Updated: Oct 31, 2020
As important as it is to decide if you’re really a writer, it’s important to decide what type of writer you are. When I consult with would-be writers and ask about their particular writing style, genre, goals, etc., I get a myriad of answers, most of which aren’t legitimate responses to my question.
It is the equivalent of telling someone, “I’m an athlete,” but not saying what you do that makes you an athlete. Do you play rugby, basketball, football, soccer, or run track? What is your position? Are you a flanker, forward, running back, goalkeeper, or a sprinter?
For example, I am an author who writes both fiction and non-fiction. As a non-fiction writer, I focus on penning memoirs and essays that seek to encourage and motivate. As a fiction writer, I primarily write literary fiction. For me, the story must unfold through the lives of the characters, and the point is to portray the complexity of humanity.
Once you understand the type of writing you prefer, you can identify what your goals are.
Are you looking to become rich and famous with many titles on bestseller lists, or are you longing to write something that will change the world and possibly net you some awards, even if it doesn’t provide you a big payday? Are you hoping to be known as an expert in your field? Perhaps you’ve got a book stirring in you, and you just want to write it and move on to your next adventure. Your writing will lack clarity and concision if you are not sure what you are writing and why.
When I finally went back to school, majoring in psychology, I had taken so many English classes the first time around that it was unnecessary to take more. So I went on with my coursework hell-bent on understanding human behavior and all but ignoring any desire to become a writer.
It wasn’t until my last couple of semesters when I enrolled in a creative writing course to fulfill an elective, I entertained becoming a writer. I enjoyed the coursework, learning the basic elements of creating, writing, and then using them to build a story.
My professors had routinely remarked how well my papers were crafted, but this course pushed me past just writing to thinking up and becoming different people, characters and going to different places. It was my creative writing teacher who asked me if I had considered writing because she believed I had the elements necessary to become good at it.
It still took another four years before I finished my first book Leaving With My Marbles: Finding the Courage to Walk Away Intact, and it wasn’t even the book I had planned to write. The terror that overtook me when I published it two years ago is only now dissipating as I push past my fears.
Once something goes public, you become fair game for both legitimate and illegitimate critiques, and some reviews I received, along with my disappointment over errors in the publication, created a love-hate relationship with the project.
Add all of that to launching a publishing company, and the constant ridicule has given me pause more than once. Steadily, who I am and my goals as a writer must come against what is said of me, good or bad. Navigating criticism and cruelty is an integral part of being an author.
Then there is making a living as a writer. Joanna Penn is a rare New York Times and USA Today bestseller, who is also a prolific self-published writer. She writes fiction but she is popular for her "how-to-write" books. In her book titled How I Make a Living With My Writing, she tells writers how she earns a six-figure income as a writer.
Early in the publication, she notes, “There have been a number of surveys in recent years that report the average income for authors. Most range between US$5,000 and US$30,000 per year.”
That sounds about right.
In her blog post Making a Living as a Writer, Jennifer Ellis says:
“It’s estimated that fewer than 1000 fiction writers in North America make a living from their writing. If we exclude Canada, this is 1 in 314,000 people. Slightly better chances than winning the lottery (1 in 18,000,000) or being struck by lightning (1 in 3,140,000), but decidedly less better than earning an income through other means, like say being a brain surgeon, accountant, restaurant worker, or military test pilot.
In the traditionally-published world, I realized that there are many published, award-winning writers who make less than $10,000 a year off their writing alone and manage to cobble together a living by teaching at universities, doing speaking engagements, and running workshops. Even relatively successful mid-list writers who manage to graze the bottom of the New York Times Best Seller List can still make only $30,000 to $60,000 a year."
Chasing income may not be a realistic goal for every writer. Of course, I want to make money, but I also want to write well and publish meaningful projects. I can't be the author Joanna Penn is because aggregating tons of information and synthesizing it into books about writing books makes me want to run and hide. I have determined that I am not the kind of writer who could commit to that process. My path is different, and that is just fine.
If trying to put food on the table as a writer does not send you into a tailspin, then the other sacrifices your writing will ask of you might. Every profession requires a level of discipline, a tenacity to give it everything you’ve got to succeed.
For example, Kobe Bryant was an exceptional athlete. At his untimely passing, I marveled at what others said of him. He was known as much for the talent he displayed when everyone was watching as he was for his work ethic behind the scenes. The early morning practices when others were sleeping in, the push past pain, the rigor he put himself through.
He said, “There’s a choice that we have to make as people, as individuals. If you want to be great at something, there’s a choice you have to make. What I mean by that is, there are inherent sacrifices that come along with that.”
Are you too busy, too preoccupied, too otherwise consumed, too selfish, too lazy, too unrealistic to commit to your writing? If you are overly beholden to ideologies or too free-spirited to focus, your writing might be stilted. Should you find yourself only able to create when a timeline is looming, you may be exchanging masterpieces for crappy, rushed writing.
If you find it difficult to quiet all the noise that will try to encroach on your writing, you may never become more than a person who talks about writing.
I am neither attempting to discourage or encourage you. I am, however, intentionally tearing up your I Dream of Being a Writer manuscript into tiny little pieces and taking those pieces out to the incinerator.
Start over! Begin with the understanding of who you are as a writer and what you hope to accomplish with your writing. Then decide if you are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get there. In your mind’s eye, write a realistic story about who you are and how far you are willing to go to make money, become a best-selling author, or at least complete a writing project.
Who are you as a writer? What type of writer are you? What sacrifices are you willing to make to be a great writer?
Now write it down and refer to it every time an opportunity or idea comes along that does not align with your writing essence.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert, best known for her book Eat, Pray, Love, once talked about Jack Gilbert (of no relation) speaking to a college student enrolled in his class. This student was an accounting major, but Professor Gilbert, a master at poetry, recognized her talent and held her after class to talk to about it.
He asked her what she planned to do, to which she responded, “I want to be a writer.”
Professor Gilbert then said to her, “Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside of you are hoping you will say yes.”
No matter what kind of writer you are, say yes.