“You’re not a real writer unless…” How many times have you seen something like on your social media? Because, if your internet experience is anything like mine, it’s damn near everywhere. Writers trying to add criteria to the process, saying that if you don’t complete task X, Y, or Z, you don’t get to call yourself a ‘real writer.’
Let’s look at some of those and break them down.
“…until a publisher has published you.”
I’ve seen this one a few times and wow. Not only are you gatekeeping, but you’re relying on massive corporations to do the gatekeeping for you.
Look, I get why this one exists. Self-publishing has never, in human history, been easier than it is now. Anyone can self-publish anything at this point, and there are zero levels of quality control on what gets published. It can be frustrating to know that publishing your book means you’re basically tossing it into an ocean of books. When you do read self-published novels and come across ones that are poorly edited, clearly first drafts, or have flaws that would be fixed if the book was given some more attention, it’s easy to despair. Then you read about how someone published a best-selling picture of their foot, and you want to write the whole field off as a loss.
However, this one has two major problems. The first is that there are some amazing self-published books out there. For example, Hugh Howey’s phenomenal post-apocalyptic Wool is self-published. Meanwhile, 50 Shades had a publisher, and those books were terrible. Traditional publishers don’t guarantee quality – they focus on what they think will sell.
Second of all, this gate is problematic because it’s about what you do with your writing. This problem also covers variants – you’re not a real writer unless you’ve published, or made money off your writing, or anything along those lines. Writing is not about what you do with the end result. That’s marketing and sales and a whole bunch of other things that are wrapped under the umbrella of “publishing.” Writing is about, well, the actual act of making words appear on paper.
“…unless you write every day.”
You’ll get a lot of variants on this one, some with a broader time frame, some with a specific word count, but they all boil down to the same thing – unless you meet some arbitrary criteria, you’re not a real writer.
Like before, I get where this one is coming from. If you want to be successful financially as a writer, you have to have a pretty large output. That could be in the sense of writing a ton of individual books, or that could come from putting a ton of work into a single book or series. Either way, most people who make a living from writing often do it a whole lot.
However, often is not a synonym for always, and there are some serious problems with this being a criteria for a ‘real writer.’
Right off the bat, this one is ableist. Some people can’t meet the frankly random criteria imposed by this limit, either due to physical or mental limitations. I write, on average, 2,000 words a day. On some days my anxiety is bad and I get zero words for that day. It averages out in the end, but it’s still a tough thing to manage. I’d never begrudge anyone a day off because they need to.
On top of that, even if you set aside limitations…apply this logic to any other hobby or career. “You’re not a real gamer if you don’t game every day.” “You’re not a real cinema lover unless you go to the movies every day.” “You’re not a real retail worker unless you work seven days a week.” Think of how insane those sound. Yet so often I see it applied to writing without a second thought. Why? Anyone needs breaks, and writing is hard work. You do need to try to push yourself to write as much as you can – if you’ve spent the past year writing just the first chapter of a novel, you can call yourself a “real writer” but there’s a decent risk you’ll never be able to call that book “finished,” but don’t think you have to kill yourself to meet odd restrictions.
“…unless you suffer for your writing.”
Most of you are probably looking at this one sideways, because it’s not often phrased this way. No, what you’ll hear is “unless you stay up late to write” or “unless you have a caffeine addiction” or “if you don’t hate your first draft,” but realistically all of them boil down to “suffer like I do, or don’t call yourself a writer.”
This one…I only kind of get where it’s coming from, to be honest. It feels like this is a case of wanting to justify what you’re doing to yourself as somehow a good thing. You haven’t slept in three days working on a manuscript? It’s only because you’re a “real writer.” You were hospitalized for caffeine overdose? Surely other “real writers” get that. You suffer, so other people should suffer to. Get on my level.
I’m a big advocate for the idea that writing is hard work because it is, especially if you want to be successful doing it. However, “hard work” does not mean “brutal, backbreaking labor,” and success should not be measured in how many nervous breakdowns you had getting there. If you are sacrificing your health for the sake of writing, you should really consider your priorities. Is it really worth sleepless nights, waking up too tired to function without coffee, and working twelve-hour days on your craft?
When I first started trying to make a go of being a professional writer, I tried this. It damn near killed me. It definitely burned me out. Now…I wake up two hours early to give myself time to write in the morning, spent two hours on my book when I get home, and make sure I get my two thousand word average for the week. Sometimes I’ll push myself a bit harder for a bit, and if I need to, I’ll take an evening off. I’m still a “real writer,” and promoting anything else is outright unhealthy.
So what makes a real writer?
Honestly…who cares? Are you happy with your writing? Are you happy with what you’re doing with it? Are you working to improve? Then don’t worry about if you’re a ‘real writer’ or not, and definitely don’t try to tell other people they aren’t.
I’m certainly not going to do.
Want to see what I do with my ‘real writing?’ Check out my free book for a sample! Aside from the free book, you should definitely sign up to the mailing list, because I’ll have some big announcements for Strange Cosmology soon!