The Real Difference Between Professional Writing and Fan Writing

by D.M. Atkins

There are lots of small ways fan writing and professional writing differ. The obvious ways come from the difference between working with a shared canon and creating an all-new story. For example, with fan works, there is less pressure to develop backgrounds and minor characters, or to spend a lot of words detailing people and places. These are easy for authors to spot and deal with when switching from fan writing to pro writing, but the real difference is context. Writing for your friends and fellow fans is a different context from writing for paying customers who may or may not be friends or fans.

Fan writing is different from pro writing in much the same way cooking a meal for friends is different from being a chef in a restaurant. Imagine you have invited a dozen friends to dinner. You cook a big meal, and maybe each of them also brings a dish to share. You all sit down to eat and you find that the dish one friend brought is barely edible. Do you throw them out? Do you criticize them at the table? Or do you simply pass on that dish, or just not finish it? Most people I know would not only consider it rude to criticize a meal that a friend made for them, they might even make up a small lie to cover not eating it: “I’m full,” or “just not into green beans,” etc. The “if you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all” rule usually applies.

Yet, if you were taking those friends out to a restaurant and the food was not well prepared, even a single dish, many of the same people would feel quite comfortable telling the restaurant staff about “the problem” or going later to one of the review sites and criticizing the over-done side dish or the slow service. The basic tenet here is that when you charge money for something, the recipient holds you to a higher standard than if it was given to them free. In addition, the rules around when and how to criticize are different for professional works than for amateur. (Read More)

One of the interesting things about fan culture is the way both the copyright laws and the internet have led to a “gift economy” in fan cultures. Because of the legal difficulties around selling original works derived from existing properties, along with the ease of self publication on the internet, fan-fiction culture has developed around the idea of giving writing away for free. There are entire communities created and run with the sole purpose of exchanging fan writing and fan art as gifts. While the quality of these works varies from extremely poor to amazingly well done, the evaluation of them is in the context of a gift, not a pro work.

Which is why, when stories are posted to a free journal, nearly all the reviews will be complementary. The writing is treated as a gift, and most of the comments will be from those who liked the work. In a gift exchange, it is considered rude to criticize the gift. Those who didn’t like the work are expected to “just hit the back button.”

Money changes everything. Whether we like it or not, accepting money for one’s writing changes the intent and the context in which a work will be received. When the readers have paid money for a story, they now feel they have the right to criticize the story. They may do this not just in a professional review that actually evaluates the work in the context of other works of its kind, but based solely on whether or not the readers felt it met their needs. Paying customers may criticize a book based solely on content they liked or didn’t like, even if it was well-written. Goodreads, for example, generates a lot of these types of “out of context” reviews.

Editing is also seen differently in fan and professional contexts. When a friend reads your work, it can be very difficult for them to look past the friendship to evaluate the work objectively. Conversely, it can be difficult for a writer to take criticism from a friend. The relationship changes the environment in which both are working.

Professional editors have to approach the writing with the intent of finding any way they can to help the author create a work that must stand up to the higher level of criticism expected of professional writers. Editors working with a publisher also know that the success or failure of the author’s work will reflect upon both themselves as editors and on the publishing house as a business.

This is even more true in a world where self-publishing is an option. With an internet full of free stories, why should a reader pay for an author’s work? In paying for professional writing, readers are buying not only the right to read the story but also the (implied) guarantee that the work will be worth the money they paid.

The transition from writing in the fan culture to the professional publishing world can be difficult for authors who are used to the more consistently high praise that fan writers often receive. Professional authors have to work harder for positive reviews and learn how to evaluate the negative ones, to accept criticism, and to evaluate which ones to heed and which ones to ignore. If read objectively, even the negative reviews can give the author and editor feedback that can help improve future work.

Professionals–author or editor–are expected to be able to be more objective about their work. One of the rules of accepting money for your work is just that objectivity. You are expected to want to improve your work and make it something others want to pay money to read. While writers may “write for themselves,” publishing it is an act of sharing it with others. The reader brings their own context to it and good writers learn how to anticipate that and create a shared reality in their fiction.

While your friends may come back for another meal even if they didn’t like the first one, the restaurant that served meals people dislike would go out of business and would have to fire the cook. To be successful in professional writing, and also happy doing it, writers need to make that market exchange a positive one for both themselves and the readers.

D.M. Atkins

[I’d love to hear from other writers on how they have handled the shift between the two and what they think of it.]


1 Comment on The Real Difference Between Professional Writing and Fan Writing

  1. #1 Well said.
    Submitted by Jamie Freeman on Tue, 11/27/2012 – 5:53am

    Very well said. Although I’ve never written fan fiction, I see writers all around me emerging from that world and grappling with the editing process and the blessing/curse of reviews. It’s tough to be the chef.

    #2 I do both
    Submitted by Elizabeth A. Sc… on Tue, 11/27/2012 – 6:29am

    I write fanfiction to give myself a break from pay copy. I find it relaxing to play in someone else’s world for a change. Personally, I try to hold the fanfiction to the same standard as my professional work. It does, after all, still have my name on it. The only difference is that the fanfiction is not edited, so I occasionally go back and find small typos (that I go in and fix). The typos are a but like pet hairs in that way — you don’t see them until you go out in public!

    Elizabeth Schechter

    #3 Reactions to Criticism
    Submitted by Annabeth Leong on Tue, 11/27/2012 – 10:11am

    Thanks for the excellent articulation of the difference between a gift economy and a money-based economy.

    I read fanfiction sometimes, but have never written it. All of my writing experience has been in the professional world. Besides fiction under this name, under my real name I have a master’s degree in writing and spent years working as a journalist. I do think the criticism tends to be harsher. Sometimes, it is fair and helpful, while tough. Sometimes it is out of context and cruel (the same way people sometimes unfairly beat up on waitstaff or people working at a fast food place). I think a big part of being a professional is learning to tell the difference, and knowing how to respond appropriately depending on whether the criticism is helpful or not.

    To go with your cooking example, some people demand a quality meal because they’re paying for it and other people are being jerks. Some people are making a fair demand for a quality meal and being a jerk at the same time, which can be confusing. When you work at a restaurant (as I have also done), you need strategies for dealing with each case.

    I stress the word “helpful” because it can transform criticism that sounds harsh, as well as alert an author to when praise is not helping (sometimes people who say, “This is perfect, don’t change a thing” aren’t doing an author any favors).

    When I get criticism of any kind, I evaluate whether it tells me something helpful about my writing. A clue is often a sense of inner excitement. I know when my story isn’t quite doing what I hoped it would. Helpful criticism unlocks something about that and gives me an inner “yes!” This is true even if it’s also going to mean a lot of work for me. As an example, an editor once had me restructure a story’s pace — it took me a solid month to do the edits because it was so difficult. However, I was so glad afterward, because the story was undeniably better for the work.

    It’s just as important to see when something isn’t helpful, though. Some readers or editors will nitpick at a piece of work in a way that completely destroys the author’s ability to finish that work. “Draft after draft” is a nice idea, unless it gets the author trapped in an endless loop. Some criticism is insubstantial. “This story is incompetent” tells me nothing about how to make it more competent. Sometimes a person is lashing out, as you said, over content they don’t like. Sometimes, they have a different vision of what the story can be. If unhelpful criticism is coming from the designated editor of a work, I try to deal with it as professionally as possible. I try to do what they’re asking as much as possible, up to the point that I feel the story’s integrity is being compromised (and I try not to get too precious with that concept). Editors who are any good understand this push and pull completely (and, to be clear, everyone I’ve worked with at FF has been very good). If it’s coming from a beta reader, I take it for what it’s worth and move on. If it’s coming from a reader, I thank them for looking at the work, if necessary, and don’t respond further.

    Sometimes criticism that sounds mean can still tell me something useful, but I also have to take steps to protect myself from the insult. A professional writer does not have to be at the beck and call of bullies. When I get useful criticism in a mean way, I often have to take it to a person whose criticism I find helpful and ask that person to help me pull out the useful information. It’s hard to put writing out there, and I do have to pay attention to my hurt feelings.

    I think the two biggest things I have learned are

    1) to recognize the sense of excitement that often comes with useful criticism and

    2) to understand that being open to criticism does not mean “volunteering to be bullied.”

    People who provide truly consistent helpful, articulate criticism are rare jewels who should be treated as such.

    (Heh, I seem to have written my own post in reply. Thanks for being so thought-provoking!)

    #4 Fan versus Pro Writing
    Submitted by Mason Powell on Tue, 11/27/2012 – 1:16pm

    When I did fan writing (long before there were shared fan universes) I worked as carefully as I later did on my professional writing. It seemed to me that it was writing, and that by it I would be known for better or for worse. Moreover, in those days writing for fanzines was a gateway to having people know how well you could write. The subject matter was the main difference in how people approached fan versus pro writing.

    If you had to write it, and then type it on mimeograph stencils, then print it and send it out, it seemed worth the extra effort. It was not a dash-off situation. You had to work hard to get responses to what you had written (in fanzines or in letters), so you put in the work.

    The emotional situation was not too different: did anybody read my copy? Mostly you had (and have) to generate a lot of copy in order to get back anything at all. Kind of like postal advertising. If you get a two percent response, you know you are doing something right. The big difference was that fan writing was more likely, with a smaller audience, to get you a response. In pro writing, an edition of 30,000 copies might net you two letters, if the publisher bothered to forward them (mainly they did not).

    I figure if an editor does not understand something I have written, then I need to try and make it clearer. But sometimes the editor is just plain ignorant, as with the one who wanted to correct the grammar of a famous quote from Shakespeare. (Graduating with a degree in editing does not mean that you have actually read any books.) In the final analysis, the editor and the publisher are paying me money, so I have to please them. I try not to argue too much, even if I think it will damage communication with the reader, because.. Well, “Whose wine I drink, whose food I eat, his song I sing.”

    Mason Powell


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