4 Major Differences between Amateur Writers and Professionals

1. Amateurs get ready. Professionals get to work.

Amateurs attend workshops, read writing books, get an MFA, build their author website . . . do anything but write their book—because they don’t feel ready.

Professionals, on the other hand, know they will never be ready, so they dive in anyway.

At some point you must trust yourself as a writer. You may not know exactly where you are going, but you have to set out, and sometimes, without calculation on your part, the reader will honor the effort itself.

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

“Perfection is less interesting.” —Anne Carson [Tweet This]

2. Amateurs beat themselves up. Professionals forgive.

Professionals know that to write is to be in a constant state of imperfection. They know that most of the time they’ll be stumbling around in the dark, hitting one dead end after another. To professionals, writing is business, not personal.

Amateurs, however, use every wrong turn and misstep as fuel for their running commentary on why they can’t, or shouldn’t, be a writer.

Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love, says self-forgiveness is the most important writerly virtue:

Your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness . . .

3. Amateurs cling to lost causes. Professionals let go.

In my guest post for storyaday.org I discuss Adele and Gwen Stefani and their recent successes. This year Gwen released her third solo album, and it debuted at number one on the Billboard charts. Adele also released a new album, which surpassed the worldwide record-breaking success of her second album. But both Adele and Gwen struggled for a long time. They worked on their albums for years, scrapping song after song, until they finally found the ones worth keeping.

It’s hard to throw stuff out when you’re an artist. Even when you know it’s not good, you cling to it; you want proof that you’ve accomplished something. Professionals, though, grit their teeth and toss out the junk—giant slabs of it if required. They know that the only work worth sharing is the work that moves them.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” —Maya Angelou [Tweet This]

4. Amateurs talk about how hard writing is. Professionals write.

In 2012 a young author named Julian Tepper wrote an article for the New Yorker called “In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice.” At the time Tepper worked at a deli that was frequented by his writing idol, Philip Roth. Tepper recounts getting up the nerve one day to give Roth his newly published first novel. Roth congratulated him and then said:

But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself.

Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert responded to Roth’s advice with her own article:

[S]eriously—is writing really all that difficult? Yes, of course, it is; I know this personally—but is it that much more difficult than other things? Is it more difficult than working in a steel mill, or raising a child alone, or commuting three hours a day to a deeply unsatisfying cubicle job, or doing laundry in a nursing home, or running a hospital ward, or being a luggage handler, or digging septic systems, or waiting tables at a delicatessen, or—for that matter—pretty much anything else that people do?

Not really, right? . . .

Becoming a novelist is not some sort of dreadful Mayan curse, or dark martyrdom that only a chosen few can withstand for the betterment of humanity. . . . If you’re lucky, you might be able to make a small living out of this thing. If you’re exceedingly lucky, other people might come to appreciate your gifts. If you are phenomenally lucky, you might become lionized in your own lifetime, like the great Philip Roth himself.

And if that should ever happen to you—if you should ever find yourself both successful and loved—please do try to keep in mind that you have been blessed, not blighted.

Take the First Step Today

If you don’t feel ready to write, if you don’t know what to write about, or if you can’t overcome your inner critic, then simply take one small first step:

Start writing every day.

Don’t expect anything of yourself other than a few sentences—no word limit, no time limit, no editing, no judgingThe goal is to slowly build your writing muscle. At first you’ll feel flabby and foolish and sloppy, but you’ll get stronger.

And how will you know when a certain piece of writing is worth pursuing? I wrote about that in my guest post on storyaday.org: The Real You: What Every Writer Needs to Know about Adele, Gwen Stefani, and Seinfeld.

If you want to give your writing a serious jump-start, check out Julie Duffy’s Story a Day May—a challenge to write a short story every day this month. The point is to write so much that your momentum snowballs, your inner critic gives up, and you get comfortable.

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Why Being an Amateur Writer Is an Asset

The less you know about a field, the better your odds. Dumb boldness is the best way to approach a new challenge. —Jerry Seinfeld Tweet: The less you know about a field, the better your odds. Dumb boldness is the best way to approach a new challenge. —Seinfeld @RiteLikeRowling

Modern-day society is so dependent on proof: Where’s your degree? Your certificate? Your salary? Your followers? Your award? Your little piece of paper that says I can listen to you?

The only credential you need to write is that you write.

In fact, being an “expert” isn’t always an asset:

We’re all terrified of being revealed as amateurs, but in fact, today it is the amateur—the enthusiast who pursues her work in the spirit of love (in French, the word means “lover”), regardless of the potential for fame, money, or career—who often has the advantage over the professional. Because they have little to lose, amateurs are willing to try anything and share the results. They take chances, experiment, and follow their whims. Sometimes, in the process of doing things in an unprofessional way, they make new discoveries. “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities,” said Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki. “In the expert’s mind, there are few.”

—Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Finding Fans

In today’s selfie-obsessed world where we call our blogs “platforms” and our Twitter followers “contacts,” it’s important to remember that we’re not supposed to be somebody to everybody.

Stop worrying about how many people follow you online and start worrying about the quality of people who follow you. Don’t waste your time reading articles about how to get more followers. Don’t waste time following people online just because you think it’ll get you somewhere. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to talk to, and don’t talk about stuff you don’t want to talk about. If you want followers, be someone worth following. . . . Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.

—Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

Sharing Your Work

Where should you start, then, if you’re an amateur?

The best way to get started on the path to sharing your work is to think about what you want to learn, and make a commitment to learning it in front of others. . . . Be on the lookout for voids that you can fill with your own efforts, no matter how bad they are at first. Don’t worry, for now, about how you’ll make money or a career off it. Forget about being an expert or a professional, and wear your amateurism (your heart, your love) on your sleeve. Share what you love, and the people who love the same things will find you.

—Austin Kleon, Show Your Work

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