Why It's Not Clear When It Is Time to Call Yourself a Writer
In most professions, your job title is in place the moment you begin work. You’re officially a doctor or a teacher or a babysitter, for instance, when you first put on your lab coat, walk into the classroom, or sit on the baby (what, they love it!)
A writer, however, must earn their title on the job through meeting certain criteria, meaning you can call yourself a writer only after requisite hard work, production, and engagement in the broader literary field.
There’s no outside institution handing the title over, no ceremony, and no special outfit (unless sweats count). There’s no precise moment when your alarm goes off alerting you that that’s the day.
In fact, it’s that your alarm goes off every day, which is what makes you a writer.
How Do You Know When Exactly It's Time to Call Yourself a Writer?
Often, a person begins calling themselves a writer in one of two ways:
I. When you’re struck by the realization that you’ve become a writer in an unassuming moment:
- Recognizing that your life is hinged on writing
- Looking back and seeing how writing has become a regular natural part of your daily life
- You think of yourself as a writer and that title feels just right.
II. It also happens when a person tests the title out on others either as an experiment or by accident, and delighted, surprised, or a combo of the two, they decide then and there to let it stick.
When the realization hits, it’s a special time. It means you’ve arrived and now belong to an exciting group of people both now and throughout history.
True, this measuring stick is as subjective as it gets, but that’s part of the magic of it.
But Why Wait? There's Power in Suggestion
Of course, you could conceivably call yourself a writer from day one. Doing this might inspire you to show up to your new life of letters with more enthusiasm and dedication than were you to live in the no-person’s land of being title-less while you toil away.
But it’s only after you’ve met the criteria that show you and the world you’re a practitioner of your craft who has earned their place at the table and is legitimately part of the inner circle that you can embody the role of writer.
The 3 Criteria That Indicate You’re a Writer
If you’re not a fan of giving yourself a job title based on a realization smacking you upside the head when you least expect it (and fair enough, it doesn’t sound quite as professional when it’s positioned like that), you can use the following 3 criteria to more calculatedly determine when it’s your time to call yourself a writer:
(1) Time spent
(2) Application of ideas
(3) Regular practice & discipline
Malcolm Gladwell has famously talked about how one becomes proficient at something by putting in 10,000 hours of focused deliberate work (give or take).
If one were to apply that number of hours to writing in a realistic context, meaning how many hours per day one can feasibly write before their eyes cross, it could look like spending roughly 3 hours per day for 9 years writing and/or thinking about writing.
But you do not have to reach the subjective point of “proficiency” to call yourself a writer.
You only need to be actively engaged in doing the work with dedication and discipline and have curated a life that supports you doing the work. If these apply to you, you’re within your right to enjoy calling yourself a writer way earlier than 9 years out.
Application of Ideas
Application simply means you’re putting yourself into the environment of making, showing up, and being present to your ideas enough to articulate them on the page.
You may go through difficult periods: a lousy writing day or week or month, or times when it feels like you’re trying to catch pebbles falling from your brain, but no matter: if you’re regularly showing up and producing anything at all, that’s what makes you a writer.
A writer treats their writing like a job. A terribly paid one, but a job nonetheless.
This means treating the writing not like it’s a negotiation or subject to your mood but like a fixed entity in your life. So even when your friends are getting together for brunch, even when you have to get your kid to soccer practice, even when the house is a disaster, and most of all even (and especially) when you feel like an impostor, a hack, or fear you can’t write your way out of a series of paper bags and would rather put your head into a street sinkhole and leave it there than write, you show up.
This 3-strand criteria braid of time spent, application of ideas, and discipline are what make you a writer.
Still Not Sure? Use The "Am I a Writer?" Rubric:
- Do you write or engage in writing on a regular or consistent basis?
- Do you seek out those who write as companions or friends?
- Do you pursue learning more about writing, literature, and ideas in your field or across the disciplines?
- Do you write regardless of others’ ideas about you as a writer or their judgement?
- Do you write even when you don’t want to?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, you’re good to go!
Debunking Common Myths
Commonly, people will shy away from calling themselves writers for fear of assuming membership in a club to which they don’t belong. “Oh, I’m not a writer” is something we hear often from people who write a lot, are avid readers, and who are engaged in improving their craft and moving to new levels in their work.
The shyness typically comes from these people believing commonly peddled myths about what makes a writer a writer.
The following are the most common myths that prevent people who have all the requisite chops from feeling like they have the right to call themselves writers.
You Need to Hold a Degree in Writing or Have an MFA
A degree (undergraduate or graduate) in writing is a lovely thing to have, but it’s not a necessary prerequisite to being a writer.
Most writers throughout history became writers by reading, studying the craft, engaging in ideas, and writing.
James Baldwin had a high school diploma, William Faulkner, Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens didn’t finish college, and Cormac McCarthy started college but left mid-way to join the U.S. Air Force.
As for modern writers, while many have MFAs, many do not (including such household names as Elizabeth Gilbert, Colson Whitehead, Arundhati Roy, and J.K. Rowling).
Certainly, while attending a degree program, taking courses, working with a mentor or writing coach, and engaging in self-study all enhance a writer’s practice and ability, these things alone do not make a person a writer.
You Need to Be Published and/or Have an Agent
An agent and publications are wonderful, but they’re the cap on the pen, not the pen itself.
Naturally most writers have the goal of publishing their work (as they should!). It’s exciting to add your ideas to the canon, keep conversation flowing, and help the world move in exciting new circles by bringing your work into the public realm.
But being published does not make one a writer. There are uncountable excellent writers out there who write with seriousness, discipline, and intent and either haven’t tried or haven’t caught a break with publication.
Look at Emily Dickinson, who was no slouch in the writing department. She published fewer than a dozen of her 1,800 poems during her lifetime.
You Need to Earn a Living From Your Writing
If only! Unless you’re one of the elite few household names, such as J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, or Stephen King to name the highest-earning glitterati, making a living exclusively from selling your books and short works pays anywhere from fine to not much.
(Lest those big advances some writers get sound pretty awesome to you, pause to spread them out as an income over the 3-10+ years it took the writer to write their book, and then that sum doesn’t sound as exciting. Or like it could come close to paying one’s electric bill).
Jane Austin was a bestselling author during her time and remains a household name through today, but during her life, she earned a pittance for her writing.
[As did Edgar Allen Poe, Franz Kafka, and Marcel Proust. Zip, zilch, nada.]
To supplement their income, or simply to stay matriculated in amongst people and peers, most writers take on writing-adjacent jobs such as teaching, editing, freelance writing, or working as book coaches and mentors.
(Our entire creative team of writing coaches, editors, and mentors are all working writers with several publications under their belts.) What better way to use what they are, know, and love, than to nurture and support fellow writers in their own writing journey?
The writers who do this kind of work do so to matriculate in the world they care about most, bring in fresh perspectives and conversations about writing, and support others in the field knowing it all enhances their own writing and approach to their work.
Other writers seem to swing in the opposite direction by doing work that’s completely unrelated to writing, leaving themselves fresh for when they get to sit down to their “other job.”
Elizabeth Gilbert worked as a bartender, waitress, and trail cook believing “writers find stories not in a seminar room but by investigating the world.” Charles Bukowski worked for the U.S. Postal Service, and poet Wallace Stevens worked in insurance.
Being Honest with Yourself, Setting Goals, and Knowing You're a Writer in Your Bones
Because there’s no person pinning a name tag to your shirt, it’s ultimately between you and your gut-level feeling that will tell you when it’s time to call yourself a writer. To support your intuition and feel legitimate about embodying the title, use the 3 criteria to identify at what point you should let yourself enjoy being one of the elite few in the world who affect change with their ideas.
Being a writer is a difficult, sweaty, poorly remunerated business, but the spiritual, intellectual, and community reward—both personal and professional—is thrilling. Once you’ve put in the time, produced the work, and made writing and considering ideas a fundamental part of your life, you not only can but should call yourself a writer.
Check out these writers’ a-ha moments when they just “knew.” When it happens to you, you’ll know it’s true, and the odd heady hot and cold flush that comes with the realization, or the very practical nod of acknowledgement, will be your entry: the moment you’ve arrived.