Writer is one of those words used with a variety of meanings.
The five year old learning to form her letters can be said to be a writer.
The OED entry for writer gives ten different meanings, including:
an attorney or law-agent,
one who is writing
a composer of music
one who typewrites; a typist
A pen, etc., that writes in a specified manner
The OED definition that comes closest to what I understand by the word writer is this one:
One who writes, compiles, or produces a literary composition; the composer of a book or treatise
but even this doesn’t define writer to my complete satisfaction.
I acquired my sense of the word in the days before word processors, writing software and free blog sites turned nearly everyone with a computer into a “writer.”
Just putting words on paper (or into a digital file) doesn’t mean that writing has taken place. When I read a blog filled with incomplete sentences, trendy slang, misspellings and grammatical atrocities, I feel at one with the professor at Ohio University who returned a student’s paper with this comment:
I am returning this otherwise good typing paper to you because someone has printed gibberish all over it and put your name at the top.
To me a writer has certain characteristics, among which are:
a compulsion to write
a love of language
a grasp of grammar and idiom
a wide acquaintance with writing in different genres and from different historical periods
an enormous vocabulary, together with an instinct for choosing words appropriate to context and audience
the ability to write despite discouragement and distractions
For a “real writer” writing is not something to do now and then, something to be taken or left, but a need that makes itself felt as urgently as hunger or thirst. For the writer, the act of writing is an extension of thought. It’s a way of clearing a teeming mind to make way for new ideas.
I’m sometimes approached by people who tell me they have a great story that I should write. When I ask why they don’t write it themselves, they reply that they wouldn’t know where to begin. Or that they would, if only they had the time. Writers don’t worry about such things. They just begin. They know that if they begin “in the wrong place,” they can fix it later. And they find time.
Here are some quotations that go along with my understanding of what a “real” writer is.
It is impossible to discourage the real writers – they don’t give a damn what you say, they’re going to write. ~Sinclair Lewis
I can write with a crying child on my lap. I have. Often. ~ David Baldacci
We write because something inside says we must and we can no longer ignore that voice. ~ Sheila Bender
One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment. ~Hart Crane
The more you read, the more you will write. The better the stuff you read, the better the stuff you will write. ~ Annie Dillard
The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax. ~Alfred Kazin
If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad. ~Lord Byron
What do you think? What’s the single most important characteristic of a “real writer”?