A Matter of Definition

So, before I get to the question of the week, I’m gonna stand up on my soapbox for a second. I’m gonna stand up here and glare at everyone else that’s standing on their soapboxes, telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, must and mustn’t do, and politely but firmly tell them to fuck off.

How’s that for setting the tone? Yes, I’m grumpy. Strap in, dear reader.

The question that many people seem to be asking/answering when addressing the submission/publication question is: What is a writer?

Is it someone that earns a living with their writing? Because if so, there are next to no writers left on the planet. Even the most successful, prolific authors in publication today would likely tell you that their novels do not pay their bills. Their books serve as a supplemental income to their careers as scientists, teachers, cashiers and cubicle dwellers. Sure, some authors strike gold. Unfortunately, some of the authors that do manage to earn a living wage writing fiction are…not very good.

Does being a writer mean you’ve been published? Uh…self-publication is so easily accessible in the year 2012 that describing oneself as a “self-published author” is roughly equivalent to saying, “I use the internet.” Yeah, congrats. So do the rest of us. Go sit back down.

Maybe being a writer means you’ve been published by a major publishing house? No, that can’t be right. We have all read books that clearly refute this criteria. Yes, there were pieces of paper between the books covers, and those pages were dotted with ink that appeared to forms words and phrases, but the end result was not writing. What heinous acts must’ve occurred behind closed doors at the publisher’s office in order for this particular piece of drivel to become a published work, we’ll never know. We can only shudder at the thought.

I know a lot of people make the argument, “Critiques, especially from people you don’t know, are invaluable.” Really? Invaluable? Maybe. But only if you’re incredibly lucky. Unvaluable, is much more likely. Someone who doesn’t know me will just as likely give my work a cursory glance as an actual, well-considered critique. (I have personal experience with this one. A few years ago I submitted a manuscript to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. My manuscript made it to the quarterfinals, and then met with a critiquer who admitted, “I don’t like science fiction,” and then proceeded to declare terrible things about my novel that were wholly untrue. Entirely unrelated to my work. It was obvious they hadn’t read my manuscript. But they still commented. Relentlessly. Needless to say I found the experience frustrating).

I guess I have a very particular, and very forgiving stance on this entire topic of being a writer: if you write, you are a writer. That’s it. Anyone that tells you differently is entitled to their opinion. But their opinion is wrong. If you write stories that no one ever reads except yourself, and the process is valuable to you: cathartic, stress-relieving, informative, invigorating, whatever, then fantastic! You’re a writer, and you’re writing for the most important reason: YOU.

As for the rest of it: seeking critiques, submitting for publication, etc., I think it’s all well and good if that’s what you want. If it isn’t, you won’t hear a peep of criticism from me. And on the flipside, if my approach to writing doesn’t match with yours, I kindly request that you keep your unsolicited opinion to yourself.

Now, as for my own, personal, non-judgmental approach to my own writing: I very much value critiques, both from people I know and people I do not know. People I know and respect as writers get a lot more attention from me than some anonymous buffoon shuffling through a slush pile or contest entries. That said, critiques from impersonal professionals can be absolutely invaluable, and when I get one of those critiques, I treat it as a rare and precious gift.

Yes, I have submitted a few things to publication houses, albeit sparingly. Unfortunately, I only get to seriously write for 30 days a year. I rarely have time outside of that window to even edit my work, and as a result, much of my rough drafts are not yet ready for prime time. I believe in them. I just know they’re not ready yet. I would very much like to get multiple manuscripts rewritten, edited, and sent out to agents and publishers, and I have the utmost respect for folks that do it, with even busier schedules than my own. I hope to join them someday. I aspire to having my work published by a serious publisher, and put out their for the masses to, hopefully, read and enjoy.

But if I don’t? if I never become a published author? That’s fine! I enjoy writing. I reap enormous rewards sharing the experience with others. Because they, like me, are writers. And I’m good with that.



  • I’m very glad that you posted this, Ted. I love that many people submit their work , but often I feel like others don’t take my writing seriously because I’ve never submitted anything. It’s not that I don’t want to, I just haven’t gotten to that point yet. I’ve never written anything I wanted to submit anywhere.

    Thank you for reminding me that I’m a writer because I write and I love it.

  • Kevin Wohler says:

    Ted, you’re so right. It really is a matter of definition. A writer is one who writes. Certainly this is true.

    When I talk about my writing and being writer, I’m thinking in terms of my intent to get published. And in terms of intent, if I hope one day to get published I must submit my writing to others. Perhaps “aspiring author” would be a better term for what I mean when I say “writer.”

    Every one of us in the Confabulator Cafe is submitting our work when we publish here. When we schedule our posts, we’re putting our words in front of the world. And we’re inviting critique when we do. I don’t know about you, but I do it to grow as a writer.

    The truth is there are many people who write for the pure joy of it. And if that’s all they need, that’s fine. But they may never improve their writing skills or grow as a writer.

    I think an aspiring author is one who is willing to put his or her work in front of other people, take criticism, and learn to be a better writer — all in hopes of getting published some day.

  • I appreciate this. My sister writes this huge series — and I mean, utter gigantic, hundreds of thousands of words in the same setting. But she, as of now, has no interest in seeking publication. She’s cool with what she’s got going on. I would argue with anyone who told me that she wasn’t a writer because she doesn’t pursue publication.

  • Ted Boone says:

    I’ve stirred the pot a bit. I feel like such a provacateur!

    Ashley & Christie: you’re welcome.

    Kevin: as a writer aspiring to get published, submitting is obviously necessary to the process. I do think that growing as a writer can be achieved outside the submission process, however. Even without peer review, one’s writer can improve via simple practice, informed lifetime experiences, reading other writer’s work, etc. Personally, like you, I find the critique process to be the most effective means of improving my writing. But it’s not the only tool in the box.

    Again, I want to clearly separate my personal aspirations from the defense of the…non-aspirational. I respect both viewpoints. But yeah, publication would be sweet!

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