My students hate it when I ask trick questions. And of course, this is one of them.
The short answer to the question: What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional is simple. A professional gets paid. It’s not more profound than that.
But I said it was a trick question. All of us want to be paid, don’t we? So what do we have to do to be paid?
Therein lies the rub.
As I tell my students in my dreaded Media Law and Ethics class, the key to getting an A in any class is simple: Give the professor what they want.
First, you determine what that thing is that the professor (or in your case, the editor (or maybe if you’re an indie author, the reader) wants). That’s not always easy, just as sometimes a professor might say something in his syllabus that might be inconsistent with the reality of how he teaches his class. The litmus test is actually taking a class from him. The second time around you have a pretty good idea how to do well in his class–or whether you should even take a class from him.
Second, you have to decide if you are willing to pay the price necessary to give the professor/editor/reader what they are looking for. In terms of professors, they generally want you to read the syllabus, read the textbook, study for exams, turn in homework and show up for class. Basic stuff. In turns of editors, they want you to know grammar, spelling and punctuation, know how to construct a worthwhile story, know what his or her publication is looking for, and be faithful in turning in your assignment within the parameters given you by the deadline. Straightforward.
Readers? Not so clear. They tell you with reviews, but only some of the time. That’s why reviews are so precious. They also tell you by not buying your books. In their case, it’s more a matter of looking at what they ARE buying than what they AREN’T buying to determine how to please them. But suffice it to say (1) you need to look for every opportunity to interact with your readers for this very reason (and not necessarily to try and sell them something), and (2) this is a neverending process.
Give the professor/editor/reader what they want. It’s that simple.
And that hard.