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 But they might not be published, or even want to be published.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?