I live in Portland, and as such, everybody I know is a ‘writer’. I imagine it’s like being an ‘actor’ in Los Angeles; people use the word as a catch-all for their hopes and dreams. But wanting to write and doing it occasionally doesn’t make you a writer any more than playing pick-up basketball every once in awhile makes you a basketball player, or playing with Legos makes you an engineer. And so most ‘writers’ I know are actually baristas, with most ‘actors’ being waiters/waitresses.
As with most things, success is hard, and most success will be measured in degrees. So what is a writer? Well, I’d struggle to define ‘writer’. My first attempt would be:
Writer – somebody who produces regular written content.
But of course, that’s a pretty bad definition. If I string together my stream of consciousness on my computer, am I a writer? Obviously not. Let’s try again
Writer – somebody who produces regular written content and is paid for it.
If a writer chooses not to take money for writing, despite interest, is he still a writer? I like to think so:
Writer – somebody who produces regular written content that is deemed worth paying for.
This is certainly a closer definition, although there are hundreds of jobs on the internet that will pay you $.50 for an article.
Writer – somebody who produces regular written content that is deemed valuable.
Finally, I’m going to propose the following changes just for reasons that will be relatively obvious (some people just don’t get recognized):
Writer – somebody who produces regular written content that, if presented to readers would be deemed valuable by a significant number of them.
Let’s ignore the fact that ‘valuable’ is a super undefined word, and assume we’ve fully defined ‘valuable’. Now we have that pesky ‘regular’ to deal with. Is somebody who publishes a hit book and then chooses not to write anymore (or dies) a writer? Arguably, no. After all, a retired plumber isn’t ‘plumber’, and an ex-politician isn’t a ‘politician’. I think it is this that hits upon the key issue with the word ‘writer’. It is used less to define a career or a habit, and more to describe an identity. A writer is something people see as essential to their character. We don’t call people ‘retired writers’, even if they are. So maybe the issue is less in our definitions, and more in people’s attachment to the particular identity of writer. So when somebody calls themselves ‘a writer’ despite any lack of consistent writing, what they mean is something more like ‘I am the type of person who would be inclined to write’. But what does that really mean? They obviously aren’t the type of person inclined to write, or they would be writing. I think this only reinforces the idea above, that the word ‘writer’ is used less to describe reality, and more to describe a perceived identity.
Essentially, there are two qualities that distinguish ‘writers’ from writers, and both are somewhat vague predicates.
- Quantity of product
- Quality of product
I don’t claim to know what makes somebody awriter, but if you don’t have at least a good amount of both, you’re not a writer; you’re just somebody who wants to be one.
This theoretical discussion is all well and good, but what is the point of it? Well, I used to be ‘a writer’, just like I used to be ‘an academic’, and now I get paid by multiple employers for my content. What changed? Discipline and structure. Every day, I write something for an hour (and that’s not even counting the writing work I have to do to get paid). Notice I didn’t say ‘at least an hour’. An hour. If I feel like I have more writing in me, I try to finish my thought, but put the rest off for the next day. Why? Because it’s too easy to start doing trades. It’ll start as “I did 2 hours on Monday, I don’t need to write today”, but soon you’re saying “I’ll make that hour up the next day”, and pretty soon, you don’t have any consistent schedule at all.
When I had fewer writing jobs, that number was higher (2-3 hours a day), but the important part is to have consistency (and preferably at least an hour as your amount).
Once you get on that schedule, then you can start doing extras. If you come up with an idea, jot it down for tomorrow, but if you really have to write it today, you can do that, too. Why is this important? Because it creates a feedback loop. The more consistent your writing is, the more you write, and more you write, the better you get at writing.
I’m not saying that doing just that will make you ‘a writer’, because a lot of variables (writing skill, linguistic skill, timing and so on) matter too, but if you’re not doing those things, there’s pretty much no chance you’ll ever be a writer.
The irony of this post? It’s late, and I’m hoping you’ll forget that I broke my schedule last week :p
So am I a writer? I struggle with that pretty regularly. I write consistently, and I get paid enough for my services to support myself (barely). I think for some definitions of ‘writer’ including the one listed above, I do qualify. But the fact that the majority of my writing is in analytical articles makes me feel less like a writer and more like an academic (especially since some of my articles were written under an unrevealed identity, and what creative content has been paid for was done so under a ghostwriting agreement).
And does this mean on those months where funds run low, I cease to be a writer? I’m not satisfied with my definition; I think it excludes some writers, but I certainly think it doesn’t include any non-writers.