Are you a Writer or A Person Who Writes?

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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”?

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16 thoughts on “Are you a Writer or A Person Who Writes?”

  1. Thanks for a great read. I love your list of characteristics for writers though I think also that writers need to have something they wish to say, a purpose for writing other than simply creating pleasant word groupings.

  2. I suppose it depends on what question I’m answering. I consider myself to possess (in some degree) all the characteristics you list above, and I can relate to all the quotations at the end, but if someone said to me ‘What do you do for a living?’ I wouldn’t say, ‘I’m a writer.’ because I’ve yet to be paid for any of my writing. I’d probably say, “I’m a full-time mum, a part-time student, and . . . I also write stories.’ I do feel like a ‘real writer’ though. For me, it’s a way of life, a way of seeing the world, that’s become so ingrained it feels as if I’ve joined a new religion!

  3. “What is the single most important characteristic of a ‘real writer’?”

    For me a writer is a thinker who is also a doer. Writing is the doing part of thinking.

    I write a column. Every piece I write contributes to my own depth of understanding of the topic. Writing a book was a huge learning experience for me.

  4. As quoted, Kazin says being published is an afterthought. “A writer,” is not really a title. Some of us — the lucky ones, I believe — simply must put words on paper (or the present-day equivalent). For myself, I write for the same reason I breathe.

    Thank you so much for your discussion.

  5. I sometimes believe that, for me, writing is a way to put down on paper these thousands and thousands of words continuously tumbling in my mind about a given subject. It becomes a sort of exorcism process. I have to go through these exhausting moments to get over with it but finally admit to myself that I couldn’t and wouldn’t exist otherwise.

  6. What you call a “real writer” I would call a professional author, whether experienced or prospective.

    Because otherwise I try to equate writer with copywriter, which might or might not be the same thing.

  7. 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

    Yes, for me. I did an art column for 2 years and the best part was the research, filtering and then pulling it all together into a cohesive form that others would understand and enjoy. Seeing it in print with my by-line was just confirmation that I had completed the process.

    Greatly enjoy receiving your Daily Writing Tips in my Inbox.

  8. “Real writers” ponder their craft with some self indulgence that often includes composing, collecting, and scattering quotes about it.

    Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.

    To write simply is as difficult as to be good.

    Most writers, you know, are awful sticks to talk with.

    The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.

    This is what I find most encouraging about the writing trades: They allow mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence. They also allow lunatics to seem saner than sane.

    There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.

  9. I’m a person who writes; obviously not a real writer. However, if I start feeling pretentious and want strangers and acquaintances to think I’m a Writer, I now know exactly how to give the correct impression. Thanks.

  10. This is a great post. I sent it to my daughter, who is a real writer. I write for a living, but am not driven to do it in my leisure time. My daughter needs to write almost as much as she needs to breathe. I know she will love this post as much as I did. Thank you for it.

  11. The following quote would, I’m certain, describe most writers at some time or other.

    A writer is a reader moved to emulation – Saul Bellow.

    Thanks for your daily writing tips, Maeve. I enjoy reading them.

  12. Looking back at what has been said, including my previous comment, I try to be realistic. Working on any book project, I humbly consider myself as someone writing. The day I begin having readers is when I get promoted to the status of writer but then, only to start all over with the next project.

  13. after retirement I have an abundance of time which I would turn into use by writing on any topic under the sun.
    it also helps to keep my memory of vocabulary and grammar green. I
    do a lot of reading and am inspired to write columns myself.

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