Who gets to call themselves a writer?

It’s an endless argument on the internet. People doing NaNoWriMo for the first time will start a new version of it every year.

Just who gets to say “I’m a writer”?

Lots of people write. For some people writing is their job and their main income. For many writing is something they do alongside a day job, even if they are publishing and making some money from writing. Even more people are writing around the day job and hoping to publish. And then there are many people who write a lot, but purely as a hobby.

So what’s the distinction? Writing full time? Not necessarily. As well as people who are full time pro writers someone retired or unable to work or who is supported by someone else might spend also most of their day writing. But they might not be published, or even want to be published. Are they a writer? If someone is – like me – published and still writing more books to hopefully continue being published, but whose main income is still a non writing day job, can they say to people “I’m a writer.”? What about someone who writes one book, maybe a great book, but never writes anything again?

It depends on if you think “writer” is a job description, like baker, nurse or postal worker. So if it’s not at least one of your jobs (and I consider mine to be a part time job. As does the tax office.) then you can’t say “I’m a writer.” But by that logic many of the great writers of the past were not writers. It probably cuts poets out entirely. Not to mention many artists, philosophers, actors, musicians, all kinds of creative people, many of whom don’t make any money at all from those pursuits, never mind a living.

Some people use the distinction of “writer” as anyone who writes and “author” as someone who is published and makes money from writing. I don’t think that gets us much further really. There’s no such distinction between the two semantically.

It could be that there’s a different answer to the question depending on the context. If I was at a conference for readers and writer and someone asked me “are you a writer?” then of course I’ll say yes. But outside of that context and if they seem to be asking about work I’ll say that I’m a writer, but also mention my day job.

But why is it so controversial? Why do writers feel strongly about it? Why do none-writers feel strongly about it. Do some writers think other writers don’t deserve to use the title because they aren’t yet published? Do other people feel they’re being lied to if someone says they’re a writer, but actually they fit that in around their shifts at the fire station? Or they don’t write for publication?

Is it a title that needs protection? Some titles do need protection, because they imply a certain level of qualification, of being certified to carry out that work. Doctors, lawyers, architects, that kind of thing – lest the public is deceived into using the services of an unqualified person and perhaps being put in danger. So for some of those jobs it’s actually illegal to use that title without the appropriate licencing or certification.

Writing doesn’t need that level of protection from pretenders. But it is a title that has to be earned. If someone says they are a writer, but they have yet to do any writing, then we know they’re all mouth – at least for now. I think a person who regularly writes fanfic, or does some other kind of hobby writing, is more entitled to call themselves a writer than someone who claims they are totally a writer, they have this great novel – planned. They’ve been planning it for years. It’s going to be great. When they get around to writing it. I was that kind of writer for years. It doesn’t mean they’re a bad person – the world is full of people with a great novel idea they haven’t got around to writing yet – but they are not yet a writer.

For me the best way to reconcile it all is to remember that calling yourself a writer doesn’t have to mean that a writer is the only thing you are, or it’s what you do for a living. We all have many things we are in life. Writer, parent, carer, golfer, sales executive. For some people their day job might be the least important of those roles to them. It may be no more than a means to an end, the way they finance the things that matter more to them.

What do you think? Who gets to say “I’m a writer”, and who doesn’t? Does it bother you if someone says “I’m a writer” and you think they’re just using the title for whatever (dubious) prestige it brings?

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12 thoughts on “Who gets to call themselves a writer?

  1. To me, a writer is someone who writes. That’s it. If you’re “still in the planning stages” or “are waiting for when it’s convenient to take a week off work and bang out that novel,” then you’re not a writer. If you write, then you’re a writer, whether you’re published or not, whether you’re writing original fiction or fanfic, whether you support yourself on your writing income or whether you have a day job or a supportive spouse or a trust fund or whatever.

    A writer I know makes the distinction that, while a writer is someone who writes, an author is someone who has written, but isn’t writing now. Whether they only have one book in them, or whether they’re taking the year off to promo their one book [cough] or whether it was a bucket list item, if you’ve written in the past (and published, unspoken assumption) but aren’t currently writing, then you can call yourself an author but not a writer. I kind of like that one. 🙂

    Do some writers think other writers don’t deserve to use the title because they aren’t yet published?

    Bingo. And these days, make that “traditionally published.” Because anyone who wants to can write, some people who’ve been accepted by the gatekeepers feel the need to rip the label off of any persons of lower achievement, lest the title “writer” be diluted of its awe-inspiringness. [wry smile]

    A couple more thoughts. If we don’t count one-book writers at all, Harper Lee wouldn’t qualify. I have no problem calling her a writer, or at least an author, no snark intended this time. And a well known writer (I think it was Larry Niven, but I wouldn’t swear to it now) was once asked what was the one most important thing to have if you wanted to be a full time writer. One gets the impression the questioner expected to hear “talent” or “skill” or “determination” or some such thing. Instead, Mr. Niven (or whoever it was) said, “A working spouse.” Which suggests he wasn’t paying all his family’s bills with his writing income, at least at the time, but I think he qualifies as a writer too. 🙂

    Angie

    1. “A writer I know makes the distinction that, while a writer is someone who writes, an author is someone who has written, but isn’t writing now. Whether they only have one book in them, or whether they’re taking the year off to promo their one book [cough] or whether it was a bucket list item, if you’ve written in the past (and published, unspoken assumption) but aren’t currently writing, then you can call yourself an author but not a writer. I kind of like that one. :)”

      I like that one. 😀 Some people do stop writing, after one,or even a load of books. They’re obviously still an author, those books are still out there.

      Ah, a working spouse! The dream of all writers. I want one too! 😀

  2. To me anyone who writes is a writer – even if they only write shopping lists, well maybe something more than that but something that involves putting words together to inform and entertain even an imaginary reader. An author is a more rarefied creature, published and knowledgeable.

    Or maybe it has something to do with back catalogue? Or subject? Is Nora Roberts a writer and Tolkien an author? With that definition I’ve read an awful lot of writers but virtually no authors since I left school (Tolkien being the exception). Where would you put Jane Austen though?

    Although I do like Angie’s repeated definition above – an author is a published writer who doesn’t write anymore. Maybe that can be my ambition!

    1. It could be the goal of some to write one book that’s so successful it makes them enough money to live on the rest of their life and they never have to write again. 😉

  3. This whole thing about who “qualifies” as a writer – and even more, an “author” – is really about ego. I do agree that if all one does is plan to write, they’re not really a writer, but after that … If you write, you’re a writer, and having written something, you’ve authored it, therefore you’re an author. Saying one has to make money at it is ridiculous – I’ll sell a story to my son. Yay, now I’m an author! Saying one has to earn their living at it – how many best-selling authors would no longer have that title? Have to be published? I’ll slap something up with Createspace or Lulu. Have to be trade published? I’ll find a new indie publisher desperate for titles. Pretty soon people will be saying you have to be published by the Big 5 (or 6 or whatever the number is now :p) which will kill off even more … geez, what do we call them then? Maybe “story makers”?

    The truth of the matter is that anyone can be a writer/author. There’s nothing special about it. Now, being commercially successful, or writing something that wins literary awards – no, not anyone can do that. But being a writer/author is an equal opportunity title and if that gets some people’s noses out of joint, tough cookies, dude …

    1. It’s a club you can write your way into, but some prefer to restrict access to the first class lounge.

      There is definitely some snobbery and ego at work. But there doesn’t need to be. Nobody assumes all writers are on the same level as a nobel prize for literature winner. Readers are quite capable of making those distinctions themselves without there being any kind of rule over which writers are “real” writers.

  4. Reblogged this on ukgayromance and commented:
    I was going to write a post about the differences between a writer and an author. I love this blog from Becky Black on what is a writer.

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