Is everyone who writes a writer?

August 17, 2013

This is a version of the very first machine I typed on. My parents had an old Royal. Wish I still had it. As historical sculpture.

“I’m writing a book!”

I hear it all the time at parties.  While people wouldn’t dream of suggesting they’d become…well, for example, a neurosurgeon…everyone who can put a word on the page can become a writer.

Or can they?

It’s true that with the preponderance of blogs and self-publishing, anyone at all can write. But being a writer? That’s a whole different thing.  There’s a discipline to the craft of writing, and to be a good writer, you have to have a certain knack for it. And some training.

I published my first newspaper column in our local weekly newspaper at the age of 16, the same year I was accepted at Syracuse University, where I was headed for journalism school. Even at my young age, my editor required that I meet a word count, use good grammar and have focus and structure.

I can’t say the same for some of the blogs and self-published books I’ve seen.

Grammar? It’s gone by the wayside.  The use of “myself” instead of me? Grating.   “Jackie and myself went to the concert.”  It’s “Jackie and I,” something that someone who’s studied the craft or even simply learned grammar would know. (And yes, it’s who’s, a contraction for “who has,”  not  whose.)

When I worry that I’ve become a writing snob, I think harder and know I’m not, not really.  Good writing by definition meets certain standards and there’s nothing wrong with that. Excellence is always a good thing, whether for its own sake or that of readers.  So maybe I’m not such a snob after all. Maybe I just want the craft to be treated with the respect it deserves.

Self-published books can  be horrifically, badly constructed. (Yes, two adverbs there modifying the verb, for emphasis. If you think you’re a writer and I’ve lost you, you’ve got some grammar work to do.)

101722664For a long time I wasn’t a fan of self-publishing, mostly because without an editor to impose structure and discipline any kind of schlock can be put out there. And is. Then, a writer-friend of mine who happens to be a VERY good writer began to self-publish because it allowed her to retain a significantly larger percentage of revenue than she got to keep from her well-written memoir which was traditionally published. She has a point.

But most people don’t write as well as she does. (And I met her at a writing workshop, so she worked at it.)

Still, there’s no denying that the times, they are a changin’, at least as far as books are concerned.  It’s on my mind because while I’ve been limping along on my memoir, many people who self-publish already have one or more books out. How can this be?

One of the problems with having to meet standards (my own or an editors) is that it takes time and hard work. I can’t just spew my feelings on page without considering structure, narrative arc and character development, not to mention, dialogue.

Many (if not most) self-publishers aren’t concerned with these things. Some don’t even know what they are.  In some ways these folks are lucky, because they don’t have to deal with the same insecurities as those of us who consider writing a craft do. They just type it up and it’s done.

A few weeks ago I was writing an essay that I intended to submit to an anthology. I started off well, I thought, and sent a draft to my writing coach. She’s a real writer and writing coach  I engage to help me better craft my prose.  That’s right: I’ve been writing for almost 50 years now and I still like to use an editor periodically. We all do, because sometimes, we can’t see beyond ourselves.

Anyway, my editor had some pointed comments about how the essay was put together and she was right. I rewrote it and felt it was too long. So I cut some parts and rewrote others, leaving serious sequence issues and even more words than my rewrite. It still wasn’t ready for prime time, requiring hours of additional work to sculpt and shape the narrative arc.

Why go through all this trouble?  Because an anthology editor was going to pass judgment on my essay and compare it to essays written by real writers who write even better than I.  My best work, that’s what I wanted to submit, and best work takes time, effort, sweat, tears and frustration. That’s what the life of a writer is –hours, days, weeks of agony, punctuated by a few moments of euphoria when a piece gets accepted.If-you're-lucky-as-you-get-older,-you-respect-the-craft-and-it-becomes-a-skill.

And then the process starts all over again.

When I write for my blog, I’m looser about structure and tone: more self-indulgent, just like some of the self-publishing I see.  Sometimes I wander around the second person and third. If I’m lucky, I catch it before I hit “post.”  Oh, I still spend hours shaping bloggy writing, but far less time than I spend on writing that will go to more traditional outlets.  The two are very different.

So, what am I saying? Am I suggesting that folks don’t write if they aren’t trained? Well, to be honest, I wish I could suggest that. The lowest common denominator for all forms of entertainment has gotten even lower in the 21st century and it pains me to see it happening with writing.

Here’s what I suggest:  If you’re doing any kind of writing at all, take a few workshops. Understand the structure of a well-written piece. Learn some grammar.  Don’t just gush on  a page—learn a little something about how to put a good piece together, and whether it’s a blog or not, apply that learning. Get some editing help.

I know I sound  crotchety. But here’s the thing: I love my craft and I love to welcome people to it.

But I’d like them to give it the respect it deserves.

Oh, and that essay I wrote? The one I worked on for weeks? The editor loved it.

27 comments on “Is everyone who writes a writer?
  1. Norm Schriever says:

    Great article and interesting points! However I don’t believe self publishing is the enemy, though I do agree that there is a dire need for enhanced professional editing (my books especially). But I don’t think self publishing is to blame for that. The “traditional” publishing method is incredibly adept at trying to squeeze a pig through a python – querying and submitting manuscripts to agents in hopes of even getting looked at, and the rest of the process is driven by what’s hot, selling at the moment, and risk adverse, not just quality of the writing and the story. Self publishing has brought democratization to the art, similar to what the Internet did for the music industry. The consumer directly dictates the market. I think the ideal is a happy medium where professional standards are increased but writers who wan’t to get their work out there aren’t forced to navigate the Draconian maze of the agent-big 6 traditional publishing model. I, myself, am looking for a great editor for my next manuscript. And yes, a need for better grammar is a huge part of that. 🙂

    • admin says:

      Well, first of all, I think South of Normal is terrific in every way. Both of your books were great reads, and South of Normal showed clearly your work and growth as a writer. Where I think we part company is that I don’t think democratization supports good writing, necessarily. I agree that traditional publishing has its issues, but it also has strengths that support the concept of “good writing”. Getting through the eye of a needle is not such a bad thing–it’s a challenge. I just don’t think that every book idea makes a book and everyone who has one is capable of writing it well. Just like how anyone can buy a set of paints but not everyone’s a real artist. Good writing will find its publisher. Hunter Thompson had little formal training and a crazy-ass style but he worked his ass off in traditional journalism and privately and became one of the greats of our time–complete with publishers. And that’s my point: self-publishing shortcuts the need to ever become “good”. To work at one’s craft the way HST (and other greats) did. To submit and get rejections to learn how to improve the craft. Just throw it out there, promote it and presto! An “author”. Democracy and literature are unrelated in my view. Entitlement is an ugly characteristic of the 21st century. This general loosening of standards makes it harder for really good writers to break through. My feeling is “Want to write? Learn how first, practice, learn how to be edited and what makes good writing.” I’ve seen bad books from traditional publishers, but I’ve never seen books as badly written as I’ve seen from self publishing. From a writer’s point of view, I love working with a good coach/editor who gives input that helps me move an essay from a good idea to a nicely honed piece. I like the confidence it gives me that they’re not just self-indulgent words on a page, that they speak to others and that they represent me well to the outside world. That it’s quality writing. Many self-published authors don’t even know enough to be embarrassed at the schlock they put out there. I’m a product of my generation, my training and my experience and I completely get that the writing world has moved on. I just don’t think it’s a positive. Meanwhile, make no mistake about it, Norm. You’re a writer.

      • Brian Meeks says:

        I’ve not read Hunter S. Thompson, but there are plenty of authors who have made it through the needle…and shouldn’t have.

        We are all familiar with the writing of Earnest Hemingway, who, after a hundred rewrites, still produced work that, at its best, could be described as a pile of cat sick. (Okay, “Old Man and the Sea” was a C- work, and better than cat sick…but you get my point)

        Still, there are certainly many self-published works that are easily as bad as “A Farewell to Arms”..just kidding…nothing is that bad, but still, if one doesn’t hire professionals to help complete the work, then they will surely get mocked. I’m okay with that.

        In the end, the readers will decide who survives. I’m okay with that, too.

  2. Evalyn Baron says:

    C – I so enjoy reading you every morning !!

    Xx ev

  3. Important questions to ask Carol, not that anything we say here will make a bit of difference to anyone out there writing badly. I always hire and pay a professional editor before publishing my books, but this is obviously not a common practice. Best recent example of how democratization DOES NOT support good writing would be “50 Shades of Grey.”

    For a marvelous (and funny!) critique go treat yourself to this post by Tracy Fulks called “50 Shades of My Opinion” (
    “Were there no editors available? WILL SOMEONE GET THIS WOMAN A THESAURUS?”

  4. A good number of my friends are writers. Some of them only in name. I’ve been going to one critique group for about 5 years, and this one woman who is there every single week has never brought anything for critique. She has good suggestions. But is she a writer? Ehhh. I suspect she does write. At home, in the privacy of her own bedroom, but she’s plagued by doubt and perfectionism. In her head, the story sounds perfect. But then she puts it on paper, and it’s not Vince Flynn or Brad Thor. And that can be a crushing blow. I know it was for me. I wasted years trying to perfect the first chapter of my nine-book science-fiction epic.

    Then I started actually showing my work to other people, and I started to improve.

    I also spend a very long time on every blog post. I treat each one as if I’m writing it for publication, although I do employ lower standards on tone and structure — and even grammar, truth be told. But if you see a post on my blog, it’s had at least a couple of hours of editing, usually more. And still, I manage to miss something in almost every post, which I will go back and fix if I spot it. (Even months or years later.)

    I think I would say “skilled writer” where you’re using just the term “writer.” 🙂 If you write, you’re a writer. In the same way that if you cook, you’re a cook. Whether your work is any good is a whole different question. But the only way to get those skills is to keep writing, get feedback, find out where your strengths and weaknesses are, and keep plugging away at it. Strengthen your strengths. Strengthen your weaknesses. Always set the bar higher. Challenge yourself. And that’s where the training comes in. You don’t have to get a degree in writing to learn to write well.

    Some of us are more lackadaisical about it; some of us write because . . . well, breathing. If breathing, must write. 🙂

    As far as self-publishing goes, I think we’re still in the toddler years of self-publishing. It used to mean “vanity press,” where you paid to have your magnum opus published, and then you could show it to all your friends as “my published novel.” With the advent of e-publishing, it suddenly got easier to do it yourself, and there is a huge amount of variation in the writing skill that’s finding its way into print. Some of it’s really good; most of it isn’t.

    I think it’ll even out. The market will find its level, and the quality of e-published books will get more consistent. But it’s going to take time. Time for people to get over the newness and the shiny aspect of “Oooh! Free/cheap books for my Kindle/nook/whatever!” and start focusing more on quality over quantity or price.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. 🙂

    • admin says:

      Yes, and part of the provocation for this post was the several times I’ve been sucked in by 5* Family/Friends reviews and cheap Kindle prices only to start reading and go—“whaaaat?”

    • admin says:

      Thank YOU for the thoughtful response and interesting thoughts…of course, to me, e-publishing is still “vanity press….”

  5. Pam Houghton says:

    I hear you on this, Carol. Every essay I’ve written that was professionally published, and that I was paid for, had been fiddled with endlessly. I spend a lot of time on those before I send them out, often having one or more writer groups have a look first. Having other writers read my work helps me look at each piece more objectively so that I can make fixes or content changes that make the piece more effective. When I blog, I look at that as more of a playground where my standards are not as high, and I certainly don’t fiddle with those posts in the same way I do with anything that I intend to send to an editor for publication. That said, I think the value to blogging is the ‘free-spiritedness’ of it, the loosening up of ideas and words, the playful aspect of writing on any topic I want. Even though those posts aren’t perfect, it pleases me to no end when they connect with a reader. But then I use that as information, as feedback, to enhance the writing that I try to get published in the more traditional manner.

  6. I agree with you and Pam–there is a difference in my approach to the writing I use for my blog and my professional and/or paid writing.

  7. Yes, anyone can be a “writer”. But in terms of quality and literacy, I’ve found most people can not write a coherent grocery list.

  8. There’s Dr. Seuss’s famous response to people who say they are going to write a children’s book someday. “Ah, yes, “he’d reply. “Some day when I have a little free time, I’m going to do brain surgery.”

  9. mindy says:

    You make some very good points, Carol. But, in the same vein, you can ask yourself, can anyone who makes a “film” call themselves a filmmaker? If I’ve edited three, five, ten blog posts, can I call myself an “editor?” There are many, many self-proclaimed experts on the web these days, and that goes for writing experts as well. I write, but do not consider myself a “writer.” I would never be so presumptuous as to promote myself as that. I am an editor, however, and have worked as one professionally. Therefore I think I can call myself one. I’ve also worked as a pastry chef in restaurants and have owned my own dessert business, so I feel comfortable calling myself a “chef.” However, as I don’t work at that profession very much these days, the word still sticks in my throat as I say it. It’s all semantics. Anyone can call themselves just about anything…and anyone will believe them. Working at a craft, investing yourself in it, and striving to excel and achieve some sense of mastery gives you the right to call yourself anything. But ultimately your work, be it writing, filmmaking, jewelry making, cooking, etc. will be judged by others…and it is they, not your “friends” who recommend you on LinkedIn, whose opinions will hold water.

  10. Helene Cohen Bludman says:

    Enjoyed this post, Carol. I stammer sometimes when the word “writer” comes out of my mouth in response to “What do you do?” For my whole career, it was something else. I once was a newspaper reporter and have other writing-related jobs throughout my career, but, in my mind, “writer” belongs to someone who has been published. I feel almost guilty when I use it to refer to myself, but it’s easier than “novelist-wannabe-and-former-marketing-and-communications-exec.”

  11. Katie Cross says:

    Honestly, I think that anyone can be a writer, but not everyone can be a successful writer. Whether that counts or not, I don’t know. But I don’t think we’ll ever be able to actually impose a definition to a question like that.

    Although it’s definitely fun to discuss 🙂

  12. Kelly Louise says:

    Love the machine, what a classic. Self publishing is a viable option for many, but I have neither the skill, nor the confidence to toss my words into the world without serious editorial input. Maybe someday.

  13. I agree with your sentiments. I think that there are sloppy writers out there who publish crappy work. Then, when their work hits Amazon or whatever distributor, it’s all up the the choosiness of the consumer. Educated people, especially writers who understand proper grammar usage, will be turned off by crappy writers’ products and will mark them “to be avoided”. But then there are many people out there who are as uneducated as the crappy writer, and will think his or her story “rocks”. It’s hilarious, really. But you are right, the craft needs to be respected. We are now in a time where, instead of editors culling bad material before it hits the public eye, the public itself will have be become the arbiter of deciding what’s worth reading.

  14. So glad I read this. It caught my attention because I don’t think putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard makes you a writer. I REALLY like the suggestions around taking some workshops or writing courses. I write a lot of stuff, but don’t think I’m a writer. I read a lot of stuff and don’t think what I’m reading comes from writers. It’s not that the work isn’t enjoyable, but I shouldn’t constantly be aware of the fact that I’m reading. I certainly shouldn’t have to be correcting or discerning the meaning because the language is ambiguous.

    To me, It’s not about being earnest, passionate, prolific or even about technical ability alone. To me, a real writer combines a deep knowledge of language with fluid ideas to produce art. The work has to transcend the words gathered on a page and become lasting ideas and images in someone else’s head. In short, it’s up to the reader to decide whether you are a writer.

  15. Misha says:

    Not to be funny, but you’re answering the wrong question.

    Every single one of those who self publish are writers. Everyone busy with or determined to write a book, is a writer.

    Anyone who sits down, learning as they go, improving, making mistakes and finishing stories (long or short) is a writer.

    But are all writers good? No. No they’re not. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to make a judgement call on who are writers or not, based on where they are in their writing careers.

    Everyone needs time to learn the craft. And thousands of potentially wonderful stories are lost, because of people who make writing what it isn’t and turn it into something even more intimidating than it already is.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful response. My issue is exactly that–learn the craft— but it takes more than time to learn a craft, it takes the willingness to learn it, and my point is that many people just do not. They throw stuff out there, self-publish and that’s it. In any line of work there’s apprenticeship, journeyman, etc. What I see is too many people skipping the steps and the writing shows it.

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