I’m occasionally asked the question at writers conferences and via other means: “When can I call myself a writer?”
That’s an easy one to answer.
“Do you write?” I ask.
“Then you’re a writer. Writers write.”
Another question, almost as common, is a little more complicated to answer: “When can I call myself a professional writer?”
I can think of at least three reasonable ways to answer that question.
- When you have been paid for your writing.
I was eighteen years old once. True story.
As well as I can recall, that was the year I became a “professional writer.”
I had previously seen my name in print—in Highlights for Children, for example, where I had sent a joke and a drawing when I was seven or eight years old. But at some point in my seventeenth or eighteenth year, I wrote a couple of short pieces and mailed them off to my denomination’s teen magazine (this is how it was done back in the day, kids). A month or two later I received an acceptance and, soon after, a check for both articles. I think it was for $15.
“Callooh! Callay!” I chortled in my joy. But my older brother, Larry, was less than congratulatory.
“Are you sure you want to cash that check?” he asked.
“Sure. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Because if you do, you’ll be giving up your amateur status.” He was completely serious.
I thought hard for a few seconds. I pondered the possibility that sometime in the future “writing” would become an Olympic event and I would be ineligible because of this one decision.
I cashed the check. And became a professional writer.
- When you have learned to act professionally.
Not everyone who has been paid for a piece of writing acts like a professional. Believe me, I know. I won’t mention any names, so you can breathe a sigh of relief, Esmerelda.
Are you a professional? Well, I don’t know. Do you act professionally? A professional is respectful, treating others (peers, editors, agents, etc.) thoughtfully and courteously. A professional is realistic and diligent, not expecting big rewards for small efforts. A professional is reliable, meeting deadlines and keeping promises. A professional is competent, always learning and steadily improving. And a professional is ethical, demonstrating the highest standards of honesty and integrity.
It’s more important to me as a fellow writer and as an agent to see your professionalism, whether or not you’ve sold your first piece.
- When you’ve kept at it for a long time.
Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, among many other books, said, “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
I think that’s accurate. Professionals keep at it. They’re in it for the long haul. They’re willing to do what it takes, day by day and year after year, to produce works of quality—even genius.
So, you tell me: Can you call yourself a professional writer?