Before we can talk about how to become a professional writer, we have to define what a professional writer is. Is every writer who publishes a novel a professional writer? I don’t think so. Many writers publish a novel or two “just for fun.” Although they might fantasize about selling a million copies or making a lot of money, they don’t study the craft of writing, study the industry, or invest in a professional product.
A professional writer, on the other hand, does all of those things and more.
By definition, professional writers are people who approach writing as a profession – whose goal is to obtain all or a significant part of their income through writing. Becoming a professional writer requires the same amount of study, time, effort, and even money that it takes to become any other sort of serious professional. It is not an easy path, and it’s not a guaranteed one, no matter how hard you work.
Let’s take a deeper look at how to become a professional writer and what the life of a professional writer is really like.
Professional Skills (Writing Related)
Writing is a profession build on words. It is the art of using words carefully and precisely to convey meaning and evoke emotions. Those who aim to be professional writers, then, need to master that art and the skills that comprise it.
You must learn grammar.
You need to not only know the rules of grammar and how to apply them, but you need to understand the principles underlying those rules. Rules can be broken. The underlying principles cannot. Until you are able to break the rules without violating the underlying principles, you are not ready to break the rules.
When you eschew capital letters or choose to format dialogue incorrectly, you are not being edgy or pushing boundaries. You’re confusing your reader and marking yourself as an amateur.
You must study the craft of writing.
Writing is not only an art, it is also a craft. There are hundreds of books written about the craft of writing fiction. Some are general, and some focus on specific topics, such as structuring a novel, structuring a scene, writing dialogue, creating effective description and settings, or building realistic characters. Some books are better than others, but all have tidbits to teach.
Anyone who is serious about becoming a professional writer should be building a library of craft-related books, studying them, and practicing the techniques found within. Some techniques will resonate; some will not. But your skill and knowledge will increase.
You must write—and get feedback.
There is an old adage that the first million words you write are for practice. The idea behind it is that you have to write and write and write in order to become a good writer. That is only partially true. You do have to write and write and write, but you also have to get feedback on that writing, and you have to learn to use that feedback to make your writing better.
If you don’t get quality feedback, it is entirely likely that what you write after a million words is no better than what you wrote in the first thousand. Professional writers seek critical feedback.
You must learn to edit.
But… But… no one can edit their own work! That’s what editors are for!
Yes and no. There comes a point in polishing a final draft that every writer needs to hand off the manuscript to a second pair of eyes because it’s true, it’s nearly impossible to catch all of your own mistakes.
That, however, is not the editing I’m talking about. Creative writing – that first draft that gets the story on the page – is only about 10% of the “writing” involved in producing a complete and polished manuscript. The other 90% is editing.
Editing is more than copy editing, more than removing redundant words, more than tinkering with sentences. Editing includes analyzing character arcs and plot arcs, evaluating what should and should not be included in the final draft, and tearing a draft apart and rebuilding something stronger. Editing is far more difficult than writing the first draft.
Professional writers are made in the editing phase, NOT the writing phase.
In the next part of this article, we’ll look at the non-writing-specific skills you need to be a professional writer.