There’s a quiz doing the rounds at the moment called Ten Questions to Know if You’re a Pro, about your attitude to writing and other aspects of life, and apparently you can’t be a professional writer, or claim to be a professional, if you don’t answer yes to them all.
These sorts of things annoy me. The questions are a set of arbitrary rules based around one writer’s experiences, perhaps to justify certain things she does or doesn’t do because it’s a “writerly” thing to do.
Mr Scalzi has expanded on the above tweet with a very strong response here.
So let’s have a closer look at these questions.
1. Is your home/work place messy because that time you’d put into cleaning it is better spent writing?
There are plenty of reasons a person’s work space or home might be messy, and plenty of reasons it might be clean. Some people are naturally messy; others struggle to concentrate if everything isn’t just so. Being messy isn’t a trait unique to or irreversibly linked to writers. For my part, the house is messy because I don’t like tidying it, it’s boring. But the biggest tidy ups I’ve had have been while thoroughly stuck in the mud on a story; sometimes physical activity, like vacuuming and tidying and doing laundry, can clean out those cobwebs.
2. Do you routinely turn down evenings out with friends because you need to be home writing instead?
Ooh, someone has friends.
Uh, I mean, I have friends. Not so many, or not the type of people, that I routinely get asked out of an evening. Most of my friends don’t live close by, so when I make arrangements with them I don’t cancel unless I’m sick; I just take some sort of writing implement with me, just in case.
And what’s one night a week off anyway? The odd movie, the odd night out with drinks. All work and no play makes Homer go crazy, or something like that.
3. Do you turn off the television in order to write?
At first I thought this was a no-brainer. I get really distracted by TV; I can’t even hold a conversation if there are adverts on half the time. So the TV never even goes on in the first place most evenings.
But there are two problems with my initial tacit acceptance of this rule. First, all writers are different. They write differently, use different schedules, plan differently. So why shouldn’t writers be different in this regard too? Secondly, I write to music. I can’t write to silence. I put my music on in the background, low volume over my headset, and write. I can see why others might put some TV on in the background as their own white noise.
4. Would you rather receive useful criticism than praise?
This is the only valid question in the whole quiz, and even then – there’s nothing wrong with enjoying praise. Especially with something that’s published and can’t be changed. Criticism and feedback are vital to a writer, but praise is important too – it bolsters confidence, it shows you that you’re getting things right and that others are enjoying what you produce. We are writers, but we are also human, and humans need to be liked; we are social creatures. Enjoying praise is fine, provided valid criticism isn’t ignored or discouraged in favour of praise.
5. Do you plan vacations around writing opportunites (either research or networking potential)?
Not being a professional writer, I can’t really say much about opportunities and so forth that writers get. Conventions, book signings, meetings with agents: I have almost no experience of that world, and none from the side of the published author.
The thing is, though, everyone plans vacations around other things in their life. My boss puts hers in school holidays because her husband is a teacher. When I went to France with my fiance and my parents, that was planned around various work commitments Dad had and a commitment Mum had regarding a play she was involved in staging. I had to make sure my boss wasn’t on holiday that week. If my boss’s holiday plans take precedent over mine, and my writing were also to take precedent over my holiday plans, does that make my boss’s holiday on a par with my writing in terms of importance? No.
Besides, this question assumes that the individual answering can afford vacations. My fiance and I wouldn’t have been able to if we didn’t go with my parents and split costs like the ferry and the flat we stayed in, and I’m still paying Dad back monthly from my paycheque. Now, what I earn is enough to cover my monthly expenses with a little left over for the unexpected and small luxuries. Some professional, full time writers who earn more than me don’t have that, depending on things like rental rates in their area, having children to care for, bills, health insurance if they’re in the USA, and so on. So maybe they can’t afford a vacation at all, so the answer to the question above is an automatic “no”. Which makes them not a professional, for an arbitrary reason.
6. Would you rather be chatting about the business of writing with another writer than exchanging small talk with a good friend?
Here’s one that doesn’t have to be either/or. Sometimes I enjoy talking about writing, sometimes I need a break from it. Surely I’m not to only one. The answer to this question is therefore situationally dependent. Besides, maybe small talk with the good friend will produce an idea, a perfect line of dialogue, an extra dimension for one of your characters.
7. Have you ever taken a day job that paid less money because it would give you more time/energy/material to write?
Would that I had the luxury to decide what day job I wanted to do. In the current economic climate – unemployment is about 7.7% in the UK – it’s not many people who can pick and choose jobs instead of crossing their fingers and hoping they get just one interview.
The problem is, cutting income just isn’t viable for some people. The question assumes a comfortable financial position, ignores the possibility of debt, responsibility, poverty. A very privileged, blinkered view of life; a stupid question.
8. Are you willing to give up the nice home you know you could have if you devoted that time you spend writing to a more lucrative career?
This is the starving artists stereotype: that writing and earning are mutually exclusive. You can’t have lots of money if you’re a writer, unless you hit it big. Working a well-paid day job means you won’t have enough time to write. Well, that’s a load of rubbish. Some day jobs involve writing, some give writers the kinds of experiences that make good scenes or characters or stories. Some are well paid with few hours, others are low paid with long hours.
And this assumes that we can only have one desire, one thing we are aiming for. One way to give a character interesting internal conflicts is to give them more than one desire and set up a situation where those goals become mutually exclusive. So what’s wrong with real people having multiple goals? What’s wrong with putting off a more desired goal in favour of a more practical one, like owning a house? Again, people have responsibilities, they have families. Sometimes practicality and selflessness has to come first.
9. Have you done all these things for at least five years?
This is possibly the most arbitrary of the lot. A writer who has made sacrifices for their writing, who has spent hours every day writing, rewriting, editing, marketing, engaging with readers and so on, a writer who has quit their day job and now relies solely on income from four books, all published in the last three years, isn’t a real professional writer until they’ve added another two years to that timescale.
Meanwhile, hobbyists can dedicate huge amounts of their life, hours every day, working hard on their novels, on building worlds, crafting characters, plotting out a seven-part epic, sacrificing income in favour of their passion, over five, six, seven years, and never make a penny from their writing, never even publish it, but still be a professional according to this quiz because of the time, effort and money they’ve poured into their passion.
10. Are you willing to live knowing that you will likely never meet your ambitions, but you hold to those ambitions nonetheless?
Depends on what the ambitions are. Each writer is different. Not all have high ambitions of being published traditionally and becoming a household name, being able to afford a big house or nice cars, getting movie deals and so on. These ambitions might never be realised, but for some, it’s simply enough to finish the story, to get to the end. For some they want only to earn enough from their writing that they can quit the day job and write all the time. And there are a fair few of those – midlist authors, well known among readers of their genre or niche but not household names, making enough to get by, and happy at having achieved their ambition.
Having said that, I don’t think this question is unique to writing, not by a long shot. Think of the people who dream of being Olympic athletes, or owning their own house, or becoming a doctor, or travelling the world. Lots of people have ambitions far beyond what they honestly believe they can achieve, because people need goals to spur them forward. In the end, anyone can answer “yes” to the above question without having written a word of fiction in their life, without even knowing how to write, because it’s such a universal thing.
The conclusion of this is that the questions proposed by Lisa Morton as a measure of professionalism in writing aren’t really worth anything. She complains about writers claiming to be professionals but:
their conversations revealed them to be hobbyists. They chatted about health and told jokes and moaned about personal problems…anything, in other words, but writing careers.
Well, to be honest, who is Lisa Morton to determine who is a professional writer and who isn’t? Technically speaking, a professional writer is one who earns sufficient money from writing to make a living. I wouldn’t even claim that their primary source of income should be writing (can’t someone be passionate about their day job too? Can’t a writer have two careers?) Even if, as Morton claims, it’s about an attitude towards a career, there are still perfectly valid reasons for professional, full time writers to say “no” to most of the questions she asks.
I’m not a professional writer. I am a hobbyist (for now). But I know enough about writing – from having done it and dedicated a lot of my free time to it for more than five years – to recognise that these questions are arbitrary. They don’t have something measurable to say about writers. And besides, what does it matter whether Lisa Morton, or anyone else, considers any given writer (you, me, Chuck Wendig, John Scalzi) a professional or not? Surely the person best placed to know is the writer him or herself.
Anyway, if they’re saying they’re professional and they’re not (in attitude, in income, whatever) then who cares? They’re only deceiving themselves, and who does that harm? Is the income, reputation, ability to write, attitude to writing of any professional writer going to change one jot because someone who self-pubbed a book one time is calling themselves a professional when you think they’re a hobbyist?