genre to express her own sensibility and point of view.

    @Jake Kerr:
    There are also “types” of writers. In my past I made a lot of money as a music industry columnist, but seeing as I never wrote any fiction at that time, I would be hard-pressed to call my self a “professional” writer at an SF Convention.

    Meh… So, Neil Gaiman, Kim Newman, Michael Moorcock and Brian Aldiss (to name a few) are only real/”professional” SF writers when they’re writing fiction? With all due respect, and please pardon my French, what a load of crap. Ditto for the idea that “tech writing” – which requires an ability to process large amounts of often highly technical information into clear, well-structured prose – is some lower order of writing. JT, I have an acquaintance who has a very similar job to yours for hospitals and other health care providers. She’ll never win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but if she’s not get her head in the game people can die.

  38. As a professional writer somewhere between competent and good who’s been selling my writing and editing skills for 15 years now (yet hasn’t written a novel yet…that’s on the to-do list) I think it’s worth noting that all good and great writers read…a lot…like all the time. Helps if the reading is diverse, too, and not just the stuff in your comfort zone.

  39. Lots of people started as tech writers before they became professional fiction writers; Charlie Stross and John Sladek spring immediately to mind.

  40. @Theophylact says:
    Lots of people started as tech writers before they became professional fiction writers; Charlie Stross and John Sladek spring immediately to mind.

    And keep at it to pay the bills. You might also be surprised how many A-list writers did their time as (M)ad men – and women :) – Salman Rushdie wrote Midnight’s Children while a copywriter at advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather. Peter Carey didn’t quit advertising until around 1990, when he was well established as one of Australia’s most prominent “literary” authors.

  41. This is a good article.

    I totally agree with you John that if you write SFF you should be a member of the SFWA.

    Unfortunately your organization still does not recognize those of us who don’t seek access through traditional markets. ;)

    So even though I’ve wanted to be a member for about two decades, I’ll just content myself with enjoying my writing, and enjoying being in complete control of my own work. From the cover to the typography to the content.


  42. This is a great post, Mr. Scalzi!

    John Spiller is an author, entrepreneur, consumer advocate, and corporate survivor. His shocking new book, The Ampersand Diaries: AT&T and the Life Lessons Learned from the Trenches of an American Icon, is now available on amazon.com and on his Amazon-based website, createspace.com/3598985, which features a detailed preview.

  43. Agreed. You’re a writer if you write for more reasons than “I can’t remember what to buy at the store if I don’t make a list” or “My boss said to write this memo.” You’re a professional if you’re paid for what you write. (I don’t like the notion that you have to make a certain amount of money, because that depends on market conditions.) I like the notion of consistently, at least for awhile, but realize that some very good writers have had periods of inability to write. I might add (but only conditionally) that there’s another level of professional that includes “managing the business side of your writing.” Good…is up for grabs, and it’s not really safe to claim it even if you’re (for instance) Connie Willis and have won more awards than anyone can remember without looking them up. Because in claiming it, you’re teetering on the edge of complacency…and complacency is the enemy of good. Trying to improve…raising the bar for yourself, not waiting for anyone else…works best.

  44. “I generally consider tech writers writers.”

    When I started out in tech writing (18 years ago or something like that) one of my colleagues insisted that he always put “writer” rather than “technical writer” down in the job title field of any forms he had to fill in. When I pointed out that tech writing wasn’t “proper writing” (at the time, I had delusions of authordom and had one short story in a small press magazine to my name – to date, still the only fiction for which I’ve been paid) he said, “True, but it pays better.”

    For the most part, that’s true, I suppose.

    I’d still maintain the distinction between tech writing and “proper writing”, but at least the regular salary has been a comfort to me and my four unfinished novels over the years.

  45. I am all for the freedom of association: in fact, I am so for it, that my level of “for it” would result in my being prosecuted by the DOJ if I tried to implement it.

    That being said, I have been wondering for a few years now when the SFWA membership requirements were going to either be changed or turn it into the equivalent of the social club in “Ghost Dog.” EBook self-publishing is the way of the future for people who might, in years gone by, have tried to make it onto the mid-lists. I would love to be a member of the SFWA. I’ve self-published what are unquestionably science-fiction short stories and novels which have sold reasonably well, but they have all been self-published, so I’m not eligible. Now, I don’t make my living at it, and my definition of “reasonably well” may be overgenerous, so we can’t go by me. But I suspect that in the future there will be many, many more people who do the same thing, only way better. There will come a point when the SWFA will have to decide whether it wants to represent, well, the science fiction writers of America, or the Highly Successful Science Fiction Writers of America. I suspect if you go with the latter the dues are going to have to go WAY up. :)

  46. John: What do you use to learn the ukulele? I have trouble passing the first few learning steps from the method I got with the yuke. I would also like to recommend “Luky Yuke” to you, their songs really stays with us, in a non-serious way.
    Sorry for going off topic. Great post, particularly the “good” part.

  47. @Marc Whipple You said: “EBook self-publishing is the way of the future for people who might, in years gone by, have tried to make it onto the mid-lists.”

    I think it goes far deeper than that. I think ebook self publishing will in time produce some people who are of a quality rivaling the best traditionally published authors, and will result in some pretty great commercial successes. (Bestsellers, if you prefer the term.)

    The reasons to self publish are not solely because you’re being rejected by traditional publishers, after all.

  48. @Harper Jayne:

    Indeed, indeed. One reason I didn’t try any harder to get my books into a publishing house was the royalty rates on KDP. By my extremely subjective calculations, I would have had to have had about as successful a release as a new author in genre fiction could realistically expect, short of hitting the J.K Rowling sweepstakes, to have made the same amount of money in a year as I will from KDPing the same book. And it will stay on KDP, selling, never remaindered, never going OOP, and the copyright is MINE MINE MINE. Forever.

    Not slamming traditional publishing houses, if one came along and offered to put one of my books in print I’d pull it from KDP tomorrow. (Assuming they had ebook sales.) But I don’t see any need to abase myself and put selling my work on hold on the off chance one of them MIGHT deign to eventually review and accept it.

  49. From a different perspective – research scientists write. Although we do not always get paid directly for our published work, we do get paid, in part, to write. That writing is part of a much larger package of work that we are do but in order to keep our jobs (i.e., get tenure, get grants, etc.) we have to write and we have to publish. But I wouldn’t say that research scientists consider themselves writers (the Isaac Asimov, David Brin, and Joan Slonczewski types – to name a few – do but not necessarily because of their science but because of their science fiction), I think we consider ourselves scholars, or academics, or researchers, or professors. But we are also writers. We are writers who have a very limited readership. We also do not write because it is our passion – we may enjoy writing but our passion is research. Writing is merely the tool by which we bring our passion to the world (that and teaching) and one way to express our passion.

    It never would occur to me to ask “Am I a writer? Am I a professional writer? Am I a good writer?” Instead I ask “Will I be an author/first author on this paper? Can I get this published?” and, all too often, “AAARRGG – not another revise and resubmit!” :) And if I were asked “Are you a writer?” I would answer “No, although I have authored some papers that have been published.” (As for good – as far as scholarly writing is concerned I am a good writer – but I don’t think of myself as working on my writing when I’m doing things that improve my writing so much as I think of myself as working on a paper and making it a better paper.)

    Was it different hundreds or thousands of years ago? Did Aristotle, Newton, Copernicus, Descartes, Darwin, etc. consider themselves writers? Do we think of them as writers? We know them through their writing but I think we are more inclined to think of them as philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, naturalists, etc. What about Sartre, de Beauvoir, Mill, Rousseau, Emerson, Aquines, etc. They were certainly professional writers and we often call them writers but we also can and do call them philosophers.

    Sorry to blather on so but this post has really gotten me thinking about how we identify ourselves and others (there are many who would not consider me a scholar or a scientist because I’m not a faculty member and I don’t do my own research full time … and they treat me with a corresponding lack of respect … yet my most recent publication is “in press” and expect to get a couple of papers submitted this year).

  50. @drmeow
    Your post made me think, because I have the opposite situation. While I get paid to write, the things I do that matter at work are the ideas and connections that happen because I genuinely cannot stop writing, taking notes, and people-watching in general. The other day someone said, “You’re just the writer,” and I said, “writing is thought made visible. Show me what you’ve got.”

    If my library represents the shape of my mind in general, my writing represents the shape of my thinking right now.

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