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Do you want to be a hobby writer or a professional writer?

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Tue Nov 08, 2016 9:55 pm
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Megrim says...

You love writing. You've been telling stories your whole life. Maybe you should major in something related to literature or creative writing in college? Maybe you want to make a career out of it? Do something you love! Or maybe turning your beloved hobby into a job will kill your passion for it--or hurt too deeply when your darlings are shot down. Not everyone who loves writing really wants to be a writer.

Disclaimer: As of writing this article, I have a full-time day job and spend enough hours working on writing-related things to count as a second job, but I don't make money from writing yet. There are a lot of things relating to publishers, editors, writing series, finances and self-employment, marketing, conferences etc that I can't speak about from experience. Consider this article as the basics. If you want to do this full time as your career, there's LOTS to think about, and obviously I can't cover it all, plus everyone will have different takes and opinions. But maybe I can help at least a little bit.

So you want to be a writer...

Important questions: (Be honest with yourself)
- Why do I tell stories?
- Who do I hope to reach?
- Do I want to support myself solely by writing?
- How do I handle criticism?
- What genres do I feel at home in?
- Do I want to spend 8 hours a day sitting in front of a computer?
- Is it one big story I want to tell, or do I have many stories in me?
- Do I enjoy reading many books a year?

What does it mean to be a professional writer?

Writing as your career means it's your job, and you have to treat it like a job. This means deadlines, diligence, discipline, and responsibility. But it can ALSO mean spending all day doing what you love most in the world, connecting with people around the world, and doing all sorts of cool stuff under the excuse of "research."

When I was younger, I was a bit clueless about writing, and didn't ever think of it as an industry. I ALMOST majored in English, but didn't. I dabbled in writing for years as a hobby, then eventually figured out that it's a huge passion which I take very seriously, and I'm probably "meant" to be doing it full time. Everyone's journey is going to be different, but this article is aimed at anyone pondering their future and wondering if writing is a good career path for them.

Can't I write on the side, and if I make money it's a bonus?

Sure thing! Just be clear about what you want out if this. A lot of people have the mindset that it would be great if a fortune fell in their lap, that they'd love to become a bestseller, but they won't write with that in mind. They'll write the story that's in their heart, send it out into the world, and not worry about what happens. This is totally legitimate. But this is hobby writing.

If you really, really want to get published through a big publisher, see your book in the bookstores, and have people recognize your name, you have to do more work than that. A big fortune or a hit bestseller will NOT fall in your lap. I 100% promise this, because writing is a skill, the same way playing the piano is a skill. People who play the piano for fun can't expect to throw a concert and become a hit professional pianist, because they won't have the technical ability that comes from thousands of hours of study and practice.

I have a friend who only writes for fun, and is the perfect example of a hobby writer. He wrote a sci-fi novella set in the world of Hugh Howey's WOOL: Across the Chasm. He didn't want to spend crazy amounts of time, money, sweat, and tears making it perfect--he just wanted to share it with the world and move on. So he polished it up a bit, self-published it, and occasionally sells a few copies.

On the other hand, I have a friend who's an up-and-coming fantasy author, represented by the same agent as me. She's traditionally published and pours a LOT of effort into her brilliant, brilliant novels. She has an editor and a marketing team and everything else that goes with the territory, and her novel is not only masterful, it's very professional: The Deathsniffer's Assistant

Both of those books came out last year. Compare the comments, ratings, and Amazon rankings. Keith is very relaxed about his sales and just has fun with it. Kate works very hard to keep up with the demands of serious publishing. The decision between these two routes is essentially what this article is all about.

What's the difference?

Other than the making money part, of course.

I personally have observed a very important difference in the mindset of hobbyists vs professionals. Hobby writers focus on the book. Professional writers focus on their skill.

- Hobby writers tend to care about perfecting that single story or series that's deep in their heart. That's the tale they want to tell, the manuscript they want to perfect. If a publisher picks it up, great. Or maybe they'll launch it out onto Amazon. But it's near and dear to them, and they will work to make it the best it can be.

- Professional writers focus on improving their ability and their brand. It's understood that not every idea will sell. Some novels will get thrown out entirely, and that's okay. Most importantly, every novel is a stepping stone, through which they get better and better. Once a series is done, there's a new series waiting to be written, and it's going to be even more awesome than the last one.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

If you're seriously considering pursuing writing full time, be prepared to take on the good with the bad (like any job). Early in the journey, there will be a lot of growing pains as you learn your way through the craft and the industry. There's the endless hours of slogging through the physical writing of a novel. There are the bruises from your critiquers and beta readers, as you realize you have to restructure characters, cut subplots, and gut your soul. There's the turmoil of trying to decide whether to self-pub or trad-pub. And THEN, there's all the ups and downs of actually publishing--getting accepted by an agent and/or a publisher, or in the case of self-pub dealing with all your own marketing and publicity. Negative reviews, poor sellers. Unforseen setbacks, like your agent retiring or falling ill. Dealing with keeping a social media presence and a professional attitude online. Getting disheartened, or disillusioned in the novel you're working on, seeing your friends become successful around you (or not).

It's a very long road and nothing will happen overnight. You may spend a year getting rejections from agents. Another year getting rejections from publishers, even WITH an agent. You may write 10 books before anyone even notices you as an author. They say you shouldn't start worrying about rejections from agents until you've gotten more than a hundred--that's right, a HUNDRED "This didn't spark my interest" letters.

Honestly, a lot of people who love writing and do it for fun don't really want to do it professionally. Any more than that hobby pianist I mentioned, or someone who draws or paints in their spare time. It may kill your love for it, or bruise your ego more than you want to deal with. It's perfectly fine to know that you don't deal with criticism well, or know that you really want to tell your story the way you envision it and you're okay if no one else understands it.

The trouble comes when people try to have it both ways. The point of this article is to get you thinking about why you write and what you want out of writing. It's good to understand this early on. If you know you don't want to deal with all the turmoil and bruises that go with professional writing, that can give you a lot of peace--maybe help you cruise through that first draft without needing to worry so much about it. You can be like my friend Keith, and write your fanfiction for fun, release it on Amazon, and be happy with that. But if you want to be serious about it, you need to be like my friend Kate, and put in the hours, set your ego to the side, and work hard.

Should I Major in English?

Only if you want to.

One thing to consider is that you need things to write about. It's great to learn about literature and writing, but a lot of successful authors came from other walks of life. If you want to, go for it. However, don't feel like you HAVE to.

My degrees are all in the hard sciences. I took one mandatory English class in college and that's it. But guess what... I write sci-fi! So it's perfect having a science background. I've watched creative writing lectures online and studied the craft outside my day job. It's still important to learn and study, but it doesn't have to be your whole life. You can minor it in, take electives, or just study it on your own.

Any major is fine because you can learn about other things and gain other life experience. The arts, history, and social sciences can help you understand culture and people. The sciences can teach you about the world we live in and how things work. Literature can teach you about the writers who've come before you. There are all sorts of avenues, and any major will contribute to your writing, so no education is wasted!

I would recommend NOT planning on making writing your day job to start. It's much safer to go into some other walk of life that interests you, and then transition over to writing once you have some stability or a safety net.


What launched me into taking the craft of writing seriously was Brandon Sanderson's creative writing lectures, recorded and posted for free on Youtube.

From there, I found Writing Excuses, a 15 minute-at-a-time podcast full of wisdom on every writing-related topic you can imagine.

QueryShark taught me everything I know about queries.

There are many, many other resources, but those were the pivotal ones for me, and I don't want to overload you with links. You can also check out my blog which has my retelling of experiences querying and becoming a writer, among other things.

I drink tea and forget the world's noises.
— Chinese saying