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Hobbyist, Professional...Who Cares? February 9, 2014

Recently, there's been an alarming trend on writing blogs to draw a line in the sand between "professional" writers and "hobbyist" writers. Some bloggers have always spent an inordinate amount of time trying to tell people they're not "real" writers if they don't do X, Y, or Z, but starting around New Years, when people were making their 2014 writing resolutions, it started to get especially bad.

Here are some of the opinions you might have seen trumpeted as facts:

  • You're only a real writer if you've written at least one million words of fiction.
  • You're only a real writer if you've published at least ten books.
  • You're only a real writer if you set time aside to write 1,500 words every day.
  • You're only a real writer if your first and only goal in writing is to make money.
  • You're only a real writer if you don't care about money.
  • You're only a real writer if you treat writing as your most important job, regardless of whether you have others.
  • You're only a real writer if there's a story inside you that compels you to write and your soul would die a painful and horrific death if you didn't write every single waking hour of your life.

The Traditional Pubbers and the Self-Pubbers have slightly different criteria for what makes "a real writer," but both are insufferably smug about it.

Yes, it's an insult.

Arguing with someone over whether their stated occupation is a "real job" or "just a hobby" is a very strange and aggressive thing to do. Writers are the only people I have ever seen try to convince their peers that they're not "professionals," they're only "hobbyists."

"So what do you do?"

"I'm a professor."

"Have you made tenure?"

"No, I'm an adjunct. I teach one class per term."

"Oh. So you're not a real professor. You only teach as a hobby."

Would you tell a freelance web or graphic designer that, unless they have an established full-time job, designing is "just a hobby"? How about a self-employed caterer, an event photographer, or a mathematician in grad school? "Um, sorry. If you don't have steady paid work, you're not a real mathematician. You're a bartender who proves theorems on the side."

Of course you wouldn't, because that's an unnecessary and intentionally offensive thing to say. But every day I see writers belittling each other with lines like, "Every long-term professional fiction writer can spot a hopeless want-to-be fiction writer easily" or "Real professionals treat writing as a business. If you just like typing a bunch of pretty sentences, you're an amateur." And for some reason, they think this is totally normal and acceptable behavior.

I'm imagining trooping up to the part-timers at my day job, looking down my nose at them, and saying, "Every long-term professional librarian can spot a hopeless want-to-be librarian easily." They'll stare at me like I'm crazy for a moment, and then they'll tell me to go screw myself. But for some reason, writers will bow their heads meekly and say, "You're right. I must work harder to meet your exacting standards."

When someone goes out of their way to tell you that you aren't a "professional," it is a deliberate insult. Some try to cover it up with, "Oh, I'm not saying there's anything wrong with making art for art's sake," but if they didn't want to mark you as inferior (and, by extension, themselves as superior), they wouldn't say anything at all.

No, it's not about the money.

Some people don't mean to offend you when they say your writing is "just a hobby." They're just a bit insensitive and think they're stating a fact, because jobs make money and hobbies don't. (Or they're related to you and they want you to choose a new line of work that pays the rent.) But even as a "fact," it has no basis.

A "profession" isn't necessarily a job that pays the bills. An architect between jobs is still an architect. A lawyer who's temporarily a full-time parent is still a lawyer. A Buddhist monk is a Buddhist monk, and he doesn't need a paycheck to prove it.

Likewise, a "writer" is anyone who believes they're one. It's like gender—a social construct entirely dependent on self-identification (as opposed to sex, which is whatever the doctors put on your birth certificate). If a biological man identifies as a woman, she's a woman. If a bartender identifies as a mathematician, he's a mathematician. And if a middle school teacher who works on her YA fantasy novel for four hours a week on Saturday evenings thinks of herself as a writer, then a writer she is.

It's not about the time, either.

A profession also isn't necessarily the thing you spend most of your time doing. You'll see snobs around the Internet saying that you're only "a writer" if you spend the majority of your time writing, 9 to 5, M to F, and you can finish ten books and fifty short stories every year.

But most writers, even the "real" writers with long-running series and six-figure advances, don't spend eight hours every day with their noses to the grind. Many of the most famous writers in history had day jobs: J.R.R. Tolkein, Isaac Asimov, and C. S. Lewis were university professors, T. S. Eliot was a banker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician, and Franz Kafka was a pencil-pusher for an insurance company. Kurt Vonnegut worked for about four hours each day, from 5:30 to 10 am with a break for breakfast, and he spent the rest of his time swimming, teaching, drinking, and listening to jazz. Even the prolific Stephen King admitted he only writes for half the day.

"Afternoons are for naps and letters. Evenings are for reading, family, Red Sox games on TV, and any revisions that just cannot wait. Basically, mornings are my prime writing time."

In 1883, Anthony Trollope wrote, "All those I think who have lived as literary men—working daily as literary labourers—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write."

In this century, with the benefits of new technologies, we can produce the same output at a higher quality in even less time. The five award-winning science-fiction/fantasy authors interviewed here work for one to three hours per day. They work late at night, early in the morning, and in snatches whenever a "rush of ideas" strikes.

If you "only" write after dinner and before bed, or for an hour or two in the morning before work, you are likely just as productive as people who make a living from their fiction. Contrary to what our sneering peers might say, you don't have to glue your fingers to the keyboard to earn the title of "writer."

So why the vehement distinctions?

Why, you might wonder, would some writers go out of their way to put down other writers who generate fewer titles per year, or who prioritize other things above writing, or who haven't yet published their work?


The writers who feel the need to label themselves "professionals" and others "hobbyists" suffer from the fear that they write badly. Behind this fear is an even worse fear: that their books are bad not because they're rushed first drafts pumped out in manic ten-hour days, but because that's the true extent of their abilities.

"Professionalism" is the only excuse they have for publishing stories they're not proud of. "My books aren't as good as they could be because I write them quickly and don't have time to polish them. I have to write them quickly because I'm a professional and I need to make a living. It's not my lack of talent; it's cold, hard economic reality!"

To protect their egos, they must preserve the illusion that the only way to succeed as an author is to publish a lot of stuff rapidly. And they do that by attacking anyone who suggests otherwise as a "wannabe," "amateur," or "hobbyist" with naive ideals and no business sense.

Note: I'm only talking about the people who say nasty things to and about less prolific writers. There are people out there who can write quickly and well. But the ones who do have no need to go around brandishing the total number of covers with their names on them like a defensive weapon. They don't give a tinker's damn how much time other writers spend with Microsoft Word each day, or feel the need to bash into their more leisurely colleagues' heads that they'd "better not expect to make any money."

The only ones who behave that way think they have something to prove, some unspoken threat to defend themselves against. They feel guilty and vulnerable because they know, not so deep down, that they are not producing good work. And they're scared that if they stop squawking that they're "professionals," someone might notice.

To confident writers, and to readers, there's no difference between "hobbyist" and "professional." They judge by the quality of work, not by how long it took to produce it. If I see an actor who only does community theatre on weekends, and he's good, I say, "That is a brilliant actor." I don't sniff, "Yeah, that one performance was okay, but you can only be a real actor if you've done at least ten productions and spoken a million lines and have at least one Hollywood contract."

Numbers like that are meaningless, and tossing them around to establish superiority over complete strangers is incredibly pathetic. If the only point of pride you have in your words is that there are X hundred thousand of them, that's pretty darned sad.


Andrew Ravensdale (June 15, 2016 3:58 am)

I was glad to come across your piece. I think the situation in self publishing is particularly bad. A few vociferous people are insisting that there is only one way to do it. You must be motivated only by greed and care a lot about quantity and not at all about quality.

I am sure there are plenty of people who care about what they write but know they won't make it in the market. Why should they be ashamed?

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