Wednesday, December 4, 2013

When Do You Call Yourself a Writer?

I just received an email with the following subject:

When Can You Finally Call Yourself a Writer?

It was from Writer's Digest.

I found it a tad sensational and inflammatory and offensive. So naturally I clicked to read the article.

The article is penned by Chuck Sambuchino, editor and writer at large.

Here is the article:

When can you call yourself a writer?
This is an important question in every writer’s life. At what moment in time can you actually refer to yourself as a writer?
But even the very question itself is deceiving, because there are actually two questions here:
When can you look in the mirror and call yourself a writer? And when can you call yourself a writer in front of several complete strangers at a party?

When can you call yourself a writer in private?

Now. Absolutely right now.
Tell yourself in the mirror before you brush your teeth, then again when you’re driving home from work.
Say it so many times that you get exasperated looks from your spouse. Heck, get business cards printed, too. I remember reading somewhere that Robert De Niro will sometimes repeat his lines dozens of times before filming a scene, in an effort to make himself fully believe what he’s saying. That’s your goal: say it, then say it again until you believe it.
When you finally call yourself a writer, it drives home the fact that this is real. It’s serious. We’re no longer talking about some vague ambition. You’re a professional writer who has to produce content, be that novels or nonfiction books or articles or whatever.
Go ahead and say it right now: “I am a writer.” The more it becomes real for you, the more it will drive you to sit down as much as possible and put words on the page.
call yourself a writer

When can you call yourself a writer in public?

The answer to this question is also now — but this is a different matter altogether. The reason you want to take this step immediately in public is to apply pressure to yourself. If you start telling people that you’re in the middle of a novel, then you darn well better be in the middle of a novel.
But here’s the rub: there are two things that happen when you’re in public and first start referring to yourself as a writer.
The first thing is your friends and spouse may have an irksome tendency to snicker or roll their eyes. The truth is that one cannot become a doctor or welder simply because they say they are. Such professions take degrees and certifications.
But writers don’t need degrees or training, so it may seem like a “cheat” or “exaggeration” to others that you’re suddenly calling yourself something as prestigious as “writer.” So you don’t want to call yourself a writer in public until you’re fully ready to shrug off any silly passive-aggressive nonsense from college buddies.
Quick note from Chuck: I am now taking on clients as a freelance editor. If your query or synopsis or manuscript needs a look from a professional, please consider my editing services. Thanks!
The second thing you must be prepared for is the question that will boomerang back to you 10 times out of 10: “Oh, really — what do you write?”
I don’t care if you are at a book party in Manhattan or a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Yukon. When you say you are a writer, someone will always — always — ask, “What do you write?” and then when you answer with a general response, they will follow that up with, “Anything I might have read?”
Obviously, at the beginning of your career, with no real credits to speak of, you won’t have much to say when people start asking for details. This can cause embarrassing moments of silence, or rambling explanations that reek of self-doubt. So don’t refer to yourself as a writer in public until you have a plan to deal with follow-up questions.
In my opinion, the most important thing to remember when answering such questions is to respond quickly and concisely. Even if your credits are insignificant, if you answer with clarity and speed, it conveys confidence and that you have a plan you don’t need to explain to the world.  Try this conversation:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Oh, cool. What do you write?”
“I’m just starting out. But to answer your question: articles, mostly. Working on a sci-fi novel when I can.”
“Articles — great. Anything I might have read?”
“Not yet, but I’m working on it. I’m really enjoying myself so far.”
True, such answers aren’t impressive, but they’re confident. The writer is in control. It comes off poorly when, upon being asked what they write, a writer stammers incoherently, then answers the question by basically saying, “I’m not really sure yet, and to tell you the truth, I may just have no clue altogether! Hahaha!”
So if you don’t feel like you can confidently answer the question, or are embarrassed to say aloud that you haven’t been published, think twice before mentioning your writerly aspirations at a soiree.
But don’t forget that the sooner you start calling yourself a writer in private and in public, and the sooner you create a website and business cards, the sooner you will realize your career choice is a serious endeavor and demands your time and attention.
And that is what will drive you to sit down, put in the hard work and create.
Interesting, no?

This is indeed a dilemma writers face. I know it's happened to me loads of times. And, more often than not, I completely blow the answer. I dislike talking about my writing. Which is why I WRITE. If I wanted to speak, I'd be an orator. It helps to be both.

Nevertheless, I want to share my opinion/answer to this dilemma.

Here goes:

If you write, you’re a writer. If you don’t, you’re not.

If you’ve tried, REALLY tried, NOT to write but you couldn’t, and you KNOW in your bones, in your SOUL, that you MUST write, you’re a writer.

As to what to say when someone asks what you write, I’ll relate some good advice given by Lee Roddy in a writing seminar I took eons ago. (Lee invented Grizzly Adams, by the way.) Lee said, “When someone asks you what you write, you say, ‘What are you buying?’ And then shut up.”

Try that. See what happens. It's a bit cheeky and smart-assed and doesn't really answer the question, but hopefully you get my drift.

In reality, go with the Confident Writer response. Even if you barely believe it yourself, lie if you must. Pretend it's a poker game. Bluff a little. Make a game out of it. Reply as though you're a bestseller and everyone knows your work.

Eventually it will come to be your reality.

I would like to know what you guys think. If you're a writer, do you consider yourself one? Do you describe yourself as such?

If you're a reader, at what point do you feel an author can rightfully refer to him- or herself as a writer?


Please visit Chuck's page to see the article and his website and to leave a comment in order to be entered into a contest to win a copy of his new book. Check out his freelance editing services, too. You'll have to email him for rates. Crafty, he is.



  1. Anyone who publicly defines himself/herself for others as a writer--but has yet to publish anything in a chosen area--deserves all the hand-over-the-mouth snickers that follow. This is especially true now, when "publishing" means something very different from what was true in the print-only era.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Barry. You make an excellent point. With the advent of self-publishing, everyone and their brother has been churning out so-called "books" and uploading them to places like Amazon. This crowds the marketplace and makes it more difficult for true gems to stand out or to be found.

    I agree that there is a certain minimum standard of output required to label oneself "writer". It used to be the attainment of a traditional publishing deal, with the book being readily available in retail outlets. But things have changed. A lot of talented, bona fide "writers" are opting for self publishing for myriad reasons (better royalties, more control, retention of ownership rights, etc).

    Vanity publishing (paying a company to print your book) has been around for decades. The print-on-demand (POD) revolution is, I believe, a positive. It makes it possible for anyone who wants to write a book and publish it to do so. Whereas before, a genuinely well-written novel may have never been written. Expression and creation is a good thing in almost any form. For many people, the writing of a novel is the culmination of a life-long dream. At what point the label of "writer" can be applied is unique to the individual and his/her circumstances. Typically we feel it is correct when a person uses writing as his/her occupation and/or sole source of income. This narrows the field considerably. But I would prefer that people who want to write feel free to do so, and then follow through on that desire, rather than get hung up on whether or not they are indeed a "writer", as this is self-defeating and not a positive outcome.

    Thanks again for sharing.