The other day I approached the Irish Writers’ Centre with an idea for a class. They were very enthusiastic about the suggestion and, over the course of a few e-mails, asked if I’d consider applying for professional membership of the centre.
Yes, I thought, I would. Off I trotted, metaphorically, to the website and checked out the requirements. They’re here, if you’re interested: http://irishwriterscentre.ie/collections/membership-1/products/professional-member
I discovered that the centre has a set of criteria, eleven in all, of which the applicant must have met three. These include things such as having a book published, a play produced, or winning a prize. In other words, the hallmarks of the professional writer.
The list got me thinking about how we, as writers, measure professional status.
The dictionary defines ‘professional’ as “relating to or belonging to a profession… engaged in specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than an amateur… a person engaged or qualified in a profession.”
In order to become a nurse I had to train for three years, master a series of practical tests, and pass a final exam. Once that was accomplished, I was given my diploma and the right to call myself a professional nurse.
The criteria for becoming a professional writer is a bit of a breech birth: You don’t get professional status first and then become a writer. No, you start writing and, with hard work and a lot of luck, pass a number of milestones along the way. If you pass enough of these milestones, or just one very big one, you can probably call yourself a professional writer.
Now, I bet I can guess what you’re thinking: Why do I need a list? Surely I can call myself a professional writer if I’ve written something and had it published? That sounds rational enough, but let’s examine it.
What do you need to have published? Can it be a letter to the editor of your local newspaper? You wrote it, they published it; that makes you a professional. Right?
OK, I think we can agree that probably doesn’t meet the criteria. After all, my friend Jane can put a Band-Aid on her finger, but that doesn’t make her a health care professional. What if you write a blog? If you post it on-line, you’re technically publishing. Does that make you a professional? You see, it’s a tricky subject.
We can’t even consider payment a solid foundation. An article in Forbes had this to say:
It’s well known that author advances are dwindling and, at the same time, a whole new model of publishing is allowing a lot of people to write and earn money without going through traditional processes. But for both types of author, it’s an annoying fact that very, very few earn enough to give up all other kinds of work. Whether you’re a published author who got a couple of grand for your debut novel or a self-published author who earns tens or a few hundreds of pounds a month for your work, you’re basically in the same boat, having to keep a job or other source of income in order to make ends meet. If having a job means you’re not a professional, then most authors aren’t professionals. Suw Charman-Anderson, Forbes Magazine 8/7/13 http://www.forbes.com/sites/suwcharmananderson/2013/08/07/how-to-tell-if-you-are-a-professional-writer/
Ah, there’s nothing like a nice bucket of cold water in the face on a Wednesday afternoon.
Sadly, though, the Forbes’ author is right. In this age of self-publishing, finding some mutually acceptable set of criteria is extremely difficult. Is someone less of a professional because they handle the publication side of things themselves, rather than take the traditional route?
If you enter the words ‘professional writer’ into the internet, that nexus of knowledge — well, some knowledge and a lot of faecal matter — throws up (in every sense of the phrase) any number of classes designed to help you become a ‘professional writer’. The people advertising these classes don’t explain how they are defining the term ‘professional’, though they seem pretty clear about how much attending their classes will cost you.
Let’s try another tack. Perhaps we can get to a definition of professional by applying the standards of professionalism.
To behave in a professional manner, the writer consistently produces a high standard of work. We expect this as the norm from other professionals. Who wants a slapdash doctor? A professional writer will take pains over her work and do so consistently. The amateur may reach excellence some of the time, or never, depending on their experience and willingness to master their craft.
The professional meets deadlines, sets goals and revises them as necessary. He keeps up with industry news and developments, and takes classes to hone his skills. Here’s a question for you writers out there: when did you last look up the status of publishing in your country? Here’s another question: Do you even know how to find that information? Here’s a hint, do an internet search for ‘publishing’ followed by the name of your country. At the very least, you should be familiar with Publisher’s Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/ It’s an American site, but they cover international news, too.
Behaving professionally means being accountable for your work. That means you do the research, you get your facts right, or as right as you can. You sign your work with your name. If you make an error you admit it. And you never, ever, ever steal from another writer.
Finally, I’d suggest that one of the most fundamental standards is how we are perceived by our peers. If other writers consider us professionals; if our work is being published in literary journals alongside people we admire; if we are winning prizes that define our work as excellent, then I think we can consider ourselves professionals. More to the point, other people will do so, too.