I often tell developing writers at conferences that there are two kinds of writers in the world: the “hobbyist” and the “professional.”
Yes, it’s an oversimplification. It’s shorthand. But I think it gets the point across.
Both the hobbyist and the professional may be good writers, even great. Both may often work hard. Both are valuable and worthy of admiration. Both may publish. But there is a key difference between them, a difference that either will profit from recognizing, acknowledging, and considering.
The difference? Hobbyists write whatever they want to write. Professionals write what others want to read.
It sounds elementary, I know. But I think it is a crucial distinction.
Sure, some writers do both. Me, for example. I started writing for my own enjoyment and entertainment, and I still do it, now and then. And there is occasionally some overlap between those two sides of my writing personality. But I don’t expect my “hobbyist” writing to suddenly or magically become publishable material. In fact, in more than thirty-five years of writing for publication, I can recall only a handful of hobbyist pieces that were later published—primarily because the starting points are different for hobbyists and professionals.
The hobbyist gets an idea. That’s often where hobbyist writing starts. “I think I’ll try this.” Or, “Wouldn’t it be fun to–?” Such starting points often lead somewhere interesting and even helpful. But the hobbyist is usually not thinking much further than that. There is no “reader” in his or her mind; there is only the writer. And that’s where the difference lies.
Professional writers have learned to ask themselves questions very early in the process of conceiving and writing something that the hobbyist seldom if ever considers. “Will anyone want to read what I’m about to write? And, if so, why?” “Who is asking this question?” “Is it a need people already feel? And know?” “Are they willing to spend the time or money to meet that need?” “What’s the right angle to take?” “Where is this reader found?” “Can I reach him or her there, or should I take another tack?” To some, such questions are instinctual, but others have learned to ask them through long (and often hard) experience.
For example, a friend once asked me to recommend a book for his fourteen-year-old son who, my friend said, didn’t seem to properly respect women (including his mother and sisters). I drew a blank, so I did a little research. Turns out, I could find no such book in the teen sections of several bookstores. So I thought, Maybe this is an opportunity. Maybe I should write that book. And then I hit a wall, called Reality. As I sat down to sketch out the book, I realized, no fourteen-year-old boys I knew would read a book about “respecting women,” even if Mom or Dad bought it for them. It’s not a felt need for them. So I never wrote that book. On the other hand, a book about “why are females so weird” and “how can I get them to notice me” could possibly touch on the issue of respect while meeting the boy’s felt need. But I also knew that figuring out the feminine psyche was too mystical and complex for a writer of my limited abilities, so I never wrote that book, either.
I say all that simply to try to illustrate how hobbyists and professionals approach the writing life differently. The hobbyist knows that writing is fun, therapeutic, and sometimes even helpful to others—even those outside the family. The professional, however, knows that every reader wants to know “what’s in it for me?” If I don’t answer that question early and convincingly, I may still write something magnificent, but it probably won’t get published.
This may be the most important blog post I’ve read since I’ve started writing. I love the list of questions you give.
It isn’t unlike professional ministry. Sure, ministry feels good. We like loving, serving, helping people.
But if no one needs or wants the ministry we offer, we should pray about whether we could be better stewards of our God-given resources if we made adjustments.
Janine, your comment reminds me of William Booth (founder of The Salvation Army), who observed that it’s hard to preach the Gospel to a person who is hungry. So he advised meeting the physical needs too. Sounds like something James wrote in the Bible. Hmmm.
You are so right about fourteen-year-old boys not reading that book, although I think you were on to something with disguising the “respect” topic in those other titles. Or maybe even…”Snapchat your way to a girlfriend”.
Rebekah, I love ”Snapchat your way to a girlfriend.” Bam!
“There is no “reader” in his or her mind; there is only the writer. And that’s where the difference lies.”
That’s the nail right there. And just what I needed to hear. Thank you!
Note to me: change mindset!
Karen, thanks for the comment. But was that the nail or the hammer?
When I first read this, Bob (and yes, I read your words multiple times), I thought, “Aw, CRAP, he’s nailed me. I’m a hobbyist.”
I do think of the readers and their needs, I do think of the questions that need answering and the path on which they may be approached, but…
(Lowers voice and looks quickly, furtively over each shoulder.)
“I write Catholic stories.”
Yes, I’m a Boondock-Saints-Erin-Go-Bragh-priests-are-cool-and-nuns-are-scary Papist, and by the bye, there’s a rosary hanging from the front sight of my AR.
I was bright enough to realize that this doomed me with CBA, so I tried to recast the stories Evangelically…but it was kind of hard to find believability in a story about a beautiful, terminally ill and pregnant girl with family ties to the IRA…who’s Protestant. (The SP’d Catholic version is on Amazon as ‘Emerald Isle’, to shamelessly promote my own work…and that it’s there is due to the work of Carol Ashby, who finished what I no longer could.)
So at this point I’ll go drinking with the priests (metaphorically, these days) and pray to the saints for intercession and venerate the Blessed Mother…and write Catholic Hobbyist Stories (hey, maybe that for a tagline?)
To finish, I’ll offer a defense with a quote from Martin Luther (and borrowing his words does seem wildly inappropriate, yeah):
“Ich kann nicht anders.”
Oh, and Happy Birthday, Bob! I now it was last week, but since I worked in a profession where dudes seemed to get greased around their b-days, we eventually figured it was bad luck to offer felicitations too close to the day. Best to make sure the recipient survived a bit, kinda like waiting until a kid’s two years old to give it a name.
Thanks for the comment, Andrew, as always, AND thanks for the birthday wishes. I’m old enough to have forgotten when my birthday was….
My son (now married with sons of his own) called me when he was a freshman at an engineering college. “All the guys say there are no babes here. I don’t what they’re talking about. Three women are in my group. We’re gonna order pizza.”
Respect. Learned from life, not a book.
He sounds like a prince. 🙂
LOL, Patricia! That’s perfect.
Patricia, I try NEVER to drop a mic. I treat audio equipment with more respect than that. 🙂
Meeting a true, felt need is crucial in today’s culture. It’s life-giving and drives us to be a better person. It’s—surprise!—marketing because it gives us what we’re looking for, longing for. Back in the day, had I realized that writing was as much as marketing I’d still want to write. Challenges are life-giving, eh?
Stop using dirty words, Tisha.
Bob, LOL, I only learn from the best. 🙂
By the way, I used nearly 50 words … so what words are you talking about? 😉
Ahem. The “M” word.
AHEM! That “M” word is extremely important to an author’s (and editor’s) livelihood, and one I’m working very hard at to grab a certain agent’s attention. 😀
However, if you say so . . . .
Really helpful words, Bob! I am trying to figure out if I am willing to do the work necessary to answer those great questions you posed. If not, I may write the book anyway, just to get it out of my system. If so, I will need to put myself out there to find the answers and market the book 🙂
I’m with you, Nancy. Sometimes you have to write a book anyway – to get it out of your system or clear your head for the next book. That’s what happened with my first novel. I knew it would never be published. I didn’t even WANT it to be published. But it needed to be written.
Yes! While I still consider myself a newbie, I try to remember nobody cares about my writing unless my writing cares for them.
Good to know. “Why am I writing this?” “Who am I writing this for?” are apt questions I should ask myself.
I assume there is some overlapping at times. We write for others, but we also write for ourselves. In my community there’s a photographer who writes niche theme books that showcase his artistry with the camera. He picks vintage themes highlighting classic architectural or vehicle genres. His books are heart tugs to the past, like his book on teardrop trailers. Last year he published a book about storybook homes which included six dwellings in my hometown. He spoke about his subject at the local museum on a Saturday morning. I was expecting 20 or so to show up. Nope, it was standing room only. Marrying his love of photography to themes that interest baby boomers and the elderly population is brilliant. His coffee table books do something else, too, they chronicle and preserve history in a beautiful way. BTW, he’s the one who took my photo that you see as my gravatar. He offered the North State Writers group to take our photos at the local library and at minimal cost to us. Pretty cool stuff.
Wow…just wow! At first, the inner me said, “But I’m a servant and a mercy. I always think of my reader first!” (Most of my books to date, all kitchen-table published, were for friends and family, as gifts to bring Christ to them.) Then, I read the paragraph on the young boy’s needs and paused. I once wanted to write for teen boys, a book title that jumped in my head one day: “Confessions of a Teenaged Father.” But obviously, that wouldn’t be a “felt need,” no matter how much I feel for them. Jim Watkins commented on the blog site I finally launched this week (after three years of planning and designing), saying to make sure I wrote to the “felt need” in my readers, and I would develop a following. Again, I recalled my purpose for the blog – to help people connect by sharing stories. Okay, it’s for the readers. But I ENJOYED writing them! (I have dozens of posts ready to go!) So, I guess sometimes the hobbyist meets the professional and it works! 😉 Blessings, Bob, as you continue to write for His glory!
Bob, in his book, Telling Lies For Fun And Profit, Lawrence Block talks about the Sunday writer. That equates with what you’re calling the hobbyist, and I started out that way. Only after writing the book I needed to write (The Tender Scar: Life After The Death Of A Spouse) did I transition to a professional writer…and I’m not certain I’m there yet. Thanks for this post.
And I read that book and gave a copy to a new widower Dr. Mabry..
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
Bob, your blog postings always say something that I needed to hear. Thank you so much. I hope you will be at the ACFW conference in Nashville this year because I woudl love to say “hello.” Steve Laube called me “the woman who is stalking my blog” when I met him two years ago!
Still stalking us after all this time… !!!
Thank you… I think…
Sorry to go off-topic, but may I ask for prayers? Bit of an uncontrolled bleeding issue.
Terrifying, in a manner of speaking.
Rebekah Love Dorris
Dear God, thank you for Jesus’ blood shed for us. Thank You that by His stripes we are healed. Thank you for the way He made to have access to You. Please touch Andrew and heal him. Stop this bleeding for Your glory and his good. Raise him up and let him serve You all his life. Thank You for blessing us through his writing. Pour Your strength into his weakness. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Rebekah, thank you so much. Trying to stay focused. I am so grateful, and I am so scared.
Rebekah Love Dorris
Will he plead against me with his great power?
No; but he would put strength in me.
There the righteous might dispute with him;
so should I be delivered for ever from my judge.
Behold, I go forward, but he is not there;
and backward, but I cannot perceive him:
On the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him:
he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him:
But he knoweth the way that I take:
when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.
And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you. And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.
Rebekah, thank you so much. I’m still here, but real shaky.
Thankful to hear, Andrew. Continuing to pray.
Praying in agreement with Dorris here. Andrew, you are such a treasure!
Judith, thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I have noticed a subset of the “professional” writer and wonder if you have, also. Back in the 1990’s I wrote for many magazines (TCW, CPT, Virtue, Discipleship Journal), but when the Internet took over the world and magazines folded, I landed a teaching job at a university and I spent so much time grading papers, I didn’t have time to navigate the new world of publishing.
Recently, I’ve decided to try get back into publishing and as I’ve contacted former editors and other writers I knew, I’ve found that some, like me, didn’t make the switch from the world of print to the new world of publishing. Others, made the switch and have succeeded wildly.
I’m really interested in your take on the qualities that enabled some professional writers to navigate the changes and others (some who are bitter… they feel the world changed and I got left behind.) What does it take to keep embracing the changes and continue getting published?
Now that I’ve written this question, I feel like you’re going to say a continual willingness to reassess and write for audience. But don’t let me put words in your mouth…
I find this article convicting and hopeful. The journey from hobbyist to professional begins in the heart. Thank you.
I recently left a writers critique group and couldn’t pin point why I wasn’t connecting with them. Now I know. It was because they were all hobbyist. When I critiqued their work they looked at me and my ideas as if I had two heads. Thanks for this article Bob.
Thank you that was so helpful. It raised a ton of questions in me. I feel like you put words to my inside struggle. I want it both ways, and it’s just possible I need to push myself over into uncomfortable.
Your friend should buy his son a copy of Divergent or The Hunger Games, or something else with a female hero (I’m working on such a story now, so if he can wait . . .).
The main thrust of your post, to me = Reader First. Always. No exceptions.