Do You Look Like a Writer?

By Mark Nichol

Did you read under the covers with a flashlight late into the night when you were a child? Have you been methodically working your way through the Great Works of Literature since the onset of puberty (or, if you were properly precocious, before)? Do you seek out and absorb the advice and insights of authors past and present?

Me neither.

And I don’t fret about it too much, either, because these activities are clichés, and as any sensible writer knows, such overfamiliar tropes are, in general, to be avoided. This post serves to relieve you of any anxiety about how you, aspiring writer, are supposed to behave — or how you define yourself.

First, let’s back up to that “aspiring writer” bit. Do you enjoy recording your thoughts, whether using a word-processing program, a legal pad and a pen, or a clay tablet and a stylus? If so, delete aspiring. You are a writer.

Are you a successful writer? Define successful. If you’re happy when you write, that pretty much describes success, don’t you think?

Oh, right — I should have asked, “Are you a published writer?”

Define published. The astonishing ease of self-publishing, whether by way of blogs, e-books, print on demand, or vanity — er, subsidy — presses, has eroded the precision of that distinction.

Are you a professional writer — meaning, do you earn money by writing? If you collect pocket change by writing for content farms, placing yourself in that category might be a stretch, but many writers who are considered professionals derive much of their income from other sources yet still earn the label.

How devoted are you to writing? Do you get up at five o’clock every morning to churn out a few thousand words before you head off to work? Do you turn down social engagements, avoid competing creative interests, and refrain from engaging in fitness or leisure activities because of your obsession with writing? Do you sacrifice eating, sleeping, and, oh, sanity to labor at your craft?

Most important, how closely do you resemble the people in the author photos on book jackets that also feature the words “New York Times bestseller”?

Do not despair if you don’t fit in with the cool kids — that’s so high school. How is a writer supposed to act, feel, and look? The answer is, pretty much like that person you see when you look in the mirror. If you are passionate about writing (regardless of how much or how little time you are willing or able to devote to that passion), if you strive to develop your compositional strengths but recognize and focus on your weaknesses even more, if you pursue your passion even though you don’t put in as much time as you’d like because you understand that you need to maintain a healthy balance in your life, then, yes, I’d say you’re a writer.

The real work of writing is hard enough without fretting about keeping up the appearance of being a writer. Instead of trying to resemble a writer, concentrate on being one.

(The same morning I woke up with the idea for this post, Jon Carroll, perhaps the greatest living humor columnist on this planet, touched on slightly common ground with this reliably entertaining piece.)

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21 Responses to “Do You Look Like a Writer?”

  • Carolyn

    I love you…. Well, that might be overstating it but I certainly do appreciate this. I don’t fit into any of the cliches about what a writer should be or should look like… and honestly, it was a worry. I only have the passion.

  • AJ Beamish

    Wow, thank you for that. Woke up feeling a bit dodgy with a wave of self doubt creeping in. I really needed to read something like that today. Perfect timing. Thanks so much.

  • paula tavolaro

    Dear Mark,
    I recognized myself as the nerd who read under the blankets with a flashlight and tried to read all the classics as a teenager (can’t say I was too successful in that one…). Just recently, however, my writing really took shape when I gave up thinking about the myths of being a writer. I started to BELIEVE. Because, as you say, in the end, it’s just that. Writing is part of who we are, what we do. It defines us, no matter how many hours we do that a week. Because of that, now I happily keep two blogs (in Portuguese, my native language), apart for teaching writing to undergraduate veterinarians – they really need it! – and keeping a journal.
    Is this how Charles Dickens did it? It is not important, really. Because it is how I do it.

  • Vikas

    Wow, this article is Amazing!

  • Samantha Gluck

    I read your posts religiously each and every day. I even save them in a special folder, but today I felt compelled to comment today. In addition to flouting my deadlines like a boss, I thought I needed to comment because the title of this article reminds me of the movie, Limitless, which is about a scruffy writer. I think the guy in Limitless starts out looking more like a down and out musician. Of course he ends up looking like a hottie (like a bad bad pony I’d like to ride around town), but the whole premise of the movie is based on his dreadlock-ish, down and out look and lifestyle. Your post mirrors a lot of the underlying message in the movie. You should check it out if you haven’t already — action packed, twists and turns, hot, with an ending that is full of badassery.

  • Michelle

    Great post! I sometimes feel strange admitting to people that I haven’t read every classical work of fiction on the planet or that I haven’t made my way through every single novel of popular fiction today. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t necessarily fit into the “normal” definition of what a writer is supposed to look like.

    Thanks!
    -Michelle

  • Christian Nguma

    I really need The Book, Basic English Grammar Daily Tips, this will help me use it in my private home at my usual time And again it will be of great help to me. Thank you. C Nguma

  • Stephanie

    Certainly the only definition of a writer is “a person who writes,” but to be a GOOD writer, you have to take it further. You have to read some of those classics, seek out some of that author advice, find ways to improve your craft. If you just want to put words on paper, fine. But if you want other people to read it, that’s a lot more work.

    Of course, reading this blog is an excellent start. : )

  • Shirley in Berkeley

    Right on, Stephanie! A writer should never stop striving to be better. Whether its writing a story or composing an e-mail, the process never ends, and if you read critically, you never stop learning.

    Sometimes I’d like to “turn it off,” but even when I’m deeply into a novel, or a short story, or an article, or any kind of writing at all, the monitor is always there (“Look at that, what he did! How did he do that?” or “That Alice Munro! Read it again! Brilliant.” or “Cheez, this is really rotten. A Booker Prize? Are they kidding?” It never ends, and even when I’m weeping while I read a story, a part of me is always aware of the craft.

  • Madison Johns

    I was advised a few years ago do delete the “aspiring” also and have encouraged others to do the same. Thanks, great post and I’ll be sharing.

  • Mike Smith

    Did Oscar Wilde not ‘vanity — er, subsidy —’ publish his first collection of poems?

    Poor form in mocking those who choose such an option. Writing isn’t about elitism. It’s about a passion for reaching people using the written word by whatever means available.

    Shame on you.

  • Ogozi John

    It is essential for a writer, who really wants to be good in stringing up words, to know how other good writers lay down their sentences. This would help in widening your capacity (vocabulary, grammar, etc.) and structuring good writing patterns.

    But as a writer, no matter your status, you should have confidence and derive some sense of satisfaction from your article, and this post has really helped in establishing this.

    Well, i can say that i am a trained, professional and published writer who is always ready to learn as every writer aims at getting better.

  • Christian Nguma

    Behold, I feel strange telling people that I haven’t read any work of classical writers or authors of novels of popular fiction in terms of writing or being a writer. This is because I’m quite new in the system and am willing to be one? Not necessarily to mak money but as a hobby knowing very well that with zeal and determination, in time I will make it as any other person have done. Thank you! C Nguma

  • Carolyn

    Everyone is a writer when you think about it. We all have a story to tell, whether it be about ourselves, a work of fiction, etc. However, for writers who want to develop and become better at the craft, I have to becoming an avid reader helps. I’m not saying that a person has to read the classics. I’m not saying that a person has to have read millions of books throughout childhood. I’m saying that if you want to improve on your writing, reading other author’s writing will help strengthen yours. It will also open the door to new ideas because your mind will wander to a place you never thought of before. Although I do understand what the author is saying here because we don’t want to get too caught up into I must read a million books to be a successful auther. However, the only way to improve upon something is to read about it and see examples of it. Think about it, the best doctors, accountants, etc. did not become successful without the training of others to help them along the way.

  • Granville c.

    I am new to writing, even when writing assignment. One of my problem I do not spell properly, and that make me very negitive writing.

  • Laura

    I beat myself up about not being able to write as well as some of the writers whose work I nearly worship. These are writers who can take what could be boring drivel and turn it into beautiful, insightful, and thought-provoking prose. But I am learning that it is important to write in my voice and that even if I can’t move the world with my writing, I can still be a good writer.

  • Naomi Hamm

    What is a writer supposed to look like> Kathleen Winsor or Rosemary Rogers or Edgar Allen Poe?

    How is a writer supposed to live, working for nothing or a million or billionaire?

    Are writers all slated to hang out have sex with and write about movie star and rock singers and other aspiring artists of fame and fortune?

    Are writers more likely to be overweight, sloppy and slovenly in appearance and lifestyle?

    Are writers all crazy works of art themselves?

    Are writers for real or just figments of our own and our fans imagination.

    Do some of us writers have fans and readers or do we just hope so and imagine them as if when as children we have imaginary playmates?

    Are writers always shrewd and calculating and do they know the one big tome that is gonna win world wide approval and status as to put them over the threshold of fame and fortune?

    Or are we Writers just evey creatures of our own works of fiction.

    Or do our characters create us instead?

    so may questions to puzzle through never enough time to answer them all!

  • Melanie Jackson

    I’ve been told I look like a writer. On the one hand, I’m flattered. On the other, it could be my slightly vacant look? Then there’s the way the late Barbara Cartland looked — puffed up platinum hair and tons of makeup. So who knows what your typical writer looks like. Interesting to think about, though.

  • Samantha Gluck

    @Carolyn — Love your comment and agree with your sentiment for sure! I think there is a distinction between who actually IS a writer, though, and the people who write content for their websites, but whose true passion is in building awareness of their totally unrelated products and services (i.e. a financial manager, physician, or apparel website).

    I agree that when using the strict definition of a “writer”, they too qualify. But to really BE a writer, writing must live in your heart and breathe through your soul’s joys and agonies and aspirations in life. Writing is a living, breathing thing for writers. So to all of those writers out there who live to write and write to live, you ARE a writer, you ARE talented, and you ARE qualified and worthy of the title — regardless of struggles with form, grammar, and mechanical errors. Embrace your weaknesses as a writer, so as to defeat them. Cultivate a strong self awareness of your strengths as a writer and use them as gentle reminders to keep on plugging away. xo

  • Rajesh Chaudhary

    The only thing that matters at the end of the day is how you feel when you can meet your writing-obligation by the end of the day. Whether you feel happy or not? If you feel happy and serene, you are a writer.

  • Debby

    I was recently told – by a recently published author who runs a very successful & popular blog – that because I’ve been out of the publishing arena for 15 years, I will be considered a newbie by any publisher.

    My clips will mean nothing. I will have to start from scratch. I will not be considered a REAL WRITER without anything to back me up.

    Why do some seemingly successful “writers/authors” forget where they came from? Why do they seem to lack humility? Instead seem full of pride and arrogance?

    I don’t understand it.

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