The term “professional writer” can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Some people only consider professional writers to be those who write books. Others use a broader definition, referring to professional writers as people who make a living from writing. Screenwriters, playwrights, print journalists, columnists, freelance writers of articles, short stories, or poetry, sales copy and advertising writers, bloggers who make enough money to cover their monthly expenses, writers of articles for encyclopedias, and those who pen articles for various professional journals would all fall into this category.
The difference between being a professional writer and being a writer in the more loosely constructed definition is that professional writers get paid for their work. You can publish your work in vanity presses, on free online sites, or in exchange for a few magazines, but you will not be paid. You may be just as capable as a professional writer, but in order to make the money you need to survive, you divert your attention elsewhere. You don’t “work as a writer.”
It’s possible that describing what a professional writer does as “writing” is oversimplifying. However, one of the primary ways a professional writer spends his or her time is writing. Those who work as freelancers without an agent must spend a significant amount of time looking for work, querying magazines or publishers, sending out manuscripts, and negotiating work prices. Newer freelancers may have to write work before being paid. Others gain experience and are invited to write for companies, magazines, or other media outlets on topics that are either assigned or suggested.
Some professional writers, such as us full-time employees at wiseGEEK, are aware that they will be compensated for their efforts. We write anywhere from 20 to 60 articles per week, based on both assigned and suggested topics. Others contribute to wiseGEEK on a part-time basis, either to supplement their other writing endeavors or to supplement their other careers. Writing for wiseGEEK or other Internet sites pays a writer a professional fee based on the number of articles he or she produces, and we can call ourselves professional writers.
Other professional writer jobs, such as producing ad copy, writing for a newspaper, or writing a daily or monthly column, may require regular 40-hour weeks in an office setting. These writers may be salaried rather than paid on a piece-by-piece basis, and their job security is based in part on the quality of their work, but also on how well it is received. Remember that J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected a publisher, implying that even the best writing can be misunderstood.
Professional screenwriters and playwrights may be required to work on location in order to complete rewrites. Authors of books, on the other hand, often work from home when they are not writing material that requires extensive research. On a daily basis, writers of all kinds either eagerly attack their computer (or pen and paper, typewriter), or must occasionally drag themselves to their writing source in order to finish work they have already contracted to publish, or would like to publish.
A professional writer who is fortunate enough to have a book published receives additional assistance in the form of agent representation. When agents are good, this can mean that they will work to find other work for the writer and sell other work the writer has already written. It can be difficult to get your first book published because most manuscripts aren’t read unless they’ve been sent to a publisher an agent, and most agents won’t take on a client unless they’ve already been published.
There are a variety of ways to get started in the field of professional writing. The Writer’s Digest, a website and yearly book that maintains a list of periodicals, agents, and publishers who will read original work, is a huge help. The Writer’s Digest also assists people in determining where they can best focus their efforts providing information on when and how material is accepted, as well as the length of material accepted and the pay rate.
Another boon to professional writers is the growing number of periodicals, agents, and other organizations that now accept work submitted via the internet. Some people still prefer mail-in submissions, but that is rapidly changing as more and more writers compose on computers and have Internet access. Many websites specialize in writing jobs, which is advantageous to freelancers. Those who charge for this service should be avoided.