Monday, February 3, 2014

Differences Between Professional & Amateur Writers: On Inspiration #writerstip

I recently read an article an author had written on the five differences between professional authors and amateurs. Good article, but I kept coming back to this line:

When beginning writers approach me, they often want to know where I get my ideas (Pottery Barn, I tell them) or my inspiration.  By contrast, I think published novelists understand that you can’t really get help with inspiration.

I don’t know why, but this kinda rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe I took it the wrong way. I do that a lot, because as a published novelist (ergo professional writer), I always immediately reject the most obvious meaning and delve on through to the fourth or fifth possibility. That keeps things exciting and unexpected. (#writerstip)

But seriously. Why is asking about inspiration the mark of an amateur? I ask other writers all the time, and I’m not an amateur. I know where I get my inspiration from, and I’ve written extensively about it. It’s my innate curiosity that drives me to ask other writers what makes them tick. If I wasn’t curious about almost everything, I probably would be a very boring fiction writer. (bonus #writerstip)

Even beginning writers know where their own inspirations come from. If they weren’t inspired, they never would have made the switch from Advanced Reader to Beginning Writer. Writers at every level of experience are sensitive to inspirational things, which seed the creative subconscious and stimulate the growth of ideas. Asking another writer what inspires them isn’t the same as asking for a lesson on How To Become Inspired. It’s an inquiry to see if someone as big as a “professional” writer shares the same idea processes as they do.

Kind of like when Kid President asks his interview guests if they toot.

We all toot. We’re all human.

Professional authors are human, too, just like the wee amateurs. And, whether pro or amateur, we’re all part of a community of artists. Asking that question may be a way for a beginning author to validate his belief in himself, to remind him that his idea process is just as valid as that of the multi-published professional. Every one of us needs a big up now and then. I’m sure even the most seasoned professionals have heroes, and wouldn’t mind knowing if they share the same ilk.

I think a better mark of the professional author would be the ability to serve as a mentor to the beginners. Experts teach the innocent. Professionals should teach with a certain sensibility that fosters the less-experienced within our ranks.

Don’t forget: the word “professional” means many things.

Definition of professional (adj)(Courtesy of Bing Dictionary)
 pro•fes•sion•al [ prō féshən'l ]
  1. of profession: relating to or belonging to a profession
  2. following occupation as paid job: engaged in an occupation as a paid job rather than as a hobby
  3. businesslike: conforming to the standards of skill, competence, or character normally expected of a properly qualified and experienced person in a work environment
I tend to focus on the third definition, with emphasis on character. Answering an emerging writer’s earnest question with disdain or a non-answer or the attitude that the simple act of asking a question will forever condemn them to the amateur team is, in a word, unprofessional.

Especially when you consider definition number two. The moment you are paid to do something, you are a professional. That means the same for all occupations, from ice skaters to freelance writers. The day I received a token payment from an ezine for a poem was the day I made pro. Money’s a bit different when you compare it to novel sales by a Big 5 publisher, but the distinction is the same.

Professionals don’t talk down to other professionals. That’s not just unprofessional--that’s jackassy.

And I’m sure that the point he was trying to make was certainly not that professionals no longer get inspired, that the trick of writing your eighth or ninth book isn’t the result of an uninspired plug-and-play formula. (That suspicion was maybe seventh down on my list of possible interpretations—see first #writerstip)

Professionals are subject to inspiration, just as amateurs are. The difference is that professionals look for inspiration and set to work crafting a product out of it, whereas an amateur often is struck by an inspiration, which jars them so thoroughly out of their everyday life that they are driven to write about it. In short: professionals use inspiration as a tool, the same one that amateurs must learn to wield.

What I did find helpful, though is the reference to Pottery Barn. I adore the photos on that website and I think that any author who needs to add a little setting to their characters’ internal environments should stop by. Whether your heroine lives at the sea side or deep in the rustic northwest, you can catch glimpses of inspirational home furnishings and room shots that will immerse you in your scenes and feed your muses. (best #writerstip in the bunch)

So, thanks are in order, after all, Mr. Author. All of us writers—from the amateur to the professional—appreciate a pointer now and then. We are never so far at the top of our craft that we won’t benefit from a lesson from one of the pros.


  1. Or possibly they were trying to make the same point that I sometimes make, which is that inspiration doesn't matter that much. It's the way that you choose to execute them, and the choices that you make about them. That concept that people don't read your ideas, but your finished book.

    In that much, the full time writer almost doesn't have the luxury of inspiration. They have to write whether the best idea in the world has just hit them or not, and they still have to make the results good. Whereas someone who isn't dependent on it for their living can afford to wait for that perfect idea.

  2. I see exactly the point you make and absolutely agree, Stu. For a working writer, inspiration is less about epiphanies and more about a single step in a meticulous process.

  3. The answer does come off as flippant. I just had an interview with a newspaper and they asked me that question. I think it's just a normal question and perhaps the less experienced author is looking to make conversation. A lot of authors suck at the social graces [me included]. Maybe pro author was trying to be funny.

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