When Can I Call Myself a Professional Writer?

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.

“Well, yeah.”

“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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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?


18 Responses to When Can I Call Myself a Professional Writer?

  1. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver October 3, 2018 at 5:14 am #

    Bob, Thanks for this encouraging post. In light of what you said, I have been a professional writer since high school days, when the county newspaper allowed me to write a monthly column. My siblings, however, weren’t impressed enough to allow me celebrity status around the house.

    • Bob Hostetler
      Bob Hostetler October 3, 2018 at 5:35 am #

      “Celebrity writer” is a different category, Roberta. So different.

  2. Avatar
    Kimberly Joy October 3, 2018 at 5:42 am #

    Thank you for this encouraging post, Bob. A great start to my morning! 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D October 3, 2018 at 6:10 am #

    Yes, I believe so. Technically, I am also a professional editor since I have made $120 doing it for a friend…twice.

    Great blog posting, as always, Bob.

  4. Avatar
    Sharon Kay Connell October 3, 2018 at 6:12 am #

    Absolutely, Bob.

  5. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott October 3, 2018 at 6:25 am #

    I’ve been at it a long time. I play nice. And I’ve been paid for it . . . barely. Clearly, expenses exceed income. To me, “professional” implies enough profit to buy lunch.

    I’m OK saying, “I’m a writer.”

  6. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 3, 2018 at 6:36 am #

    I wondered what to call myself
    as I penned my Christmas story;
    scrivener, or writing elf,
    or a word-hack bound for glory?
    Seeing my volume on the shelf
    with greats who came before me
    known worldwide or maybe just in Guelph,
    or in Delhi, to be read with curry.
    But I’ve left it too long and fear my fate
    will have honourific presaged by ‘the late’.

  7. Avatar
    Sharon Cowen October 3, 2018 at 7:22 am #

    Fun! Now I can sit on my “professional” Lazy Boy Couch and recline. My writing checks bought the couch. Interestingly though, I never do sit on the couch and recline. Maybe I need a few more checks and I can buy an exercise machine–would I use it?

    Enjoyed the post and responses. Perhaps we can do lunch someday, Shirlee, although I haven’t made much since the couch. I’ll make peanut butter and jelly and we can sit on the couch.

  8. Avatar
    Tisha Martin October 3, 2018 at 7:43 am #

    Bob, where’s the mention of consuming copious amounts of coffee, tea, and chocolate that also pegs us as a professional writer??? Or does that come in *after* hours?

  9. Avatar
    Jay Payleitner October 3, 2018 at 7:44 am #

    This reminds me of my summer as a busboy. Years later, I told my kids they had to listen to my instruction because I was a professional table setter.

  10. Avatar
    Ann Coker October 3, 2018 at 8:51 am #

    I am paid and I act professional. But I make a distinction between author and writer. I consider one who has a published book, an author. I write devotionals and magazine articles that are published, often contracted, assigned, and paid. One editor told me I’d not get rich writing for his publication ($10 cash for 7 devos), and he’s right. But the assignment keeps me writing.

  11. Avatar
    Judith Robl October 3, 2018 at 10:36 am #

    So, okay, I’m a professional writer and editor. I’ve been paid for both. But neither are bringing home the bacon at this point. So I guess I’ll just keep on keeping on, learning more and more as I go on keeping on. Thanks, Bob, for encouraging us. I hope I’ve behaved professionally at all times. Although, like most of humanity, I slip. Hope you have a great weekend in KC. Will be thinking of you and all the HACWN members there. And wishing I were there, too. (Sigh…)

  12. Avatar
    claire o'sullivan October 3, 2018 at 11:39 am #

    really great post, Bob.

    Does writing big articles to the newspaper count? My family says ha, not likely since I am not being paid.

    Does my cookbook count? Well, it did pay some bills, and reached the audience I needed it to. Of course it’s now outdated and I do not want to go through that again. But once again, despite making money, my entire family says I am neither a writer or an author. Not many fiction writers/authors consider it professional, either. That one I do not get.

    I am still hanging out in the fiction department working on a book that I have labored over since 2012. Each year, NanoWrimo has been an inspiration to start another one and take a small break from the ‘never ending novel.’

    Persistence. I think that makes a professional writer. But I call myself an author. One, I am published. Two, it is reaching higher. I refuse to call myself a wannabe writer, an aspiring writer, an aspiring author, because that suggests tht I’m not really trying. I believe God gives us talents/desires for a reason. When we stop reaching for the highest, then were is our faith?

  13. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson October 3, 2018 at 2:33 pm #

    Yes, I can call myself a professional writer. Yay! I’ve been writing for over eight years and I still can’t seem to stay away from my laptop. I must write. My novels aren’t published yet, but I’m hopeful for the future.

  14. Avatar
    Michael LaRocca October 6, 2018 at 8:52 am #

    That’s right. Writers write.

    People who go to the groups and read the advice and hang out on the forums but never actually write are not writers.

    (Not your topic, I know, but it is my pet peeve, so I wrote about it. That’s what I do. I write.)

  15. Avatar
    Zahid Rafique October 24, 2018 at 10:09 am #

    Right now, I am on a way to become a professional writer. Although, I’ve already spent 3+ years writing blog posts, web content and other stuff.

    Still, I am familiarizing myself with nuts and bolts to call myself ‘A Professional Writer’.

    Well, the professionalism part of the content is truly praiseworthy. You clearly mentioned things that land into the domain of ‘True Professionalism’.

    Last but not least, I can say that I came to know many things in your write-up which I had overlooked in my career as ‘Creative Writer’.

    Keep it up, you are doing good work.


  1. Christian Publishing News Roundup | Christian Book Shop Talk - October 5, 2018

    […] ♦ At what point is someone a “professional” writer? Here are three criteria. […]

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