A Writer — or Not?


In response to Elizabeth T.’s comment on the previous post: Does writing a term paper make a “writer”?  Or writing a dissertation?  A letter to a friend?  A policy position paper for the legislature?  Or are all these writing activities a small part of some larger purpose and/or job and not the end in and of itself?

I would agree: the use of words in written format to communicate is writing.  Anyone who has learned how to create sentences and communicate in written form is a writer.  Some believe they can write better than professional writers.  Actually, I’ve run into this belief often in my professional writing work and it’s quite annoying, especially when the other person has hired me to write but insists on changing everything I’ve written for him without a significant or compelling reason, i.e. having me do all the hard work to create the first draft he loves and which he takes and changes so he can say he “wrote” the piece himself (but he didn’t have a clue where to start to create the first draft and deprived me of finishing my work).  Please, don’t get me started about such people….

So, regarding my previous post (dated May 10, 2008), I would like to clarify some things.  There are three kinds of writers: “list-makers,” amateurs and professionals.  As I mentioned in the previous post, a writer will “treat it as a job, developing a schedule, goals, an action plan, and having a specific writing space.”  A writer works at writing every day, not for a term paper or policy paper, or personal letter.  There is a belief in one’s work as a profession, not a hobby.  And yes, there is payment for work done, whether that payment is in the form of money or sample copies.  Those who approach writing in this way I would consider to be professional and writers, whether they write nonfiction magazine articles on a freelance basis, biographies, journalism, nonfiction books, speeches, advertising copy, plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, short stories or essays, and some even write blogs.

Does the money matter?  Is it a factor in writing being a ‘profession’?  It matters when one wants to earn a living by it, pay the bills, buy clothing, feed the family, etc.  If it were possible to create art and not have living expenses, then money would not matter in the writing profession.  To me, writing is a job and a profession.  I strive for excellence and dare it to be art.

Amateurs are those who write as a hobby, write a family history or their life story for the family and not for wider dissemination, who do not have a writing schedule, goals, an action plan, a specific writing space and the compulsion to write.  It’s something fun to do.  I love it when I hear of parents who actually enjoy writing stories with their kids — what a wonderful way to encourage literacy!  Money is not a factor in the pursuit of this kind of writing.  These “writers” are also those who talk and talk and talk about how much they want to write if only they could find the time.  Or they attend workshop after class after writing conference after workshop but don’t actually finish anything.  Occasionally, someone from this group gets lucky (luck has a lot to do with all publishing) and publishes a story or genre novel that catapults them into  the life of a professional writer.  And then they learn how hard it really is.  Not all succeed as professionals.

And then, the “list-makers.”  I’ve met people who confess to me that writing intimidates them, that they have problems putting words together to make a sentence, and they are comfortable only writing short notes or lists.  They generally were not encouraged to write in school or did poorly in English.  They communicate well verbally.  But they are wise — they know and understand their limitations regarding writing.  They use words to communicate, however, in their notes and lists and speech.  By their own admission they are not writers. 

And so I return to my original questions: What is the definition of success for a writer?  Is it publication, blockbuster sales, or finishing each novel or story or poem?  Or is each a successful step in the process of creation?  In our society, do we define success only in terms of how much money has been made?

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6 responses to “A Writer — or Not?

  1. I would dream of seeing my name in print, as success. Not something that I self-published (not that this is bad, just not the hallmark of success). I would want to see it on something that someone else thought people would/should read.

    I think getting on the NYT bestseller list and making zillions of dollars would be wonderful, yes. But both of those are predicated on my image of success – it would come before fame.

    As I was packing yesterday, I started putting my husband’s books in a box, and was glancing through the titles. These are the books sitting on his side of the room that I barely notice. There were two copies of his doctoral dissertation. This is success, for a person in his profession. Or rather, the first success (hopefully, no matter one’s profession, the first success is not the last). It isn’t writing success, no. I looked at it and simply imagined being able to hold something in my hands with my name published as the author.

    Yup, that’s what I would consider success as a writer.

    I can’t imagine this actually happening. Well, I do have a good imagination; I *can* imagine it. I just don’t think it would ever emerge from that fantasy-land. But, if it did, I would consider my work to have been successful.

    Though, looking at my husband as the example: his dissertation was certainly his initial Success. But this harkens back to “so what have you done for us lately?” One ought not have one success and then rest on one’s laurels.

    Is success at one endeavor enough? Regardless of your definition of ‘success’ – is once enough? Is that one big paycheck enough to consider yourself a successful writer, come what may? If you produce nothing else, are you still successful?

    I guess I mean: is success a chronic state, or is it simply an adjective attached to a single action/piece of work?

  2. Interesting, Elizabeth. It is a truly wonderful experience to hold a book in your hands that you’ve written. However, is that still only one step in a succession of steps to the ultimate success of being a writer? It depends….

    If the purpose of writing is to communicate, then wouldn’t success then be defined by whether or not the communication was received and understood? I guess that could be measured by either the number of books sold, the number of reviews that demonstrated understanding, the “buzz” out there about the book and its subject/story, or the amount of feedback from readers either in the public sphere, i.e. “word of mouth,” or directly to the writer through e-mails, letters or invitations to visit book groups reading the book (for example). (smile) I somehow think success needs to be defined in terms of the purpose and the goal that evolves from that purpose. If the goal is simply to publish a book and hold it in one’s hands, then that is the ultimate success. But what was the purpose? If the goal is to earn money, then blockbuster sales become the measure of success. And the purpose was also to make money, not to communicate.

    This is my thinking on writing success. But I was wondering more about societal measures and attitudes…..

  3. “If the purpose of writing is to communicate …”

    Is there another purpose?

    Hmmm … quantitative methods to determine the level of successful communication … interesting idea. must give it some more thought. Interesting for my professional perspective, too.

  4. Ah, “If the purpose of writing is to communicate….” rather than simply seeing one’s name in print or holding a published book in one’s hands (as you mentioned in your first comment)…then what is writing success?

    I suspect Dan Brown is a good example of “writing success” — his novel “The DaVinci Code” not only sold millions of copies and resulted in a big Hollywood movie, but it created a huge discussion about the religious subjects and speculations that he uses in the novel, pro and con. But what was the value of that communication?

    To alleviate boredom — high value
    For money — high value
    Quality of ideas — hmmmmm, I think the jury’s still out on that one
    Quality of communication — it worked, didn’t it? Or did it? Is the standard for quality the communication’s longevity or endurance? Or simply the number of people reached and buzz created?

  5. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Palish.

  6. Thanks for the visit, Palish. Hope you visit again from over the pond. I guess Americans tend to obsess and agonize about the definition of “success” in the arts, and because the boundaries between professional and amateur tend to be blurred in writing, it provides endless fodder for chewing….. Not so in the UK?

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