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