Anyone who wants it enough and works hard enough can be a professional writer? Hogwash.

Posted by on November 8, 2012 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

“Anyone can be anything they want to be if they’re determined and work hard enough and get enough support,” is a recurring mantra of our “Every child gets a trophy” culture.

Unfortunately, it’s not true. A recent example? Mitt Romney wanted very much to be President, but he failed. Because they didn’t want it enough? Of course not. He’s a politician. He wanted it fervently. But there were two serious contenders for the position and just one opportunity to succeed.

There is a finite limit to opportunities in most fields. Thousands of high school quarterbacks desperately want to be starting quarterbacks in the NFL, but only 32 can succeed.

Olympic athletes? Pilots? CEOs? Many aspire, few attain. There simply aren’t that enough opportunities for everyone.

Just so, there are a finite number of opportunities for professional writers.

I used to select candidates for writing jobs with a large communications organization. I typically had several dozen applicants for any open position. A small minority were qualified, and I hired those. A slightly larger group had some, though not all of the attributes needed to succeed. I counseled those on how to gain the skills they would need to write professionally. And by far the largest group simply didn’t have the skill sets and attributes to be professional writers. I counseled them to look in another field.

This is not to say they couldn’t be writers. Anyone with a writing implement and basic literacy can be a writer. My point was that they could not be professional writers. There were finite opportunities, and an ample pool of better qualified people who would get the available jobs.

So perhaps they couldn’t be professional writers. But how about authors? Can’t anyone make a living as an author? Don’t e-books and publishing on demand expand the opportunities for authors virtually infinitely?

Before hiring writers for a big communications company I screened authors at a literary agency. The vast majority – certainly more than 90% – of the submissions in the slush pile were unpublishable. Today that ratio has gone to 99%. Yes, anyone can self-publish. But the book-buying public is finite. And readers have well-established preferences in the books they buy. That’s why the vast majority of books published in the U.S. sell fewer than 100 copies. An author can’t make a living on that volume.

It’s unrealistic to say anyone can be anything if only they wish — and presumably work — hard enough. My 20/400 vision would prevent me from becoming a commercial pilot no matter how much I wanted to be one and how hard I worked at it. A 112-pound girl isn’t going to be an NFL defensive tackle, want it however much she might. A person with a double-digit IQ can’t become a rocket scientist.

Some people can’t make a living as writers no matter how much they want it and how hard they try. There are far fewer opportunities to write professionally than there are people who want to make their living at a keyboard. And not all the happy, delusional, wishful thinking in the world is going to change that.