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The term professional writer is open to interpretation. Some exclusively define professional writers as those people who author books. Others are more inclusive in their definition and define professional writers as those people who make their living by writing. This would include a much larger group of people including the following: screenwriters, playwrights, print journalists, columnists, freelance writers of articles, short stories, or poetry, sales copy and advertising writers, bloggers who make money sufficient to cover their monthly expenses, writers of articles for encyclopedias, and those who pen articles for various professional journals.
The key to being a professional writer, as opposed to being a writer, in the more loosely constructed definition, is that you get paid for your work. You can publish works in vanity presses, on free online sites, or in exchange for a couple of magazines, but you aren’t getting paid to do so. You may be just as skilled as the professional writer, but you turn your interests elsewhere in order to make the money you need to survive. You do not “write for a living.”
It may be simplification to describe what a professional writer does by saying that he or she writes. However, that is one of the main ways a professional writer spends his/her time. Those who are freelance professionals, and don’t employ an agent, also need to spend considerable time finding jobs, querying magazines or publishers, sending out manuscripts, and negotiating prices for work. Newer freelance professionals may write work before they are paid. Others get established and are invited to write by companies, magazines, or other media sources on either assigned or proposed topics.
Some professional writers, like us full-time workers at wiseGEEK, know we will be paid for our work. We take both assigned topics, and suggest some of our own, and may write anywhere from 20- 60 articles a week. Others write for wiseGEEK, as more of a sideline profession, either to augment their other writing endeavors, or other careers. Writing for wiseGEEK, or for other Internet sites provides a writer, depending upon the number of articles he/she produces, with a professional fee, and we can call ourselves professional writers.
Other professional writer jobs, like producing ad copy, writing for a newspaper, or writing a daily or monthly column, might mean working at an office, for regular 40-hour weeks. These writers may be salaried rather than making money on a per piece basis, and job stability in part depends on quality of writing, but also may depend on how well the writing is received. Don’t forget a publisher rejected J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book, suggesting that even the best writing can be received poorly.
Professional writers who write screenplays or plays may need to work on location in order to produce rewrites. Authors of books, on the other hand, when they are not writing material that needs to be heavily researched, most often work at home. On a daily basis, writers of all types either happily attack their computer (or pen and paper, typewriter), or sometimes must drag themselves to their writing source in order to complete work they have already contracted to publish, or would like to publish.
When a professional writer is lucky enough to be book published, he or she gets an added help, in the form of agent representation. This can mean that agents, when they’re good, will work to find the writer other work, and to sell other work the writer may have already written. It can be quite a chore trying to get your first book published, since most manuscripts won’t be read unless an agent gets them to a publisher, and most agents won’t take on a client unless they are already published.
If you’d like to try the field of professional writing, there are many ways to get started. A significant help is the website and yearly published book, The Writer’s Digest which maintains a listing of periodicals, agents, and publishers who will read original work. The Writer’s Digest further helps people decide where they can best pursue their efforts by listing important things about when and how material is accepted, what length material is accepted, and how much the pay rate is.
Another boon to the professional writer is the number of periodicals, agents and the like that now take online submissions of work. Some still prefer mail-in submissions, but this is quickly changing, since most writers now compose on computers and have access to Internet service. Many websites specialize in offering writing jobs, which helps freelancers. Avoid those that charge for this service.
@Sequoia - If you're gifted with words you should be able to find a job of some kind. You might be able to get a job as a copywriter or as a public servant working for the government. You could become a professional freelance writer or perhaps a public relations officer. Technical writing is a reasonably large field if you can handle occasionally complex material as you'd be writing things like user manuals for computer software or annual reports.
Basically, there's quite a few different paths you can take if writing is what you want to do. No reason to give up on the possibility of writing a book, either; many of the best authors of all times started out copywriting like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Don DeLilo.
I'm considering studying professional writing at university but I don't want to rely on the possibility that I manage to write a best selling book in order to make a living. What are some other jobs or careers that you can go into with a degree in professional writing?
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