Technically, I have never published a book.
The more time I spend casually offering advice to other writers, the more this fact bothers me.
Not enough to stop me from writing — not enough to make me question every single response I compose to strangers and acquaintances alike. It’s more like a subtle yet constant ringing in my ears. Most of the time I don’t even notice it’s there. But every now and then, I do. And for a short time after that, it’s so irritating that I can’t concentrate on anything else. At least until I get used to the ringing again.
We all, in some way, have our own definitions of what it “means” to be a writer. There’s nothing wrong with setting your own parameters defining what may or may not qualify you to use the title of “writer” in a variety of contexts throughout your life.
But sometimes, setting these parameters can prove harmful. At least in the way a constant ringing in your ears can seem harmful from time to time, anyway. Am I unqualified to give writing advice because I haven’t published a book? Maybe. Maybe not.
Maybe it’s the wrong question to ask when deciding who’s “really” a writer and who isn’t. Maybe it’s much simpler than many of us think it is.
By definition — literally — a writer is “a person who writes.” Alternative definition: “Someone who has written.” Some define a writer as someone who has published a body of work, but even that doesn’t help clarify things since writers can write and publish a variety of “things” — books, articles, newsletters, even blog posts.
What qualifies a person to say they’re a writer? Is there even a single prerequisite? If you’re not currently working on a big project like a novel, but you are publishing a monthly blog post and are constantly jotting down ideas for the next story you want to work on, does it “count”? Is writing like a membership to an exclusive club, where you lose access to its perks if you stop attending meetings for a few consecutive months because Life Happened?
Or are all these questions nothing more than products of overthinking — and calling yourself a writer is actually a matter of preference rather than some kind of right?
Personally, I prefer a fairly simple approach to defining what makes someone a writer. And I’ll explain exactly why I think coming at this simply is essential for those who are truly serious about making writing a significant part of their life.
To me, a writer is anyone who writes. Anyone who makes writing a regular part of their routine. A writer is someone who actively transcribes their ideas onto paper (physical pages or otherwise) whether they have the intention of publishing them someday or not.
I tend to break this down further for clarification purposes, as follows:
- A writer is anyone who regularly writes
- An author is someone who has published their work in the past or is actively doing so now
- An aspiring writer is someone who actively writes with the intention of publishing their work at some point
- A working writer is someone who earns a (semi-)regular paycheck from writing.
Under these parameters, you don’t have to have published something to call yourself a writer. You don’t have to earn part of your living through writing. The only “requirement” necessary to call yourself a writer is that you’re consistently making an effort to sit down and write things, even if those things aren’t great or publishable or intended for that purpose.
Assuming that a writer has to be published, or even that a writer has to compose stories with the intention of showcasing them to the world, puts a lot of pressure on people. Especially those who are just starting out as writers or who might be returning to writing after a hiatus of any length.
“I’m not a ‘real’ writer until I’ve published a book” can be extremely motivating for some people, sure — and if this threshold motivates you, then feel free to continue on with that mantra for as long as it continues working in your favor. No judgment here.
But if this kind of language discourages you — if it makes you feel like your writing right now doesn’t “count” or isn’t “worth it” because it’s not published or you’re not earning money or recognition for it — then don’t set the bar so high for yourself. It’s putting unnecessary stress on you, and being a writer is already stressful enough! You don’t need that added tension holding you back.
I’m just one person who has “only” published articles and blog posts. My opinion is simply that, and nothing more — I don’t consider myself an expert, though I’m certainly past the point of being considered a beginner. My viewpoint might not match up with yours, but perhaps it can encourage you on days you need some lifting up.
The only thing that truly makes someone a writer is that they make an effort to write the stories otherwise trapped inside them. A writer doesn’t have to make millions or have a massive Twitter following or even host a blog. A writer simply has to do the one thing they feel they can’t live without: take the words within them and turn them into prose. Or poetry, or whatever format happens to be calling to you at any particular point in time.
If you write, you’re a writer.
It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that, unless you prefer it that way, I suppose.
Do you call yourself a writer? If not, what would have to happen before you felt comfortable using that title? When someone else tells you they’re a writer, what do you automatically assume that means? Let’s discuss.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.