Deciding Who or What Makes a Writer: Is It a Worthwhile Use of Our Writing Time?


Recently in a writing forum, a poster asked the question, “Can saying ‘I’m a writer’ make you a writer? If so, is this a positive or negative trend in the context of preserving the art and craft of writing?” One witty response was, “Can saying ‘I’m a doctor’ make you a doctor?”

Of course, the answer is no. Just asserting the truth of something doesn’t make it true. In almost everything in life, it is our actions that prove who and what we are. Writers write, doctors study for a long time and then use that knowledge to help people get better. Even love, which is difficult to prove in the abstract, is almost always demonstrated in the small, everyday, practical tasks people in love undertake for each other.

So what are the small, everyday, practical tasks writers undertake that make them writers?

Writing (But Never Showing Anybody)
Simply writing, I think, is a pretty good step – in fact, the most important step – towards being a writer. I’ve come close to addressing this issue before in my blog post entitled, “There’s No Such Thing as an Aspiring Writer”, where I wrote, “If you write, you’re a writer. And if you don’t, then you’re not… The great thing about writing is that you don’t require anyone else’s permission to do it. It doesn’t require study or training, although that helps sometimes. You don’t have to be a member of any group or if you write something you aren’t happy with, you don’t have to show it to anyone. You can write a little here and a little there in between working your real job, paying off your mortgage and raising your family. And anyone with a basic knowledge of the language they want to write in can do it.”

I spent a long time simply writing and not showing anyone the results of what I was doing. Looking back on it now, I think of it as training, practising, getting better. After all, don’t all skills (both those with professional intent and amateur enjoyment) require an investment of time as a means of improvement? And don’t we all like to show off the successes we’re proud of and hide the failures we’re embarrassed by?

With writing, there are likely to be early efforts that we’d rather nobody saw. I know I certainly have plenty of pieces of writing that fall into that category. But does the fact that we hide our less impressive work make us any less of a writer? I don’t think so.

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Who knows? If someone writes but never shows anyone, are they still a writer? Nothing writes itself. It always requires a writer.

Studying and Gaining Qualifications
I have two writing qualifications and while they have been important to my development as a writer and certainly helpful in gaining employment in the corporate writing field, in terms of the writing I want to do – my novels, my non-fiction books – they are almost shoulder shruggers.

What’s a shoulder shrugger, you ask? It’s the lack of enthusiasm displayed by people who are completely unimpressed by educational studies. You know the type. They ask things like, “Why would you bother with university when the School of Hard Knocks is out there willing to teach you everything you need to know without it costing you a cent?”

Whenever I need to write a short biography for myself, I usually include the fact that I have those two writing qualifications. But now that I’ve published two books, that seems to be the more relevant information.

I also have a university degree in history but I’m certainly not a historian. So I think qualifications, while they may be useful in helping us to become whatever it is we want to become (writer, doctor, historian), are only a stepping stone. Having a writing qualification doesn’t make you a writer.

Putting your Writing Out There (Self-Publishing, Blogging, Writing Groups, Etc)
Much like having a qualification, I don’t think putting your writing out there makes you a writer. But I think it helps in convincing others that you are a writer.

When I started blogging, that was certainly my motivation. I’d done a lot of corporate sales writing that had to remain confidential so when I was asked to provide writing samples, there wasn’t a lot I could do. I started creating and posting pieces on topics that I wanted to write about, which generally were writing, editing and employment as well as all my creative work, and my blog became my writing portfolio.

Creating and maintaining my blog has also helped me become a more prolific writer because I made a decision that I wanted to post frequently. I didn’t want to bother with it if I wasn’t going to fully commit.

So I’m putting a cross through this criterion as well. Putting your writing out there doesn’t make you a writer. But it sure is a great way to prove to others that you are.

Publishing (AKA Getting Others to Put Your Writing Out There)
I will admit that publishing is a great way to convince yourself you are a writer. It wasn’t until my first book was published that I started thinking of myself as one. And getting someone else to publish your book means they thought it was good enough to take a risk on. But there are plenty of unsuccessful books out there. I listened to a publisher recently trying to give away 300 condoms that were sitting in her office, the result of a marketing campaign for a book that failed to gain any traction.

But the fact that it was published doesn’t advance the cause of being considered a writer and the fact that it failed to sell doesn’t in any way diminish the achievement of having written it. I’m putting a line through this one as well.

Earning Money
Ah, the dream of all writers, to be able to quit their day jobs because they’re earning enough money from publishing their writing. It’s not always a practical dream though. There are plenty of well-known authors who have to supplement their incomes by teaching and lecturing and doing a variety of other things they’d really rather not be doing. My last royalty payment was for $1.94 so I’m back to working as a corporate writer, mostly for financial reasons.

There are also plenty of people out there who have never written a thing in their lives such as actors and footballers but who earn considerable amounts of money from books about them and ostensibly by them, although they were almost certainly written by ghostwriters.

Nope, I don’t think this is a good enough qualifier either.

My Verdict
I keep coming back to the first description: simply writing. As far as I’m concerned, a writer is someone who writes, regardless of whether they have also studied it, published it or been paid for it. Nobody can give a writer that title and no one can take it away from them. After all, if we only included people who earn a living from writing, there would be very few writers in this world. Remember, some people write for the love of it.

I suspect this is a question that most writers don’t think about in the context of themselves. I write, therefore I am… a writer. For most of us, it’s as simple as that. It’s when writers start to worry about other writers polluting the writing gene pool that this question gets asked and debated. And to be honest, it seems like an enormous waste of time, worrying about what someone else is or isn’t doing or perhaps isn’t doing well enough.

Certainly the second part of the original poster’s question makes me think that. “If so, is this a positive or negative trend in the context of preserving the art and craft of writing?” Preserving the art and craft of writing? Writing isn’t a closed shop. It’s a “the more, the merrier” sort of prospect. Even at the Olympics, there is room for dozens and dozens of people who all want to do the same thing. Surely writing can accommodate as many people as there are who want to give it a go?

In an age when we are losing young people from the craft of reading, I think anything we can do to encourage them to return should be embraced. The more people who are writing, the more types of writing that exist, the more writing as a whole will appeal to the broad mass of people.

And if when someone asks you what you do and your first inclination is to tell them that you are a writer, then go ahead and do it. Ultimately, the only person who can decide whether you are a writer is you.



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