What Does It Mean To Be a Writer?

I'm throwing my two cents into the debate over what it means to be a writer.  Can only paid, published professionals call themselves "writers"?  Opinions have raged on both sides for the longest time, and the rise of the blogosphere has intensified the discourse.  Are amateur bloggers worthy of the title "writer"? My answer is "Of course!"  My definition is simple: A writer is someone who writes.  Period.

I was inspired by an article over at The Rest is Still Unwritten called "Are Bloggers Real Writers or Just Literary Dabblers?" In my humble and biased opinion, I think anyone who writes, whether it is for a living or as a hobby, is a writer.  There are obviously different categories: you can be a "professional writer" who gets paid or you can be an "amateur writer" who does not, and many variable sub-categories inbetween.  Plus, there are different levels of quality in any of those categories -- you can be a "good writer" or a "bad writer".  But to repeat, if you write, you are a writer.  The first big step for any "aspiring writer" is to embrace that fact and not deny it or minimize the value of your words.

Anyone can get paid to write.  I just made $1.40 via Amazon's Kindle subsriptions to my blog (woohoo!).  Does that make me any more or less of a writer than I was before I earned a single cent from my blog?  Is there a specific dollar amount that needs to be reached before someone can officially call themselves a "real writer"? Part of my duties in my day job includes writing (press releases, entries for our institutional blog, and so on), so since I get paid to write, I should call myself a writer on my resume, but writing is just part of what I do for my company.  I define myself more as a writer when I am being a "literary dabbler" as David Stehl refers to it in his blog, even if little or no money is involved -- when I write a short story, or a scene for the stage, or one of many screenplays I have never sold or produced (and yes, even when I write my blog).

Some might then argue that it is not the money that makes a professional writer, it is the act of "being published."  But there are printing companies out there whose business is primarily the "self-publishing" market.  Do you need to be published by the big publishing companies to be considered a true writer?  Is being published in print somehow more valid than being published online?  I have had my interviews published in a video magazine called Street Date during one of my previous jobs and I have had my reviews published in the Web magazine BlogCritics -- is one more legitimate than the other? (You can find my Blogcritic reviews here, but good luck finding a copy of the old video industry publication.)

Is the size of your readership a factor?  I probably get more readers on my blog than I do from anything I have written for pay so far.  My stage plays have been performed before audiences of less than a hundred at each show; my student films have been seen by probably a few hundred people, tops.  Luckily, my blog has had thousands of readers.  Isn't someone who has their poem published in a literary magazine with a tiny circulation just as much a writer as someone who has written for a glossy, internationally distributed magazine?

Does it then boil down to quality?  Here's a secret: even the best professional writers can write crap.  And, don't tell anyone, but there are these people out there called "editors" who often guide them and polish their work. (I know what you're thinking: I could use an editor for my blog.  Very funny.  It's true!)  I've read some blogs by very talented writers who are much more entertaining, thought-provoking, and beautifully written than anything I have seen in a newspaper or magazine, or on stage, television, or film.

I am also an actor (or maybe some might call me a "theatrical dabbler.")  I have had a few paid gigs, working as a background actor here and there, making some money being a mime, or doing the odd acting jobs wherever I could find them.  For the most part, however, my juiciest and most fulfilling roles have been in local theater and independent and student films, where if we get a transportation stipend or a free meal and comp tickets I consider myself incredibly lucky.  For the longest time I was hesitant to call myself a "real actor."  An old friend of mine (who sadly passed away a few years ago) wisely told me that as long as I had that attitude I would never treat my art seriously and would never be able to take my craft to the next level.  That was some of the greatest advice I have ever received.  The same applies for writing.  If you act, you are an actor.  If you write, you are a writer.  There are professionals and amateurs, there are good and bad, but do not let anyone (and especially do not let yourself) belittle or marginalize your work by saying you are not a writer.

What does it mean to be a writer? 

It means you craft words to communicate something (fiction or non-fiction).

It means you take that process seriously. 

All the other stuff -- building an audience, honing your craft, getting published, getting paid -- comes in different forms for different people, but the simple fact remains: Being a writer means that you write.  Period.  End of story.  The end. 

Happy writing, everyone!

P.S.  Dave, despite what you say in your blog profile, you are a writer.  And a good one, too!  :)