What Makes a Professional Writer?

I came across a blog post by Denise asking what people consider when determining the difference between a "professional" writer and just an amateur or hobby writer. I hear this question a lot, especially from people who try to say you can't determine what makes a "professional" writer, because it's entirely subjective. As far as I'm concerned, if you say something like that is too subjective, it's not that you can't look at it objectively but rather that you're probably just to lazy to put the thought into it. There are definitely common misconceptions of what makes someone a "professional" writer, and some very basic things that professional writers have in common.

One of the most common things I hear is along the lines of "I'm paid to write, so I'm a professional writer." More often than not, these are the same writers who are calling themselves copywriters when all they offer is a cheap web content writing service. As for getting paid, so what?

Someone could pay me to watch a sick kid while they go off to work. Because I'm being paid to take care of them, does that make me a professional nurse? Ummm, no.

I paid my brother a few years back to help me design a fitness program, simply because he's an outstanding athlete. Did that make him a professional trainer? No.

So is a writer charging a penny per word to write half-assed web content a "professional" writer? Generally, not in my book. Does it automatically rule them out? No... but if it's a long-term work environment, then other factors likely will. So here are a few points to get started:

Signs You're NOT a "Professional" Writer:

  • You think you're a professional, because you've simply been paid to write something.
  • You don't even know what kind of writer you actually are (content writer vs. copywriter is one of the most common examples).

Is professionalism subjective at all? Sure it is. But that doesn't mean you can't separate professional writers from amateurs or hobby writers, and pretty simply at that. There are several things that real professionals will share in common:

Signs You're a "Professional" Writer:

  • You don't need someone to tell you that you're a "professional" writer, because your skills, background, and past work back you up.
  • You can handle the business aspect of being a writer, from managing your finances and setting appropriate rates to make whatever amount you need or want to make to being able to effectively market yourself so you keep work coming in. Being able to market yourself as a writer is often even more important than your actual writing. You could be a brilliant closet poet, and that doesn't make you a professional writer. You could be a so-so poet who regularly sells their work and has published a collection or two, and very well be a "professional" in your niche.
  • You have education, experience, or both that back up the writing you do. That doesn't mean that you're a professional writer just because you have an English degree - something else I hear far too often. If you have an English degree, that's nice. More than likely that means you've studied literature, not focused on writing. If you had a writing focus, that's wonderful, and may very well be a good step towards becoming a professional writer when added to other factors. An English degree certainly isn't the only option. Someone with a business degree might be a professional business writer. Professional journalists may have a journalism degree. A professional technical writer might have a degree in Engineering or Computer Science. There is an endless number of combinations of educational backgrounds and professional writing fields. The same is true of experience. If you've played a college or pro sport, you might have a background to become a professional sports writer. Someone with years of experience in a particular craft might become a professional writer in that niche. But any way you cut it, if you have no experience or education or any kind of background whatsoever, you're probably not a "professional" writer (such as those who will write about anything under the sun for a few bucks by regurgitating Web research from other sources - if anything, I'd call that editing, compiling, re-engineering content if you want to sound important, or to be frank, often I'd call it plagiarism).

I consider those three things to be some of the more important distinguishing factors between professional and amateur writers (not saying there aren't plenty who fall somewhere in between). You can agree with me. You can disagree with me. You might have other factors that jump out in your mind. If so, share them.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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1 thought on “What Makes a Professional Writer?”

  1. Great post. A lot of people trying to break into the ‘writing business’ call themselves professional writers just because they’re trying to make money off their words.

    A guy who’s playing pickup games of basketball in hopes of getting into the NBA doesn’t call himself a pro-athlete. He calls himself an athlete. And I think its important for people trying to get to a certain level of professionalism to call themselves writers, just not professionals. It’s the first step in defining yourself.


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