What Makes You a Writer?

200_sThere’s been a kerfuffle on the Internet today, specifically on Twitter. It was launched by this tweet by the esteemed Niel Gaiman, who said:

is where you apply to go to Clarion. If you want to be a writer, you want to go to Clarion, NEED to go to Clarion.

Now, first off, I don’t really think Gaiman meant that the only way to become a writer was to go to Clarion’s writing workshops. I think he meant to endorse them as a good place to go to help you become a writer. I think, perhaps, the 140 character limit got the better of him and it came off sounding a bit elitist. I mean, Clarion is no doubt wonderful, but the subset of people in the world who can afford to spend $5000 and ten days to attend a workshop in San Diego is, let’s say, somewhat circumscribed.

I don’t mean to suggest that Clarion isn’t a wonderful opportunity and a great program – it seems to be both, by all accounts, by those who can manage to get there. However, you don’t need to go there. There is only three things I would argue you require in order to be a writer. They are as follows:

1) You Must Write

This should not be revolutionary, but if you do not write things you cannot be a writer. How often should you do this? Hell if I know. I think this little piece of advice from by Daniel Jose Older is a good start. But however you do it, you need to do it. If you don’t do it, you aren’t a writer.

2) You Must Take Your Writing Seriously

If you define your writing as a hobby, I would argue that you are a person who writes, but not necessarily a writer (i.e. somebody who is a professional at this trade). If you intend to be a professional, you need to take your work seriously, strive to improve it, and push yourself to do your best.

3) You Must Strive to Publish Your Work

Again, speaking professionally and defining “writer” as a profession, you need to intend to release your work for public consumption, ideally for compensation (or, provisionally, for the purpose of securing compensation in the future). You do this by publishing it, either yourself or through more traditional means (publishing houses, etc.).

That, friends, is it. Now, the above three things don’t make you a good writer, necessarily, nor do they guarantee you to become a successful one. I would say, however, that the above is the bare minimum for entry. A writer writes, treats their work seriously, and strives to publish it. That’s literally it. You don’t need an MFA, you don’t need publications, you don’t need to go to Clarion – none of that. Will those things help? Sure, probably. But they are not requirements for entry. There is only one person who controls whether or not you are a writer:


About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on January 15, 2016, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Martin L. Shoemaker

    I forget, which year did Mr. Gaiman attend Clarion?

    No, not as an instructor, as a student. I can’t seem to find him on any alumni list.


  2. This is probably a ridiculous semantics misread on my part. Do you mean to say hobbyists should not call themselves writers? I feel like 3 is just if you want to add the “professional” bit.

    For instance, a prolific internet troll meets only requirement 1 and cannot be called a writer.

    A hobbyist who constantly strives to improve his work meets 1 and 2, and is a writer.

    Once a writer begins seeking publication and/or monetary compensation for their writing (and meets 1 & 2), they become a professional writer.

    I might even add a fourth step where once a writer has achieved publication, they can be called an author.

    Do call me out if I sound like a complete imbecile here.

    • I suppose what I’m discussing here is what qualifies you as a professional, not so much whether you like to write in your spare time but never do anything with it. I do think the distinction is an important one. A hobbyist, as serious as they may be, will most likely not be as serious as a professional (and not just in the field of writing, but in any arena).

      I think the litmus test is this: if, at a party, somebody asks you “what do you do?” and you answer “I’m a writer,” you would indicate you are fulfilling these three steps. If writing is just a hobby – for yourself and nobody else – you probably wouldn’t answer that question with the statement “I am a writer” anymore than with “I build ships in bottles” or “I collect stamps.”

      No disrespect to hobbyists, mind you – writing is a fine thing to do with your spare time, and I encourage them to continue – but I’m not certain a hobbyist’s identity is as caught up in their writing as the professionals is. If it is, then I don’t quite understand why they don’t send it out and thereby fulfill step 3. Anything written wants reading, after all.

  3. You’re probably right. Perhaps my second category above cannot exist. Why would anyone constantly strive to become a better writer without any desire for readership? Although I have known many people (including myself for many years) who do not send out their work for fear of being told they are not writers at all, I think the self-improvement was equally stagnant during that time.

    I’m pretty impressed by your rational and thought-out response. 🙂 Thanks.

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