I have opinions: What’s a writer?


I’ve been publishing SF for almost half a decade now, but I still feel like I’m only just figuring out what the hell I’m doing. Therefore, it always makes me slightly uneasy to put myself in a position where I’m giving anyone else advice about writing and how to do it – both the mechanics and the practical elements – and even more uneasy when I’m talking about definitions of anything. and I’m sort of intrinsically uneasy with categories anyway. Given all of that, please let me go into this with the caveat that this is just my understanding of a thing, and it shouldn’t supersede anyone else’s understanding of a thing that may differ from my own.

All that said, I think “how do you know you’re a writer” is a very interesting question to consider.

I’m not sure when I first started thinking of myself as a writer, but I know that I was long before I started getting stories published in places. What changed is that I started to be more comfortable calling myself a writer, and doing so in mixed company. What I wrote for a long time before original fiction was fanfiction, and I think most of us know and would agree that fanfiction is still verboten in many circles, and a thing to be looked down upon. And I don’t think that’s entirely fair.

I do think it’s fair to call fanfiction a different kind of writing from original fiction in a number of fundamental ways. Those differences are subtle and not necessarily clear across the board – as with any system of categorization I think we need to leave room for a lot of boundary-shifting and liminal space – but I do think they’re there.

Different is not worse than.

So what does a writer write? I’m pretty much with John Scalzi on this one:

A writer…chooses written words, and chooses them not just for mechanical and practical reasons, but for (or also for) esthetic and artistic purposes. Writers want to write, rather than have to write. In presenting an idea, the medium they intend for it to be in is the written word.

Intent is what matters here, to my mind. Not publishing – necessarily – and not whether you’re writing with characters you made up. I think insisting anything else is categorical gatekeeping, and I’m not really a fan of that practice because it makes our collective world smaller and narrower, and therefore less fun. It also makes it more hierarchical. Hierarchy is generally bad.

So besides intent, what – in my estimation – makes someone a writer? Here are a few things:

  • A writer writes. Doesn’t talk about writing. Doesn’t want to write (and stop there). A writer does the thing they’re called, and does it with little fanfare, because it’s the thing that they do. If necessary, a writer makes sacrifices in order to write. They make time. For a writer, the practice of writing is important enough that they organize at least a little portion of their life around making it possible to write. You have to do the thing that you’re called. Otherwise I – and most other people, especially writers – don’t buy it.
  • A writer wants to write, but is willing to write when they don’t want to. This one is tricky, but I do think it’s important. If writers are people who actually engage in the act of writing, then writers also recognize that any practice is work. It’s craft. Simply waiting for the perfect moment when you feel ideally inspired doesn’t cut it. If it really matters to you, it’s something you’ll carve out space for when you sort of don’t feel like doing it today. That doesn’t mean one can’t and shouldn’t take vacations from it, but it does – again – mean that it’s important to have an explicit understanding that writing is work, and it’s not always going to be a completely joyful, effortless experience. Along those lines:
  • A writer is constantly trying to be better at their thing. This doesn’t mean beating yourself up for not working up to your own high standards, and it doesn’t mean working to the point where you lose all joy in writing. It just means that – again – writing is important to a writer, and so is doing it well. Writing for the pleasure of it is an important thing – perhaps the most important thing – but anything that’s worth doing is worth doing as well as you can, even if that ends up being not very well by most people’s standards. A writer doesn’t have to be a good writer to be a writer. But a writer should at least be interested in being the best writer they can be.
  • A writer reads. This may actually be the secret behind doing any of it well: if you want to write, you have to make time to experience the writing of others. You have to have interest in it as a craft outside of just what you produce, and that means reading and studying how others have done it. What to do, what to avoid. What you find important and what you think you can safely ignore. Styles and themes you may want to try and things that don’t appeal to you as much. You can’t pull this stuff out of nowhere. You have to go out there and learn. Reading is a never-ending master class. Take it.

So. I think that’s what a writer is. And I think that someone who does all of those things consistently has a better than average shot at actually being a pretty decent writer, too. Going to go back to John Scalzi to close this thing out:

You’ll know when you’re a good writer when your craft is good enough that you don’t worry about whether you can do what you want to do with your writing, and instead you wonder about how you’re going to do it. You probably won’t notice the first time this happens. When you do notice it, it probably won’t be a big deal. You’ll be more focused on the writing.

Addendum: My friend Natalie from Radish Reviews points out quite rightly that I’ve neglected nonfiction writing here – a major oversight on my part, since so much of the writing that I and my friends do is nonfiction. So let me just say that I think all these rules apply there as well: You try to write consistently and you consistently try to do it well? Congrats, you’re a writer.

As to why nonfiction writing and the work that it requires often gets excluded from discussion like this, I think that’s a topic owed a post all to itself.

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