Tell me — exactly who is “a writer”? And what makes someone “an author”? These questions continue to bob to the surface of personal and professional conversations.
By the way, I’m taking on this sometimes-touchy subject because 1) I meet far too many self-proclaimed writers/authors who aren’t writers *yet* — and could be, but don’t know that they need something more, and 2) I meet people who should call themselves writers and authors but don’t.)
Because people can call themselves anything in this digital day and age, I believe this is a critical conversation — for any field, and for every individual. Here are a few thoughts…
(Step in close, for a moment)…
The Doctor, the Designer, and the Musician…
No, they didn’t all walk into a bar…
Seriously, in the world today, there is someone who places band-aids on owies, someone who knows and gives first aid, someone who’s an EMS specialist, and someone who’s a medical assistant.
And then there’s a Doctor (with a capital D).
There’s someone who decorates his or her own home, someone who has consulted informally with families to decorate their home, someone who works with realtors and stages homes, and someone who styles home interiors.
And then there’s an Interior Designer (with a capital I-D).
There’s someone who sings in the shower, someone who helps singers around the campfire, and someone who performs on a non-paying venue’s local stage… versus the person who has studied, performed over the years, and been paid for sharing his or her craft.
That’s the Musician (with a capital M).
The Dabbler vs. the Correctly Titled…
What makes a person truly hold the title of doctor, interior designer, or musician?
It’s in the study, the time, the practice, and the countless hours of learning under masters within the area of study — learning, growing, and performing within devotion to the craft.
Being a doctor, interior designer, or musician isn’t simply calling yourself a name or giving yourself a title. It’s about what you’ve learned before you claimed the title, what you’re learning now, and your continued devotion to the discipline.
The Doctor has devoted years of his or her life to gaining that title, with ultra-long hours in study, learning under masters, keeping the ungodly hours of residency with red-eyed devotion, and being mentored by other doctors, in order to understand, discern, and make good judgments for others’ lives.
The Interior Designer has devoted years of study with a numb bum in those hardwood university chairs, with countless hours of mock-ups, with sketches layered into those tall, flat, black-handled folders, and trial-and-error discernment of personal sketches and weak arrangements under the scrutiny of professionals. Or the designer has spent long hours, day after day poring over books and guides, then putting personal resources into the blood, sweat, and tears of building a business with daily work on the craft.
The Musician has performed regularly and been paid for it, especially those who have worked hard to gain degrees, performing under the scrutiny of professors and professionals — or those putting in long hours, year after year, on stages big and small, staying up late and getting up early to perform in paid venues.
The same is for writing. To give oneself the title of Writer or Author (with a capital W or A) comes with the ability to meet qualifications.
The One Who Writes vs. the Writer…
Writing is a craft. It is a discipline. It is a career.
As a craft and area of study, there is an entire body of knowledge on “best practices” — from tired, old, beginner mistakes to vibrant, strong, practiced expertise and artistry.
You and I will often find someone who says, “I’m going to blog” or “I’m going to write a book”… with no background, no study, no understanding of the craft.
And he or she can write the blog or book. Putting words on a page is a physical act.
But until that individual has begun the study and practice of writing and authoring, to fully understand the craft and multiple layers within the skills — has he or she earned the title of writer or author?
I believe not.
And here’s why…
The True Writer and Author…
There are many levels of writing, and there are many kinds of “writers.”
There is someone who writes, and then there is a writer — a professional who has taken years, hours, and education to hone his or her craft.
There is someone who has published a book, and there is an author — again, someone who has taken the hours and education to hone his or her craft.
In coaching writers across North America and beyond, I often work with those who have written a book — but who have never read a single page from a how-to guide, never sat under a writer’s guidance at a conference or webinar, and hasn’t even tried to learn what’s below the top of the iceberg. This “writer” isn’t aware of plot and structure, internal character development, the story arc, creating a concrete or palpable setting, or dialogue. They person writing is void of the knowledge of tired tropes or typical errors… and their work shows it.
They simply don’t know what they don’t know.
One can have a physical book is in existence (because anyone can publish anything, with money and Amazon’s tools).
But is the first-timer’s nonfiction book with no chapter direction or interior chapter shape (the most common error in nonfiction writing) truly writing?
Is a novel with “floating” or “talking heads” (character conversation with little or no grounding in the setting) truly writing?
Is the YA novel with no concrete outer goal (the most foundational story structure need) truly writing?
Or does creating a middle grade novel “with four main characters” (oops) truly give the individual the title of “writer”?
And does the picture book with formulaic, worn-out language or flat characters (typical to new writers) by the person who simply wrote the pages qualify the individual as a “writer” or “author”?
All of these people who have penned a work didn’t know what they didn’t know.
Because there has been no study, no mentorship, and little guidance, the person putting words on the page is a dabbler in the area of writing. To be a dabbler and to be a writer/author are two different things, for sure.
(Most importantly, to believe that the act of writing has made you a writer or author is like me calling myself an electrician because I fixed some outlets in my home.)
It’s critical to know, give, and honestly live the qualifications of our titles.
I truly do want you to be the writer-author. And I support you fully — as you do what true writers and authors do.
The Valid Beginning…
Yes, you can call yourself a beginning writer and a new author — but to do so, you’ve met some criteria.
You can be a doctor who’s a resident, at the beginning of your professional career — and you’re still a doctor. You can be an interior designer who is at the start of a business of daily flipping homes (a la Joanna Gaines)…and you’re truly an interior designer. You can be a musician without a contract and record label, spending nights after your day job in local and regional venues…and you’re still a musician.
Because of the devotion to the craft combined with a level of competence that was gained through an accreditation and acknowledgment within the particular field of study, you’ve earned the title.
You’re simply at the start of your career.
“Beginning writers” and “beginning authors” have taken the initial steps to find out more about the discipline and skills of writing. Through intentional study and mentorship, they continue to reach for levels of competence — earning the title through time studying the craft and the field of writing.
I see and applaud these new writers and authors every day.
- You’ve come under the tutelage of professionals.
- You are members of professional groups like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Authors Guild (AG), and the Romance Writers of America (RWA) — and you attend meetings, go to conferences, and attend online webinars to hone your craft.
- You know what you don’t know, and you’re honest about it as you’re making moves forward in the academic discipline — with the guidance and mentorship of those who are professionals — as you learn and use best practices.
In fact, these true writers and authors are reluctant to call themselves by the title writer and author — because they’re aware of and sensitive to their ignorance in the filed. That sensitivity and awarenesses — as you get coaching sessions, go to professional writer meetings, and watch webinars online — is part of what makes you truly a writer and author.
You are writers. You are authors.
If we met someone who called him or herself a doctor but didn’t go to (or finish) medical school, we’d call that person out. (We’d use a name that’s not flattering… something to do with feathers, a bill, and webbed feet.)
In fact, if we meet most anyone calling him or herself a specific career name without qualifications, we’re inclined call that person out, too.
Why? Because honesty is critical to competence, trust, and authenticity.
Though I’ve cared for medically fragile children, I would never purport to call myself a doctor — because caring for a child’s medical needs does not equal, I am a doctor. And though I’ve helped people decorate their homes, I would never call myself an interior designer — because helping decorate does not equal, I am an interior designer.
Be the writer and author who has earned the title. And if you have other skill areas, too — then tout your titles from your education, years of study, and years of practice that make you so good at what you do.
True writer, you’ve earned that title.
Truth telling is something near to my heart. If we all took more time seeking the truth — asking questions, honestly listening without judgment, and finding out the true nature of circumstances and situations — then relationships would be healthy. Interactions would be positive. So much of our lives would be authentic and honorable.
Truth telling about who we are is part of that. We all have skills and abilities. Let’s honor each and every one of our skills, abilities, and true accomplishments by honoring our hard-earned titles.
If you’re a true writer working on your craft right now, then call yourself writer. You’ve earned it.
And if you’re contemplating becoming a writer and author — by all means do so. Through study, mentoring, and learning… through reading, trying, and doing… through a commitment to find out what’s under the water by that little tip of an iceberg that’s poking out above the ripples… You’ll most likely be surprised and delighted at the tomes of how-to knowledge on how to really write that book with pizzazz and pride.
Actively seek to know and better the craft of writing (and authoring) in an ongoing commitment to the field. I applaud you. I am with you. And I am here for you.
Erin M. Brown, MA, MFA, (aka EB Conroy/Erin Brown Conroy) is the author of 10 books, has been a university professor of writing and leadership at three universities, has been a professional content writer for over 25 years, has designed multiple online writing programs (including as the lead curriculum developer for writing at a major university), and is a professional writing coach for fiction and nonfiction writers across the world. A member of AG, SFWA, RWA, and SCBWI, she speaks at conferences, online webinars, and more — helping writers become confident and skilled in their craft, to produce great books and content they’re proud of.