What Makes a Real Writer?

Stacey, who follows Write Through It and blogs at Diary of a Ragamuffin, posed this question: “What makes one a real ‘writer’?”

She added:

My reason for asking:  After 15 years of teaching, I decided to change careers and have begun a job as a reporter for my small-town newspaper (that is owned by a not-so-small-town corporation).  They knew I had no journalism experience when they hired me.  After four  months, I’m beginning to wonder if just anyone could do the job I do.

I’m not sure if what I do each day is what I had hoped it would be.  Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it (in my opinion).

The answer is that there’s no answer, but you know I’m not going to stop there, right?

First off, I worked eight years for a small-town newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, in a succession of overlapping capacities: proofreader, features editor, features writer, theater reviewer, copyeditor. Reporting wasn’t my forte, but I did a little of that, mostly covering stories when no “real” reporter was available.

So I’m here to assure Stacey: The job you do can’t be done by just anyone, or by just any writer either. The fact that you’re wondering probably means that you’re good at it. You’ve got the knack. You learn fast. You’re able to apply your experience in other jobs to your journalism job.

Been there, done that. I wasn’t a journalist either when I got drafted to fill in for an editorial typesetter who was going on sick leave. I was scared to death I’d screw up, but I needed the work. I could type, I could proofread, I could write, and I had several years’ editorial experience. Short version: I loved it, I was good at it, and pretty soon the paper hired me as a part-time proofreader.

The tricky thing about job description “writer” is that it covers so many different kinds of writing. Reporter. Novelist. Columnist. Essayist. Poet. Diarist. Blogger. Biographer. Academic. Copywriter. Technical writer. And so on and on. No writer does all of them. No writer I’ve ever met wants to do all of them.

I know some crackerjack journalists who won’t cop to being writers. In their minds, writers write books, or fiction, or literary criticism. What writers don’t do is write for newspapers. You see the paradox here? If real writers don’t write for newspapers, then the writing in newspapers isn’t real writing.

Of course it is. If it isn’t, what the hell is it?

That's me, long before I knew what an editor was.

That’s me, long before I knew what an editor was.

In my teens and twenties, I assumed that a real writer had to know grammar and punctuation backwards and forwards and be a world-class speller besides. So I developed those skills. It wasn’t until I got a job as an editor in the publications office of a big nonprofit that I realized that in the real world these skills made me an editor. I hadn’t even known what an editor was. Some editorial skills belong in every writer’s toolkit, but you don’t have to be an editor to be a real writer.

Poets & Writers is a venerable organization that publishes a bimonthly magazine of the same name. Doesn’t the name imply that category “poets” isn’t included in category “writers”? It does to me. Plenty of poets either don’t call themselves writers or are semi-apologetic when they do: “I just write poetry. I’m not a real writer.”

Same deal as with journalists: If what poets write isn’t writing, what is it? And if the people who write it aren’t writers, what are they?

About her journalism job Stacey noted: “Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it.”

This is true. Journalism means writing to deadlines, and deadlines don’t stand around waiting for the writer to get it perfect.

Deadlines don’t wait for editors either. Accuracy is more important than a perfectly crafted sentence. Spell a kid’s name wrong and her parents and grandparents will remember it forever.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha's Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Working for the newspaper made me a better writer and a better editor in more ways than I can count. I learned I could write and edit with phones ringing off the hook and people bringing me press releases 12 hours after deadline. I learned that endings don’t have to be perfect because the last two or three inches of a story would often be lopped off when a late ad came in. I learned that writers who can turn out prose like yard goods may write sloppy sentences but they sure come in handy when a scheduled story doesn’t show or an ad gets pulled. I learned that in the work of novice writers the lead paragraph is often buried a third of the way down. I learned that I can turn out a coherent theater review even when I haven’t a clue what the play was about. (It was Beckett’s Happy Days, in case you’re wondering.)

I learned that “good enough” often is good enough, and it’s actually pretty damn good, though for sure you could do better at a writers’ retreat. For a congenital perfectionist like me this was huge.

So what makes someone a “real writer”?

Marge Piercy nailed it in “For the Young Who Want To”:

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

 

That’s the last verse. Read the whole thing. Read it often. You don’t have to be young.

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11 thoughts on “What Makes a Real Writer?

  1. Thank you for this. I see it in many forms, as writers agonize over the fact they’re not writers. I see it in editors, too, which may stem from the fact that many kinds of editors are covered in one word — editor — just as writers are, which you point out in the post. This allows everyone to create their own definition, which often excludes the other members of the party.

    I encounter the fuzziness most often in the debate over what defines an author. I hold to a broad definition: you are an author once you complete a work and allow other people to read it. Others feel you need to be published in order to be a “real” author, but I don’t stick to that because whether one is published is subject to many factors. The idea, in my mind, is parallel to copyright. Your work is considered copyrighted as soon as it is created in some medium. It may live in a drawer all your life, but it’s still a real thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re absolutely right about “editor.” I’ve done a bunch of jobs with job description “editor,” but they were so very different. I’ve never been a managing editor or a production editor, but I’ve worked with them, have a good idea of what they do, and am pretty sure I wouldn’t survive long if I tried to do it myself.

    “Author” is a tricky one. I don’t identify myself as an author, but I do say I’m the author of The Mud of the Place, “My Terrorist Eye,” and yadda yadda yadda.

    I like the comparison to copyright. If you’ve written something, it’s copyrighted and you’re its author. You’re an author. But for some people this isn’t enough. I hear them introducing themselves or the speaker for the evening as a “published author” or an “award-winning author.” Unadorned “author” doesn’t have enough cachet, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

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