What is the difference between a writer and an author? Well…it’s complicated.
Running a ghostwriting agency, I get this question all the time. “What is the difference between a writer and an author?” It is an important distinction to be made on a practical level, if for no other reason because our ghostwriting contracts sometimes make the distinction.
There are plenty of esoteric distinctions between an author and a writer when it comes to interpreting literature. These are the literary equivalent of the theological question: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
And so we get arguments such as the following:
“Foucault describes the process of writing and the question of authorship from the inside, whereas Barthes analyses the external consequences of it, focusing his attention on authorship in relation to institutions. Indeed, Barthes’ premise is “we still lack a sociology of language” (Barthes, 185), whereas Foucault’s starting point is “for the purpose of this paper, I will set aside a sociohistorical analysis” (Foucault, 115).”
OK, that was…um…interesting.
In the real world, the debate rages on, too. Often the distinction is between having a published work, which makes you an author, and writing, which makes you a writer. Just for the record, that would mean that as soon as you start writing, you become a writer.
As soon as you publish, you become an author.
As soon as you stop writing, you cease to be a writer.
However, you go to your grave an author, and five centuries later, you remain an author. You cannot shake the title. You cannot outlive authorship. When they round up all the authors in a future military purge, you cannot disavow being an author on the flimsy excuse of being deceased. Once you publish, you will forever be known as an author.
Or as Dean Wesley Smith puts it: “A Writer is a person who writes. An Author is a person who has written.” That is called “advanced conjugation”.
The main difference between an author and a writer
But all this discussion assumes that the author of a work and the writer are the same person, that authorship is a subset of…um…writership?. This is not always the case.
Enter the ghostwriter. A ghostwriter is a writer, pure and simple. The ghostwriter writes, but does not publish. The ghostwriter does not affix his name to the work as author. The ghostwriter is paid a fee to write the work, then walks away. His client would typically be the author.
The author is the one whose ideas are being written.
The author is the one who either writes the work or hires somebody to write it for him.
The author is the one whose name goes on the work.
It does not matter whether the author ever picked up a pen or tapped on a keyboard. If he commissions a work and hires a ghostwriter, he is the author of the work. Even if he never publishes it, he is the author of the unpublished manuscript.
In our contracts, when we refer to the writer, it is the paid help. This applies to books and screenplays, as well as to articles, reports, press releases, speeches and whatever other work the client wishes us to write.
The client is the author.
The writer is the writer.
Simple enough? And if you write for a living, and you attach your name to what you write, you are an author.
So the author comes up with the idea and the writer chooses the words to express it. Does the idea have to be original? Yes. Does it have to be fictional? No. I came across this rant, asserting that a non-fiction writer cannot be an author:
“Steven Hawking made millions from A Brief History of Time and his other works, including children’s books, but they are about science, not made up people from his imagination, so he has to settle for being a rich, successful writer.”
To this, I say, “Meadowmuffins!” Steve Hawking writes about science. More specifically, he writes his thoughts about science, what he believes is important, how he feels we might better understand science, the theories that he believes to be true, etc. Original though does not have to be imaginary. Original thought is the foundation for discovery.
Two biographies of Margaret Thatcher might read very differently, depending on the viewpoint of the authors (yes, the “authors”), whom they chose to interview, the aspects of her life they focus on and various other factors.
Don’t let anybody tell you that you are just a “writer”, because it’s not a book or because they don’t think your work is important enough or imaginary enough or any other criteria somebody else wants to place upon you and your work. Authorship is not about what other people think of you.
If you white-label your work, you are a writer.
If you own-label your work, you are an author (and if you wrote it yourself, you are also a writer, of course).
The byline defines the author.
On one project you might be just the writer (a ghostwriter). On another, you might be both writer and author. That’s fine, too. We all play different roles in our lives at different times and in different contexts.
So now you know the difference between authors and writers.