Becoming a Real Writer: What’s a Real Writer?

Even defining oneself as a real writer is a tricky proposition. Are we talking professional versus amateur? Well, by the strictest definition, professional writers don’t exist, as writing doesn’t fall under the definition of a professional career (i.e., a certain set of formal training requirements, a professional association which is in charge of accreditation/licensing, as well as disciplining its members if they break their professional code, as with architects, lawyers, physicians, etc.). Sure, there are journalism degree programs, writing workshops, but these are, to varying degrees, optional.

What about money? If you get paid you’re a real writer, right? I once received a cheque, very early in my part-time writing, for under $5.00 for a story I had written. Was I a pro from that point forward? SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) has specific guidelines before they’ll recognize you as a pro SF writer, which includes selling a certain number of stories to markets they categorize as professional, all of which pay more than $5.00 per story. So, according to them at least, no.

What if you quit your day job and make enough money to live on just from your writing? Well, that certainly seems reasonable, at least on the face of it. It’s not about getting paid, but getting paid enough, and getting paid consistently that matters. It’s the only way you’ll be able to do it as a living, after all. But if you’re living in your parent’s basement and not paying rent, then getting enough money to buy frozen burritos and slurpees may not be the same as being a real writer.

Having said that, though, plenty of great writers don’t get to ever quit their day jobs. Lots of the magazine articles you read come from freelancers, who may not make enough sales to quit their bartending job. This has been particularly true in the last five years or so where staff jobs are harder to find, and many newspapers and magazines are cutting back or shutting down. On the fiction front, even novelist Steven Gould started writing full-time only very recently, 20 years and half a dozen published books in. What did it for him? His first novel, Jumper, being turned into a movie. But I considered him a real writer long before that.

So, I’m inclined to say you’re a real writer if you write, and people read what you write. Maybe you’re a part-time writer, maybe you’re a writer with a day job, but if that disbars you from being a “real” writer, then there are actually far fewer real writers than most people realize.

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