What constitutes a writer, and a good one, for that matter?


Basic conversation between myself and someone (outside of the literary community) inquiring about my major:
Person: So what’s your major?
Me: I’m majoring in English.
Person: Oh… So what are you going to do with that?
Me: Well I was planning to go to law school, but I think I’m going to pursue something more in the English field.
Person: Oh… So you want to be, like, a writer or something?
Me: Umm well I sort of already am one… I think…
Person: Oh wow! What did you get published?
Me: Well… Nothing, yet.
Person: So how are you a writer?

Many current English majors are stuck in this really weird Writer’s Limbo, like the one exemplified above— myself included— between average person and inspiring writer. So many of us actively seek the validation that publication brings, but have not yet gotten that lucky email reading:

Congratulations (Enter Super Awesome Writer’s Name)!
The (Enter Super Awesome Publication’s Name) has decided to accept your work for publication for our next (Journal, Chapbook, Poetry Book, Short Story, Screenplay, Novella, Novel)! You will be receiving an edition in the mail. Please send us more work, you are super awesome.

(Enter Person Who is More Established than You’s Name)
(Enter Super Awesome Publication’s Name)

I see these beautiful, beautiful words in my dreams every night, but my dreams of professional status have yet to come true. So this has me thinking… Am I a writer even though I’m not published? Some people don’t think so. Many people consider the “prestige” of publication necessary to consider someone a writer— even if the “hard-hitting insightful article” is published on some stupid, mindless website like “totalfratmove” or “totalsororitymove” .com. Sometimes I come across these shallow and ridiculous articles on Facebook and click on them just to read them out of spite and scoff at them— I skip down to the “Artist Bio” and think to myself, this person isn’t a writer, why are they published, and I’m not?

Those who consider published work necessary to defining a “writer” usually exist outside of the literary community; and I’d like to think that, as someone who exists within the boundaries of the literary community, I am qualified to say that their one-sided definition of a writer is utterly and completely wrong. Many famous writers were unpublished, or only published very briefly, and didn’t achieve a high level of publication and notoriety until after their deaths, like Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau. They were still writers, and great ones, even as they existed under the radar of the public scope. Likewise, I know many writers, which I also consider to be good writers, who are completely unpublished; many of them are my peers, and I’d like to say that I also belong to this group. I hope that we all escape the Writer’s Limbo before our deaths, which will hopefully not come premature like so many of the great writers who came before us. Because of all this, I am inclined to say that someone who is unpublished can be a writer, and not everyone who is published is necessarily a writer. So if the status of publication does not constitute a writer, what does?

The question of what constitutes a writer seems so simple, but there are many implications that make it much more difficult to answer than it would seem. Is a writer anyone who scribbles something down on a sheet of paper, or types an email on a laptop? I’d like to think that it’s a little more complicated than that. In some way, shape, or form, all college students are required to write during some point of their college career, but does this make all college students writers? However, no one wants to just be considered a writer, they want to be considered a good writer; and this brings forth a question that is perhaps even more challenging to answer than the former: what constitutes a good writer? These two questions bring a lot to the table, and before I came up with concrete answers to them, I thought it’d be helpful to ask a couple of my fellow college students— all with a wide variety of backgrounds and relationships with writing— what they thought.

Adrienne Dunham is an International Studies major at DePaul. Her thoughts on the first question were, “A writer is someone who translates their thoughts from mind to paper.” She struggled a bit more with the next question, but eventually concluded, “To be a good writer, you have to be able to take on different positions, whether its academic writing, creative writing, or something different entirely; a good writer should be able to convey their message through any genre of writing.”

A student in DePaul’s Public Relations and Advertising program, Mary Hoerner, asserted, “A writer can be anyone who writes, but a good writer is someone who writes something interesting that people care about; something that people are willing to take the time out of their day to read.”

Maggie Arndt is also in the PR/ Advertising program at DePaul, though she had a much different answer to the question. She claimed, “A writer is someone who expresses themselves creatively through words, and a good writer is someone who writes with a purpose and has a thesis.”
Marketing major at DePaul, Ben Keyport, had a short, sweet, and simple answer, saying: “Writers explain, good writers inspire.”

Sam Baines is different from the rest of the students I asked, as he hails from England, where he attends Birmingham City University, and is only in Chicago for an internship. Despite this, his answer sort of echoed those above. He explained, “A writer is someone who writes, but a good writer is someone who writes works that speak to people, people care about, and that people can relate to.”

DePaul Writing Center employee and English Literary Studies major, Alex Chomik said, “At the Writing Center, they say anyone who writes is a writer, but I don’t agree, because we all write every day, and this definition means that anyone with a Twitter account can be considered a writer. A writer is someone who sits down to write, not because they have to, but because they want to; writers have no other medium to express themselves besides writing. Good writers are usually fucked up people. A good writer is someone who has mastered ekphrasis in the sense of transforming thought to written word, with all types of writing, whether it’s realistic or fantastical; and a good writer is one who has universality within their work, and can resonate with a wide variety of people.”

Rory Mencin is double majoring in Sociology and English with a creative writing concentration. He claimed, “A writer is someone who writes because he or she feels that they have to write as a medium to express oneself, and if he or she considers themselves a writer, no one else can tell them differently. The difference between a writer and a good writer is that good writers are masters of imagery, and have the ability to convey thoughts and emotions coherently through writing, so that other people can understand the message they’re trying to get across.”

It is interesting to see how students with varying majors think much differently about what constitutes a writer and a good writer. Despite their background and relationship with writing, everyone I asked these questions had difficulty forming an answer. The lines of definition of a writer are not bold and clear, but rather fuzzy and dashed. However, not one of the students even considered publication as an aspect that constitutes a writer.

It is apparent that the students with less creative majors, like Marketing, Advertising, and Psychology, had a little bit more general definition of a writer, basically, anyone who writes. They also mostly attributed good writing to writing that people care to read. Though I agree with this to an extent, my definition is a little less clear cut.

The two English majors, although they came from differing concentrations of Literary Studies and Creative writing, had similar ideas as to what constitutes a writer, having to do with the need for creative expression. This goes hand-in-hand with their definitions of good writers: having to do with creatively expressing their thoughts in an effective way.

It is not surprising that my definition of a writer and a good writer aligns more with the other English majors. I do not think that just anyone who writes is a writer. Alex brought up a point that really struck me with the example of Twitter. In today’s society, mostly everyone is literate. Everyone reads and writes, mostly every day. But I do not think those who post mindless tweets and Facebook status updates about the anti-climactic events of their day— blahblahblah tweeted: took my dog 4 walk got some fro yo now watching Netflix!— are writers. To me, a writer is someone that feels the need to write, for their own benefit. You might have to write a paper for your class, but if that’s the extent of your writing career, I do not consider you a writer. Writers have creative minds, and often feel overwhelmed by the sea of thoughts perpetually floating in their heads; and the only way to ease the multitude of thoughts is to get some of them out on paper. Writing is a medium for creative expression, just as art and music is. However, I also agree with Rory’s point that if you consider yourself a writer, no one can say otherwise, which brings back the aspect of publication. If you consider yourself to be a writer, regardless of your publication status, and of whether or not anyone even reads your work, you are a writer. Writers may want to be published, but initially, writers write for themselves as a way to express their ideas and emotions, and it is, in a way, almost therapeutic. For me, being a writer is not so much about putting a pen to a piece of paper, it’s really about using writing as a tool to harness one’s thoughts, and ease the trials and tribulations of life.

A good writer is trickier to define. On the contrary to some of my peers, I do not necessarily attribute good writing to writing about things that people care about. In that definition, someone could define The Twilight Series as good writing— I need not say more. And to be honest, I could give two shits about writing about things that people care to read. I think that’s definitely a component to successful writing, but once again, not all successful writing is good writing. A good writer is someone who is able to arrange their words in a matter that effectively conveys their intended message, while remaining captivating and thought provoking. Good writers’ work is not just the story that sits on the surface level, but it has deeper meaning to it. However, they do not have to come straight out and explain the deeper meaning in a rudimentary way, rather, they display their message through imagery, characterization, and allusions. If there is no deeper meaning to the story being read, and you don’t have to think about it too much (ex. Twilight), I do not consider it to be good writing. When I say deeper meaning, I am referring to a meaning that displays some aspect of the human condition, whether that be love, loneliness, religion, or something else entirely. The component of deeper meaning is what makes the work speak to and resonate with a wide variety of people; so instead of writing to purely appeal to a wide audience, write something thought provoking and beautiful, and the universality will come naturally.

If you want to be a writer, and a good one for that matter, then write. Write every day. Write for yourself. Write what you’re feeling. Write what you see. Write what you know, or even what you don’t. Just write. Don’t overly-concern yourself with being published, if you keep writing, your beautiful, beautiful email will eventually come.

Arndt, Maggie. Personal interview. 13 Mar. 2014.
Baines, Sam. Personal interview. 15 Mar. 2014.
Chomik, Alex. Personal interview. 15 Mar. 2014.
Dunham, Adrienne. Personal interview. 16 Mar. 2014.
Hoerner, Mary. Personal interview. 14 Mar. 2014.
Keyport, Ben. Personal interview. 15 Mar. 2014.
Mencin, Rory. Personal interview. 12 Mar. 2014.


3 responses »

  1. being a writer isn’t a profession – it’s a way of living. Just like a buddhist or a gardener – a buddhist fines the teachings of Buddha in every day living, and lives by them. A gardener does not have to have their flowers win awards to be considered a gardener.

  2. I think writer is someone who is special as he is conveying his message to many out in the world , it is not necessary that all agree with him , but he is one at least to have courage as expresses what he thinks … I think writing is very hard…
    even after reading this post I am confused in my mind about that fact who is actually a writer…
    But i must say that it is an informative post as you have written the definitions by many …
    Thank you for a nice share.

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