When can you call yourself a writer? How do you define a writer?

April 23, 2014   Tags: , , , 🕑 5 minutes read

Are you a writer or are you an “aspiring” writer?  How do you define yourself? How do you define a writer?

If you are looking for a heated topic among writers, just ask this question: “At what point do you start calling yourself a writer?” That’s the question Robyn Petrik blogged about in a bygone post, then put to the former Google Plus Writing Resources Community.

The first response caught me totally off guard; Chris Smith responded:

“Definitely not before you get paid!”

Getting paid to write makes a person an entrepreneur.That is when I realized how varying are the opinions on this topic. So let’s begin by recognizing that there is plenty of room for everybody’s opinions, and that mine will be very clearly articulated below – and you should feel free to agree or disagree in the comments at the end of the post.

Let us also get one red herring out of the way, since otherwise it is bound to come up. By “writer”, we are referring to the person who composes text. By “author”, we are referring to the person whose name is credited on the text. Very often the writer and the author are the same person, but sometimes they are not. Robyn begins her post like this…

“You hesitate to call yourself a writer. You don’t include it in your online bio or social media profiles. You don’t tell your friends that you’re a writer and you don’t introduce yourself as a writer to people you meet. You may refer to yourself as an aspiring writer from time to time, but never just a writer. There’s always an adjective attached clarifying that you are not a real writer yet.”

Sound familiar? Then you are not alone. So when do you call yourself a writer? When you publish your first book? When the first book actually sells? When somebody other than your mother buys a copy (that might be the 40th copy)? When you sell enough books to cover the cost of publishing? When you actually sell enough books to cover the cost of publishing and pay a reasonable wage for the time you spent researching, writing and marketing?

Does selling a book make you more of a writer than if you never sell? Or does it just make you more of a salesperson?

What if you never want to write a book? What if you write newsletters or blogs or marketing materials or speeches? Are you a writer? What if you write short stories, but never publish them – you write just for the joy of writing. Are you a writer?

According to those who believe being paid to write is what makes someone a writer, selling the book is the critical distinction. Here is how Chris articulated it in the Google Plus discussion I referred to earlier:

“The definition of a writer is not someone who writes just as I can paint the interior walls in my home but it doesn’t make me a painter. I can sit in 8th grade art class and paint something. I’m still not a painter. Like GW, I can retire, take painting lessons, and produce a few works, but it still doesn’t make me an artist.”

As you can tell, I pretty strongly disagree with this view, and my reasoning has nothing to do with writing; my reasoning has to do with my view of a person’s identity. To put it simply: don’t let anybody else define who you are. Yes, that pretty much sums up my position on the matter.

As soon as you define “writer” as somebody paid to write, you are saying that other people get to define who and what you are. Allow me to give an example.

Let’s say Patrick is working on a screenplay, but he can’t seem to knock on the right doors or find a producer who is interested. But by golly, Patrick still needs to eat. He needs a roof over his head. He needs clothes on his back. So he moves furniture to earn the money he needs to pay for food, shelter and clothing, after all.

POP QUIZ: Is Patrick a writer or a furniture mover?

If you follow the logic that you are a writer only if you are paid to be a writer, then the corollary is that you are a furniture mover if you are paid to move furniture. But wait. Let’s look a little closer at what is really happening here. Patrick writes to write. He hopes to make money from his writing, but that’s not his motivation. He writes because he is a … wait for it … a writer!

Patrick moves furniture to eat. And to keep out of the rain. And to avoid violating public decency laws. He needs to make money, that’s his motivation. He moves furniture because he is an … wait for it … an eater! And … wait for it … a dweller. And … you know what to do … a non-nudist.

And he is a writer.

The problem with calling Patrick a furniture mover is that “furniture mover” does not define what or who he is, but what other people are willing to pay him to do. Mrs. Jones of 24 Caramel Lane simply does not need his lovely screenplay today. But she sure needs someone to move her furniture. Her needs are not what defines who Patrick is; they only define what she is willing to part with her money for.

Getting paid to write doesn’t make a person a writer. Getting paid to write makes a person an entrepreneur.

When it comes to definitions, there is plenty of room for honest disagreement. But I’ve been a writer since I wrote for my high school newspaper, becoming co-editor in my senior year. I have been a writer of poems and song lyrics on nobody’s payroll. I have since become a published author and a prolific blogger. I ghostwrite articles and I have written reports and news releases as an employee and as a freelancer. I think I have been many writers.

But mostly, I am a writer when I feel that I am. Because putting words together to express an idea is a huge and defining part of who I am. In the words of Dr. Phil:

“The authentic self is the you that can be found at your absolute core. It is the part of you not defined by your job, function or role. It is the composite of all your skills, talents and wisdom. It is all of the things that are uniquely yours and need expression, rather than what you believe you are supposed to be and do.”

Are you a writer? What are your thoughts on this?

About David Leonhardt

David Leonhardt is President of The Happy Guy Marketing, a published author, a "Distinguished Toastmaster", a former consumer advocate, a social media addict and experienced with media relations and government reports.

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  1. RK says:
    at 3:00 pm

    Hi David, Thanks for your post. – I’ve just had my first book printed, “The Emancipation of Astronomy for the Common Man” ( http://bloggetry.net/ ), but I’ve also written over 450 short poems (over 100 are on my blogspot site ( http://poetic-rk.blogspot.com/#Emancipation ). – I’ve also written a dissertation on homeopathy, “From Soul to Body: Relays of the Mind and Homeopathy” ( http://bloggetry.net/Subs/Relays.html ) and my autobiography (unpublished). – Perhaps I am a writer after all. – http://google.com/+RK-MayarOwl

  2. Austin says:
    at 3:11 pm

    Great article David! I am a writer because my ideas are solid and need to be expressed.

  3. Miranda says:
    at 3:14 pm

    SO…this is an interesting topic. I get paid to write. But I also think of myself as a writer. I enjoy writing. It’s who I am. And even though I get paid to write, I also do other writing (some of it secret and very, very bad fiction) that I am not paid for.

    I think you’re a writer if it’s the core of who you are, whether or not you are paid for what you write. But being paid for it is a definite perk if you are a PROFESSIONAL writer. 🙂

    • David Leonhardt says:
      at 4:00 pm

      Yes, it is nice occasionally to be paid for all that work. 😉

  4. Alex Yong says:
    at 3:37 pm

    Hi David. In the past I would say I’m a copywriter BUT a lot of people heard “copyright-er” and assumed I was in the patents biz LOL. So now I say I’m a writer because it’s straightforward


  5. Thomas McGann says:
    at 3:57 pm

    Hi David,
    I am in the process of publishing my first book. Enroute I have been chronicling my endeavors. You can read my posts on my website http://www.thomasmcgann.com as part of my ongoing series “So you want to be an author…”
    The subject of whether or not to identify yourself as a “writer” is fraught with complications, not the least of which is how others will respond to you if you do so. Personally, I do not identify myself as a writer. If the subject of how I fill my time comes up I respond truthfully telling them of the multitude of hours I spend right here, writing.
    If you tell others you are a writer they will, unfortunately, scoff, if not verbally probably internally.

    • David Leonhardt says:
      at 3:59 pm

      Tom, this is not my experience. I do writing and I do website promotion. I find it so much easier to say that I am a writer, because people seem to understand and respect that.

      • Alex Yong says:
        at 4:21 pm

        I say “I’m a writer for (insert the most high profile name you can think of) and a bunch of other publications.” I add that last bit “and a bunch of other publications” so convey that I’m a man about town and not a one trick pony etc. I figure it’s about being memorable, making an impression. So much of life is that way anyway, declaring one’s vocation should follow the same best practice.

        • Miranda says:
          at 9:41 pm

          I say that a lot, too. I say “I’m a writer for X and a number of other web sites.” Adding that really does seem to raise your stock. If you can mention a publication/web site that others recognize, then it adds legitimacy. I guess while you might THINK of yourself as a writer, many of us also like to be thought of as the “successful” type, not the “starving artist” type.

          • David Leonhardt says:
            at 2:53 am

            This does help a writer sell himself out on the market. I make the distinction between being a writer and marketing yourself as a writer. When we market ourselves, we need to sound as impressive as possible.

  6. Sue Coletta says:
    at 4:25 pm

    I am a writer because I have to write. It’s in my blood. It’s who I am. When a story is swirling around in my mind it demands to be written. If that isn’t a writer than I don’t know what is. I’ve written two novels and am working on my third, have written short stories and ten or so children’s books (years ago). My most recent novel is in a few agents hands… still waiting to hear. Just because I haven’t yet reached my publishing goal doesn’t mean I’m not a writer, that’s absurd. I never understood the term “aspiring”. I wished they’d change that to something else like published author or unpublished author. In my opinion, if you’ve “authored” one, two, three novels you ARE an author, too. But that’s a subject for a whole other day.

    • Jansie says:
      at 12:12 pm

      “I am a writer because I have to write. It’s in my blood. It’s who I am.”

      Amen to that.

  7. Dilovely says:
    at 7:46 pm

    Great article, David. I very much relate to your definition of “writer”. I still hesitate to call myself a writer to other people because I’m not paid for it, even though I have felt the COMPULSION to write since I was a kid – it’s how I process everything. I am more comfortable calling myself a “blogger”, I guess because it has more casual connotations. But writing matters to me, and I know that, at my core, I am a writer.

    I do think a writer must also be someone who writes. Sounds silly to say it… but I have friends who WANT to be writers, who love the idea of writing, who read about writing obsessively… but who do very little actual writing. Maybe they’re “potential writers”. Or “writers-to-be”.

  8. Penn says:
    at 10:45 pm

    Getting paid to write makes you a professional writer, just like getting paid to eat makes you a professional eater. Do you write? Do you consider yourself a writer? Than you are.

  9. Roy A. Ackerman, PhD, EA @ Cerebrations.biz says:
    at 10:48 am

    Ah, the age-old question. When one endeavors to compete in a field where there is no certifying authority….

    So, let’s bypass your question first by bringing up two others…

    What makes a doctor? Is it someone who obtained training to be able to provide solutions and therapy? or the person who elects to think he can help others. The difference between the two is the “alternative” therapeutics and, more typically, the quacks who espouse facts never in evidence, but always with anecdotal concept.

    Or, what makes an engineer? Do you really want someone who did not obtain the proper training and experience to build that 200 floor office building or that bridge?

    Now, when it comes to a “writer”, there are fewer downsides. The training that may or may not provide the certifications (hypothetically) are less clear. And, some of us believe that Charles Dickens was just desperate to make the most money so his stories went on and on and on forever, just because he was paid by the word…

    • David Leonhardt says:
      at 11:12 pm

      A doctor is someone who docts, obviously.

      On a more serious note, a doctor is someone who heals. The best adjective for him might be healer. And, yes, many people without degrees in medicine are healers in a number of different ways.

      Many. many people are teachers, but we only hire in our schools those who have undergone certain training that aligns their teaching with what is needed in the school system.

      A “doctor” is simply a word for healers with special training. There is no word that I can think of for a writer with special training. That is because, as you noted about the “fewer downsides”, there is no need for special training to become a writer.

  10. Lorna says:
    at 6:24 pm

    Love, love, love this post! Yes I have gotten paid to write…but I didn’t think that that was what made me a writer.

    What makes me a writer is that it is the one thing that I would lovingly do for FREE!

  11. Fabrizio says:
    at 9:17 am

    Hi David, great and interesting post. In my opinion, a writer isn’t someone who gets paid to do write, I’m a blogger, yes I have been paid to write articles in the past, but I don’t consider myself a writer at all. To me a writer is someone who can compellingly inspire, move and evoke emotions with words, very few “writers” can actually do that. Have a great week 🙂

  12. Kaloyan Banev says:
    at 1:34 am

    Haha, nice one Dave. Without a doubt you showed the different side of the coin. Analogy is not a fact, but same things apply – if you are a blogger doesn’t mean that you are an SEO or web developer. Writing is an art, though I have to say that many bloggers totally beat up most journalist in major newspapers.

  13. Michele Fallon says:
    at 2:10 pm

    Thanks for the article, David! I don’t know if I’m a writer. I started a blog about a year ago, and I only write about once or twice a month. I blog for myself. Writing calms me and makes me feel good when I’ve finished. I’ve only recently been told by a few people that my writing is entertaining and that I should write more. I feel that the enjoyment in writing is that I can do it whenever I want. Even though the whole point of a blog is to write everyday to gain followers, I don’t want writing to become stressful and filled with make-believe deadlines. I think I’m just going to continue what I’m doing because it makes me happy. So, am I a writer? Quite possibly. 🙂

    • David Leonhardt says:
      at 2:24 pm

      Michelle, in my humble opinion, you are doing it right. “Write when inspired!” That’s my motto. If your blog is a business, then there are other considerations, fair enough. But the writing makes you a writer, the business makes you an entrepreneur.

      • Michele Fallon says:
        at 12:08 pm

        Thank you for your reply David! 🙂

  14. Vashti Quiroz-Vega says:
    at 3:27 pm

    Hello David! I completely agree with your definition of a writer. The only person who can define who I am is me, and I am a writer. My first book, The Basement was published August 2013, but before then I still considered myself a writer. Writing is what I love to do and it’s what I feel most at home doing. Like you, I’ve been writing short stories and articles since high school. Thank you for the great article!

  15. Lorraine Reguly says:
    at 1:18 pm

    “Getting paid to write doesn’t make a person a writer. Getting paid to write makes a person an entrepreneur.”

    Truer words have never been spoken! (Okay, they have, I’m sure…)

    I totally agree with this statement, David.

    By the way, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who freezes in winter. I live in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and it snowed yesterday. 🙁

    But… I write on.

    • David Leonhardt says:
      at 3:20 am

      Well, it felt like it would snow here this morning, too. Sure was a nice two-week summer while it lasted.

  16. Iida-Emilia says:
    at 8:16 pm

    This is very interesting topic. I do call myself writer because the work I do includes so much writing. I studied journalism and every now and then I do work in newspapers. And when I don’t I blog and help startups with social media and public relations which also includes writing. So I spend my days writing some kind of content and also get paid for it. So I think that you can call yourself a writer only when you are publishing a book. I also think that you can call yourself a writer when you are starting to write your book or when you are starting your own writing business. So you don’t have to get any income yet, but you are going to get paid for it later (hopefully).

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