When are you a "real" writer?

Are you a real writer once you've written something? Does the mere act of writing make you a writer? Or are there metrics that you have to reach? Some obvious ones, in order of increasing difficulty/snobbery:

Finished something.
Shown it to someone else.
Revised it based on input.
Submitted something for publication.
Gotten something published.
Gotten paid for something you've written.
Made a profit on one single thing you've written, i.e. (what you were paid) > (time & materials invested).
Made a profit on at least 5 things.
Made a profit of one month's expenses.
Made a profit of one year's expenses.
Sold a short story.
Sold 5 short stories.
Sold a book.
Sold 3 books.
Gotten an advance on an unfinished book.
Gotten an advance on an unfinished book from a major house.
Had a substantially profitable book.
Had a best seller.
Had 3 best sellers (to prove the first one wasn't just a fluke).
Made enough to quit your day job.
Been optioned for some kind of spin-off from your book (calenders, wrist bands, inspirational coffee mugs, etc.)
Been optioned for new creative work based on your book (movies, TV shows, pulp fiction set 'in the universe of...', line of action figures, etc.)
Won an award.
Won a major genre award (Hugo, Edgar Allen Poe, Newberry).
Won a major literature award (Booker, Pulitzer, Nobel).

When does it count?

Update: this is a repost. I like the comments on this one, so I've carried it forward so the comments can be seen.


  1. I think you're a real writer when you've gotten passed the initial beginner's glow of everything you write sounding like a masterpiece (probably around age 16) and can say out loud without irony or caveat "I am a writer." Making a living as a writer has nothing to do with it, except that for many people it is easier to say those words after they've accomplished that. I'll even controversially suggest that writing regularly is not essential to being a writer. A writer who cannot write is a repressed or disappointed writer or perhaps simply a 'writer not practicing', but if you're a writer you know it. Being a real writer is simply a matter of owning that knowledge.

  2. For me it's the day someone asks what you do and you can say 'I'm a writer'.
    I've got five books to my name now but still struggle to tell people that's what I do - simply because I'm nowhere near shouting distance of making a living from my books.

    Little by little I'm beginning to realise that's true of most writers, even relatively bog names. It's all the bits around the books - the talks, workshops, articles, journalism - that are the bread and butter.

    So recently I've been taking a breath and telling those who ask 'I'm a writer'. In the spirit of affirmations: the more I say it, the more I'm going to feel it, the more likely it is that one day I'll hear someone else describe me that way too.

    Then I'll know it's true!

  3. Tony,

    Have you ever read "No Exit"? It's a play by Jean Paul Sartre.

    The characters in the play quickly discover that they cannot really be alone in a room where there are others; whatever any individual does, thinks or feels is shaped by the gaze of the others. Moreover, even when I am alone, the way in which I evaluate my actions, my desires, and my character are taken from the categories and habits of others. We learn from our culture what it means to be a hero or a villain, a man or woman—just as we learn the rest of our language which teaches us to call things by their names. So I am never really alone; I am always in sight of others. This means, as Sartre says, that the kinds of relations we have with others is supremely important.

    Learning how to see ourselves as others do is what makes us self-conscious. It gives us a soul.

    Our identities are waiting for us at birth. The moment we emerge from our mother’s wombs, we are assigned our names, kinship relations, nationalities, gender, race, and class. As we participate more and more in the on-going social whirl, we accumulate other identifiers—educational achievements, criminal records, credit ratings, buying patterns, employment histories, and so on and so on.

    We are thus gradually drafted into an organized and ongoing game of exercising and submitting to authority. The expectations of friends, co-workers and families combine with the laws and rules of institutions to ensure that the demands that others make of us become the demands we make of ourselves.

    N.B. parts of this text were blatantly stolen! I just filtered it down to comment size.

  4. @Keely H.: I love that description, beginner's glow! Blogging and writing has been a hobby for a long for me, but I started writing fiction in a serious way in 2006. I mark the start of the "serious" part from after I successfully wrote a NaNoWriMo novel that year.

    Though *considerably* older than 16, I certainly was steeped in that glow (I've already apologized to all the people I so breathlessly asked to read my NaNo novel, BTW). I'm much more able to judge my own work more rationally now. I'll take that as a good sign.

    @Jane Matthews: I've sold a few little pieces, and have made enough to recoup postage costs. I guess the fact that I can join other writers in saying, "... but my day job is my real source of income."

    I think I'm still a long way from introducing myself as a writer-with-a-day-job, rather than but-I-also-do-some-writing.

    @iGniSz: And yet isn't it the struggle against existing structures of societal conformity and expectation that gives us the opportunity for self-definition? Yes, I was born into specific physical and cultural forms - white, middle-class, heterosexual, American, male, Catholic, Midwestern, Republican, etc.

    These place certain limits and responsibilities on me, and also give me certain abilities and freedoms. As it would for anyone, though, suppose I want to reject the limits or responsibilities in favor of my own, self-identified courses of action? The path to do so may be easy, hard, or impossible, but the act of deciding how to define myself is the ultimate expression of freedom, is it not?

    Our families and communities (proximal and on-line) are important, certainly. However, if we allow the encumbering expectations and demands of others to be the sole means by which we decide how to live our lives, then we will find ourselves looking back at a life that was never really lived.

  5. I think you're a writer when you have finished something, been able to see where it can be improved -- and fixed it, been able to take criticism, AND decided to try for publication. I think you're considered a "writer" when you've made that commitment to taking it further and putting your work out for others to enjoy.

    Heather S. Ingemar

  6. As someone who is NOT a writer, real or otherwise, I say that it's when you do it, and keep doing it. Money doesn't matter and neither do readers. A real writer's like a real Canadian or Tennessean: You live there.

  7. @Heather That's a good benchmark, echoing the position of Keely H. Maybe that could be expressed as, "When the ego calluses get nice and thick"?

    @briarcat Status as a writer appears to be more difficult to pin down, since it's a matter of self-identity mixed with clan recognition of that identity. I could envision someone declaring themselves as a Tennessean, only to have a chorus of people respond with, "No, you're not a *real* Tennessean because you only moved here from Wisconsin four years ago." For some parts of the country, you will always have an asterisk next to your name, no matter how long you live there.

  8. Well, writing is now part of my day job -- I'm writing content and articles and not short stories, but I am a writer.

    Before that, I would have said "I write", rather than "I am a writer", because I did, things have been published (not for pay, and on the web) by others and I have participated in other writing events (again, online). Not having been published in print and not making a living with it may be why I made that choice.

  9. I have never had a problem saying I was a writer since I actually started to write again after a 10 year block. For me, writing is putting one word after another and the activity takes up a substantial proportion of your time / energy / thoughts etc.

    However, I didn't feel comfortable with saying I was an author until I got my book deal. For me, "author" has a different status, it implies that something has been created that exists in the world as a book or a story, and the act of writing it has finished. If I had self-published, I would still have waited until I had produced a book / anthology whatever that I could point to and say "I wrote that" before I could call myself an author - it has nothing to do with being published by myself or a publishing house.

    I am also a copywriter, but I hate admitting to that...

  10. I'd say someone is a writer when they put words on the page (or screen as is more likely nowadays) for some sort of goal, be it to become a published author or simply to entertain a single friend. Being a writer means writing. No need to say "real" or not when it comes to being a writer. You write or you don't.

    Now being an author is a bit different. That, in my opinion, means actually being published, be it the traditional way or by taking the self-published route. Being a "real" author, though, means you've been published through the more traditional venues (or have done better than most as a self-published author). That's my opinion on the matter.

  11. It depends the context or question. "What do you do for a living?" is different than, "What do you enjoy doing?"

    I began calling myself a writer when other writers began to say, "Hey buddy, you're a writer. Own it. Doesn't matter whether you get paid for it or not."

    But, honestly, that's when I accepted that I might be a good writer. Anyone who writes regularly is a writer. Doesn't mean they're any good!


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