When I tutored writing students, I would get asked this question regularly. When can I call myself a writer?
It’s not a straightforward one to answer. Yet on social media, I periodically see established writers be bluntly dogmatic about it: “If you write you’re a writer!” they insist. “End of!”
Except no, not ‘end of’ at all. If enough people new to writing are out there wondering about this, perhaps even agonising about it, then it deserves a considered response.
First, we need to distinguish several questions:
* “When am I a writer?”
* “When can I call myself a writer?”
* “When should I call myself a writer?”
Let’s look at them …
When am I a writer?
If you ask yourself this, let me first say that on the simplest, most basic level: yes, if you write you are a writer. But perhaps you also cook, swim or run, and would not ask whether you are a cook, swimmer or runner, and neither would you trouble Ainsley Harriot, Michael Phelps or Dame Kelly Holmes for their thoughts on the matter.
So this strikes me as a question unique to writing, and so something else must usually be going on that we need to unpick.
Do you feel insecure? That’s natural; all writers sometimes do. Do you feel you’ve perhaps not done sufficient writing to be a writer? Well, there’s no minimum qualifying amount needed. Do you feel you need to ask permission to join some writer ‘club’? You don’t, but if you do, most of us would grant it anyway. Or are you asking for some kind of coaching from the writing ether — some encouragement, support, guidance, or a confirmation of identity, to help you forward? Most of us will gladly give it.
Many people write. And you are, of course, a writer if you think you are a writer, and if thinking yourself ‘writer’ to support your self-belief in your writing, to validate the writing you will do, and to motivate you to do it, then great. Belief is often enough. No need to doubt or wonder or stress. Just be and do.
But when can you call yourself a writer?
Again, on a fundamental level, you are free to call yourself a writer whenever you wish. ‘Writer’ is not a protected title unlike, say, ‘dietitian’, and needs no qualification or achievement underpinning it. Some writers get a bit gatekeeper-y and upset that everyone seems to call themselves a writer these days, but I’m of the more-the-merrier school of thought.
When should you call yourself a writer?
However …. Once you call yourself or describe yourself as a writer, you are inviting the outside world — friends, family, fellow writers, editors, the wider public, strangers you meet — to engage with you as a writer, to make certain assumptions about you, to ask you certain questions.
“Who do you write for?” might be one such question.
You see, non-writers love to meet writers. There may be excitement if you answer ‘writer’ to ‘what do you do?’ and “OOH! Who do you write for? Have you written any books?” is a likely follow-up. And that’s the nice people. The not-so-nice might snootily ask “Would I have heard of you?”
Are you ready for this? Are you prepared to possibly disappoint someone, if you don’t yet write for any publication and have not yet published? Or aggravate someone who might doubt you?
And what about an editor? Describing yourself early on as a writer (or journalist, or author) might mislead someone in the business to think you’re more experienced than you are. This is unlikely to have a productive outcome, if they think you’ve over-sold yourself, as they well might.
If you’re OK with all this, then fine. But know that calling yourself ‘writer’ will have consequences, and you ought to think them all through, and be prepared to deal with them. Are you sure you’re ready? Do you have the confidence that might be needed?
So, in summary …
* You’re a writer when you think you’re a writer.
* You can call yourself a writer whenever you like.
* You should call yourself a writer whenever you’re ready to handle whatever the big world (good and bad) might send your way, both in attitude and consequence, and feel confident that your career (if that’s what you hope for) will benefit and not suffer.
But it’s up to you. Everyone is different. You may or may not yet be ready to use the W-word. And I’d like all experienced hands to bear in mind that some writers don’t want or feel ready to be ‘out’ writers, no matter how many motivational words and ‘end ofs’ you fling at them. They want to be modest, and private, and occupy a space with which they feel comfortable.
Anyone who tells you without qualification that you should call yourself a writer may think it makes them look supportive and pro-writerly, but to me, it makes them look like someone who has lost touch with what the writer’s life can be like at the very beginning — or someone who remains curiously unaware that writers’ characters and personalities are all different, often still changing and developing, and may be manifestly different to their own.