It’s been noted before in this column that a moment professional authors dread is when someone from another profession comments: ‘Oh, I’m going to write a book when I retire/find the time. Everyone says I should.’
Ours is the only profession that other folk tend to think that they can do, irrespective of qualifications, natural ability or training. Patiently, we often have to explain that penning a book is usually not straightforward, and that a promising idea for a story does not automatically qualify you as author.
Being a professional writer is a privilege, however, and one cannot impose qualification thresholds prior to being published, because it would place an illiberal restriction on freedom of speech and thought. It is a profession, but it is not like architecture or medicine, where there is a codified and objectively agreed set of professional standards, and where unqualified practice tends to have serious consequences, such as life-changing injuries and premature death.
So we have to suck it up. This is always going to be an unregulated profession. Some people who are dreadful writers will have their books published; a few quite badly written books sell in significant numbers, in the same way that the Birdie song has sold better than most of Verdi’s operas.
There is the further complication: What constitutes ‘a book’ and who defines the author’s capability? Books can range from thought-expanding, complex works of art to simple how-to guides.
The number of human beings to have existed so far who have been capable of writing works of the poetic majesty of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, or 100 Years of Solitude is one. And there’ll probably never be another. The rest of us are lesser writers; we read these masterpieces and weep twice; once for the beauty, once for the gulf in quality with our own efforts.
But I’ve come across intelligent, articulate management consultants who have penned their own short work, which distils the wisdom they’ve accumulated in their career in a simply structured short book and it’s perfectly well done. I suggest a few edits, but no more. Then again, some people can be surprisingly poor at telling their own story, even when highly educated. Others struggle with a campaigning book for a cause that they have been heading, in which they are the undisputed experts; being close to the subject can create surprising difficulties. That’s when they turn to us.
A book is as long as a piece of string and as complicated as a piece of music. Writing won’t ever be a regulated profession, but if you’re tempted to think ‘Oh, anyone can do it’, then a touch of humility is advised.
- Philip Whiteley is a ghostwriter and author. He writes fiction under the byline PJ Whiteley. For more on his crowdfunded novel The Rooms We Never Enter, go to: https://unbound.com/books/rooms-we-never-enter/