Thursday, December 26, 2013

Amateur or Professional: Attitudes and Behaviors

Yesterday we talked about a basic misconception about amateur vs. professional writers. That misconception was that amateurs produce lower quality work than professionals. This is certainly true sometimes or even often, but it is also true that many amateurs produce higher quality work than many professionals. So, if the difference isn't quality what are the differences.

Well, the simple answer is that professionals write for money and amateurs need money to keep writing. It's a bit over simplistic. But they key distinguishing factor between the professional and amateur in any endeavor comes down to money. Not whether or not one makes money writing. I suspect that some talented industrious amateurs may make more money writing than some less talented, less industrious professionals struggling to make a living with words.

No, it's not the amount of money, but more of the function the money plays. For the professional, money is the paycheck for work done. Projects are chosen, at least in part, based on how much money can be realized from that project. This is not a matter of being untrue to oneself or writing romance novels when you hate even reading romance novels. It is, however, a matter of given two projects, both of which are of interest and choosing the one more likely to be published (or for the indie writer, to sell more copies.) An amateur, freed from the need to show a profit, is more likely to pursue projects out of personal interest as the dominant deciding factor.

Amateurs in general are more willing to take risks than professionals. Since I am in the process of transitioning from professional to amateur for awhile, I am particularly attracted to this idea. When you are depending on part or all of your income coming from writing, you tend to play it safe. If you know a certain type of writing pays the bills, then you do more of that. If something is too far out there, your first instinct is to shy away from it. Amateurs, freed of the need to show a profit, can afford to experiment with something interesting, but uncertain of success.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the professional and the amateur is the priority writing assumes in their lives. Again, I warn you to not place any value judgement on what comes next. Just because writing is not your top priority doesn't make you a bad writer any more than making it number one makes you a good one. However, it is a distinction between pro and am.

The professional writer has writing as close to his or her top priority. Think about it as your job. This is even easier to do if you think about it as your job as the sole wage earner in the household and you work for a fair but demanding boss. I spent 30 years as a college instructor. I couldn't give the excuses I often hear from "professional" writers for not having time to write. Since this is close to Christmas, I've heard a lot of writers say they haven't been able to write because of getting ready for Christmas celebrations.

I could just imagine if I went in to my dean and said, "Hey, Dean, I'm going to be missing a lot of classes because I have to shop for gifts, write some Christmas cards and go to a few parties." I would probably have been able to go to a lot of parties without the encumberance of classes if I did that.

The professional sets his or her craft above just about everything else. At times this can even include family. Now, I'm not saying the professional writer will miss his or her daughter's high school play in order to outline a novel. However, I am saying, s/he has to be willing to set limits. Again going back to my days as a teacher. I was primary caregiver for my mother the last few years of her life. But she knew that she could call the school (which she had on speed dial) in the case of an emergency. Otherwise, she could call me when I wasn't in class. Did that mean that she was less important to me than my job? No. It meant that when I was in that classroom, only an emergency (usually meaning something that would involve people in uniforms and vehicles with sirens) was enough to get me out of the classroom. Mother understood this and never called for minor things while I was in school. After all, guess where I learned my work ethic.

Just because a professional works at home, doesn't mean s/he should be any less diligent about the job. The professional sets times to work and, barring emergencies, works during those times. Entertainment, minor family matters, conversations with friends or any other distraction is eliminated during that time.

The amateur by contrast, can be less tied to a routine. S/he can lay down the pen or shut the laptop and say, "That's enough for today. I'm taking the kids out for Ice Cream." The amateur doesn't have to meet any self-imposed deadlines. They can work at their own pace, and, if they get behind their planned schedule, they can tear up the schedule and make a new one.

The amateur can take a day off just to kick back and relax. If her daughter wants to go out shopping for a prom dress and she is in the middle of a chapter, she can finish that sentence, close the laptop and head to the store.

Again, this does not make the amateur a poor writer. It does impact productivity. The amateur who makes writing a lower priority than other activities will produce less copy than the writer who does not. There are trade offs. I'm at the point where I find I've been trading off too much of my rest and relaxation that I should have as a "retired" person for my writing. That's one reason I'm moving from professional to amateur. I put out 23 titles last year. I'm not going to do that this year. It will likely be less than half that number. But I'll be doing some other things which, for the time being, will be a higher priority. Teaching, mentoring, helping other young (not referring to age, but experience) writers get published. And maybe taking an occasional day to stock up on snacks and soda and watch a marathon of old movies or read an entire novel in one setting. But I'm under no illusion that my writing output will suffer. But it's a worthwhile trade off for me now. In a few months, when I go back into pro mode, then I'll trade off that freedom for productivity.

Professionals also write whether they feel like it or not. Going back to my college teaching. You might not realize it, but teachers are creative artists. We have to create original ways to teach a subject. Sometimes those take as much planning and inspiration as plotting a novel. Then we have to stand in front of a group of 30 people and do our song and dance at the highest energy level we can muster to get the point across. I have left class sessions completely exhausted and soaking wet with persperation. And we do that, at the college level, 2-3 times a day or more.

Did I always feel like doing that? Did I always have an "inspired" lesson plan for the day? Did I always "wow" the students with my performance? I think you know the answer. 186 class sessions a  year, some days I was not exactly inspired to teach. However, I couldn't call in and say, "Well, Dean, it's like this the teaching muse just isn't with me today. So, I'm not teaching. I'm just going to wait until I feel like teaching."

The professional writer is going to have days like that too. S/he can't take off the day. Now there are tricks many of us use to keep going. I have more than one project going at any one time. So, if I don't feel very inspired by my primary project, I can switch to a secondary one. Or if you don't feel like composing, then you might switch gears and do some editing or marketing. What you don't do is take the day off. You keep working.

The Amateur writer, however, can step away from the writing for awhile. If the writing is like pulling teeth, you can stop, take some time to recharge and come back to it later. Read a book, take a trip out of town, wash dishes, play a game, whatever and get back to the writing in a day or two. Of course, this, too, will affect productivity. But the smart amateur understands that productivity, while important for a professional to create a steady income stream, is not always going to be the amateur's top priority.

The most important thing for amateurs to take away from this discussion (which we will continue tomorrow with a deeper discussion of the benefits of each approach) is that first, there is nothing wrong with being an amateur and your writing can be as good or better than much that is done by professional writers. The second takeaway, though, is that the advantages of the amateur approach (ability to experiment, time to perfect the details, working inconsistently and not being tied to the computer) come with a price. That price is lower productivity.

The takeaway for professionals is that there is a price for pursuing writing as a career. You will have less time to spend with family and friends. You will need to keep a schedule, set and meet deadlines, write everyday (or close to it), have to say "no" to some social events and even some minor family activities, just like you would if you had a job outside the home. On the other hand, you have the joy of seeing your work in print and you have a career which let's you work with words and build worlds and characters.

Either approach requires trade offs. Neither is better or worse, but you need not expect either approach to come without a price.

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