Writers Are…

What do you think of when you think of “a writer”? What adjectives do you tack on in front of the term to somehow separate yourself from, say, Stephen King or J.K. Rowling? I think we’re all setting our sights way too low. The real goal should be to write a book, throw parts of the manuscript into a cave, and watch it become a worldwide bestseller two thousand years from now.

Too high? Maybe. God only knows…

Re-reading chapter two of The Right to Write, I’m grateful for the experiences that led me to my attitudes about what it is to be a writer. My parents always encouraged me, whether it was in reading, writing, learning, playing – my mom set up a cork board in my room and pinned writing prompts to it. She was so far ahead of her time, and I wasn’t even home-schooled, more’s the pity. I’m ashamed to confess that these had about the same effect as the gold and silver stickers on book covers; I avoided them as if they were filled with baby spiders.

But still, I loved to write. And that passion was ignited in sixth grade. English, which we now call “Language Arts,” became less about syntax rules and diagramming sentences and living in the fear that Mrs. C__ might catch us chewing gum in public, and more about expressing, in words, all the wondrous things going on in our imaginations – if we still had anything left of them after all the sentence-diagramming, spelling tests, and rote memorization of the rules. “i before e, except after c, but always remember, it’s you before me.” Something like that. Don’t knock rote memorization; it gets the job done quickly, so kids can move on, confidently, to the fun stuff – having earned it. I’d be sunk if it weren’t for memorizing the times tables in math. It’s only when we get old and our memories start to falter that it seems like such a chore; young brains can memorize facts, daydream, and do back-flips at the same time, and repetition helps to engrave useful facts into the furrows of our gray matter so we won’t forget our grammar in our eighties. That said, I’ve never had a desperate need to recall the exact date Vasco de Gama finally found India by way of the sea. For that, there’s Google.

Anyway, my sixth grade English teacher – might have been seventh, now that I think about it – asked us to write an essay. I don’t remember what I wrote. I do remember taking pen and note pad down to the lake, along with my dog, where I sat on an old log and wrote. It was winter, and it was cold. But the act of writing warmed me, and I didn’t think much of it. I turned in that essay, and when it came back to me, covered in red ink, I was…


Mrs. T__ had taken the time, not only to read, but to offer suggestions and encouragement. There were as many words of praise as there were of criticism, and she took pains to ensure that I understood what she meant in her corrections. We talked, briefly, after class. She said something like, “Keep writing,” and I took it to mean, “Keep writing and give me all your scribbles.” She kindly continued to read, even when the work wasn’t part of an assignment. And she continued to spill red ink on everything I wrote, egging me on even more.

I’ve never really understood why some people fear and loathe red ink. Maybe they weren’t all so lucky to have a Mrs. T___ in their lives. Maybe they had evil, envious, embittered Ednas to suck out parts of their souls and possess their withered shells.

[tweet “Maybe they had evil, envious, embittered Ednas to suck out parts of their souls and possess their withered shells.”]

Or maybe I’m just thick-skinned and oblivious to the evil, envious, and embittered Ednas of the world. I probably have Jack to thank for that. He hired me for my first real writing job – as a technical writer. Jack had noticed that I asked a lot of questions and took good notes, and he needed someone to write documentation. His first, best advice to me was to “let go of any pride of authorship.” He explained that there would be many reviewers, many corrections to be made, and many opinions on how best to present the information. At some point, you had to stick a fork in it, declare it “good enough,” and move on to the next project. Perfection was a personal problem, and something to be chased off the clock, on your own time.

Accuracy, clarity and usefulness, on the other hand, were important. I added one other criteria to the list: the documentation should not be mind-numbingly dull or unnecessarily long. My yardstick? I’d been a systems engineer, for two whole years, despite having no formal training in computer science – and having never written a line of code. If one of my jobs bombed at 3:00 AM, I had to fix it – brain dead or not. The last thing I needed was a sedative in the form of rambling prose. I just needed straight answers.

Most of the freelance work I’ve landed has come about because of this principle, codified in the 1980s “Total Quality Management” philosophy that “quality” means “meets the customer’s reasonable expectations, on time, and within budget.” Not because of some hyped notion of exceeding expectations – which is often appallingly easy. It’s not hard at all to exceed expectations when an editor calls you in a panic because the first writer they lined up wrote a small novel instead of 400 words, and never touched on the assigned topic, and they have a column to fill by morning.

I can get angsty with the best of them on my own time, though. Jack should never have planted the suggestion that that was okay.

Write With Me


The next “initiation tool” asks us to make a list of ten “hidden associations” we have with the word “writer,” and then to convert the negatives into positives. My first thought is, “What negatives?” But fine, let’s play this game:

Writers are playful.
This one’s true. I’m wicked playful with words, and admire those who are even moreso, like my friend James David Audlin, whose talent for crafting a pun is legendary. Friends know that I don’t really edit their IMs and emails, but that I have no restraint and cannot promise not to exploit a funny typo for every last drop of humor. 

Writers are precise.
I value precision, clarity, and interesting word choices. But I often ramble and beat around the bush.

Writers are afraid to commit.
I’m afraid of marring the pristine page with unworthy words. This is where technology has been a boon to writers; we don’t seem to mind killing a million pixels with a few taps on the keys nearly as much as we mind the haunting notion of an entire forest of old pine being sacrificed, screaming, in the name of paper for our scribbles.

Writers are lazy.
Guilty as charged. If it weren’t for readers, I could spend my life lost in my own imagination, content to daydream and rest my weary fingers. Then again, a girl’s gotta eat.

Writers are nitpicky.
Language has power and meaning. The wrong word choice could, theoretically, trigger WWIII. Or turn you into a trending Twitter hashtag. Carelessly tossing words like confetti confuses readers; self-proclaimed “experts” doing it confuses foreigners who are sincerely trying to learn and expand their communication skills. In that case, I’m all for tossing in a few words that drive readers to a dictionary – it’s all in the name of learning. The only reason I’m ‘nitpicky’ about minor mechanical errors is that my fingers literally feel every typo, and when I read others’ work that’s riddled with glaring typos, my hands itch to correct them and I start rummaging around for a Sharpie marker. Life’s too short for that, so I do wish others were more concerned with their spelling, grammar, and apostrophe use. If I were a professional editor, I’d welcome it – provided you could spare a cool $65/hour to let me relieve my mental itchiness.

Writers are imaginative.
Oh, you have no idea…children are imaginative; writers are people who never outgrew their imaginary friends and fantasy realms. We just call them “characters” and “settings,” now, so we don’t get locked in padded cells and have them medicated right out of us. Writers quickly learn to sublimate; we refuse to repress and supress.

Writers are earning six-figure advances.
Some of them, maybe… not this one.

Writers are people who love to go on tour and do book signings.
We love the idea of it, but many of us are introverts who’d rather hire a body-double to do it.

Writers are prolific word-cranking machines who cannot live without writing.
Nope. This is the one that’s hardest to admit; I don’t know that I could live the rest of my life without writing, but it is not a driving, demonic force that consumes my every waking thought, believe it or not. See “Writers are lazy,” above.

Writers are…people, who write.
Pretty much. Of course, there are people who say, “I wish I were a writer,” when what they really mean is, “I wish I were a famous author making six-figure advances.” The irony is that the latter won’t happen unless you do the Writer’s ABCs (“Apply Butt to Chair” and write). That’s not very glamorous, and it’s the one point that separates the writer from the non-writer. The writer writes. Something. Eventually. Whether it’s any good or not.


27 thoughts on “Writers Are…”

  1. Hi Holly,
    1. I love King and Rowling
    2. You did a wonderful job on this. A great tribute to, defense of, writers.
    3. Is this rebloggable? I don’t see a reblog button.
    4. Perhaps one of the reason that people have a negative impressison of writing is this: In school they make students grow up writing standards. Thus, people end up with an impression that writing is punishment.
    Nice job.

    1. Good morning, Janice! I wish I understood this concept of “reblogging” better. Can you copy it and repost it? No. Quote from it and link to it? Of course! If we need to ask that, then the Internet as we know it is deader than a doornail. That used to be the whole point, didn’t it? 🙂

      I’ll look into this “reblog button,” but honestly not sure I understand the concept or why I’d want to make everything “rebloggable.” (There IS an RSS feed, and some days I’m not entirely sure I want to do that, either.) If that’s the option in Jetpack that said, “This lets us copy all your stuff to our servers and grants us a perpetual license to blah blah blah” that’s probably why I didn’t activate it. But I’ll look again.

      Hope you’re having a great weekend!

  2. I can’t compose my comment offline and paste it, unless I preface it with at least 10 typed words. 🙂

    Whee! I’m a writer. My chair has definitely molded to my … oh, never mind that. I agree that the definition is dependent upon the application of a fertile imagination to a page.
    The good or not qualifier should take the pressure off, too. LOL

    In a way, I have a burning desire to create content, so I don’t think I’m lazy. My challenge is to stay motivated enough to fully translate the weird paracosm into a story, board game, or cool software.

    Kudos to you, Holly, for recognizing the two extremes of the craft: Lost manuscripts and robotic production.



    1. That’s the sort of comment that separates the coders from the rest of the commenters. Most people just say “Why can’t I compose offline and paste my comment in? I think something’s broken.” 🙂

      Ten words and a few key-ups, but I won’t say just how many. Publicize it, and I may have to change the number. I won’t be changing it to a lower number, so choose your words wisely. LOL

      I think my butt has molded to the shape of my chair, not the other way around. (Horrifying fact: I can name some people’s profession just by seeing their butt to rest-of-body proportions. I suggest we all get up and walk around more at work, if we have that luxury.)

      We all have a burning desire “to have written,” Mitch. “To have published.” It shouldn’t be such a challenge to motivate us into doing it.

    1. And THAT made my day! Because once again – this is where I run into problems with the “I write for myself, only!” crowd – if it was just me, having fun in public, then blogging would be kind of selfish and pointless. But if what I write is something you or others can relate to, and things click into place and help you understand yourself better, or give you new ideas, or spark a conversation – well, that’s what makes it worth doing.

      And good morning. 🙂

  3. Writers write,
    Travelers travel,
    Photographers take pictures,
    And somehow, somewhere along the way,
    Providence provides.

    Thank you for the morning jolt of inspiration.

      1. The road trip is coming along beautifully. I am uncharacteristically at ease this time. Usually I’m all stressed out and worried about how I would survive while on the road.

        I am currently in Paris and I posted a picture of the Eiffel Tower on Facebook yesterday. Did you see it?

  4. Another thought-provoking post, Holly. What I want, as a writer, is a way to bypass all the physical writing, typing, etc. and have the words go directly from brain to computer document. The movie is already in the head, but the transferring is a pain.

    1. YES! Me, too. Well, some days. I’d also like a dream recorder. One that records all the graphical images of the dream as if on video. (It’d probably be grossly disappointing in the morning to realize that what seemed exciting and blockbuster-worthy during the dream was really disjointed, incoherent, and rambling on replay – think of all the money, then, to be made in creating the editing software!

  5. This be one of your best writings. In a year you should recycle it with new thoughts. I saved the link.

  6. We shall wait 365 days and see what goes on!
    Tick, tick, tick…….
    HJ: We have ways of making you Talk.
    Toc, toc, toc…..
    How could I resist!?

    I could write a Bond script with an evil Texan Blond Bond Bombshell Girl. But I will not. She’d probably win!

      1. Of course ….. Bond has to have an HP Laptop!

        Maybe the Blonde could be good, not evil. But then she would be a Bond Girl. (She’s not the type?!!!!!!!)
        We have to figure out a problem: The first Bond Girl to live.
        Hum. Maybe. She has to go to work in the morning.
        Problem solved. Bond gets driven to madness, by LOL cats.

        I once had a nightmare with 4 Princesses…..
        And The Daniel Craig Bond. Who wanted 4 Bond Girls.
        I barely escaped with my life. Good thing Bond’s phone rang….
        Good thing the 6 or 7 year old showed up.
        The (now 5) Bond Girls got out OK.

  7. The hazards of insomnia. Besides, I had a nappy this afternoon.
    But good night, sleep tight, don’t let the spiders bite.
    At least, not if Texas has the same kind Arizona had.
    Now you know why I am so paranoid or arachnids.

    1. Spiders, rattlesnakes…we’ve got it all, here in Texas, but I can still say “Thank God we don’t have all the nasties Australia’s got.” At least most of the stuff here in Texas that can bite and kill you gives you a little time to get to the ER for an antidote.

      Sweet dreams.

  8. I feel like I’m late to the party. lol

    You know I love to write. I don’t do as well with nonfiction, although a short story I wrote got kudos at my writers group the other day; I’ll take what I can get.

    I want to be a professional writer… to a degree. I know the thing about “let go of any pride of authorship”; have to admit I haven’t fully overcome that one yet. Some years ago I was writing a lot for other people and they got the credit while I got the money. However, the caveat was I could write whatever I wanted as long as it was on topic and however I wanted, without having to fit into someone else’s scheme; that was okay for me.

    Now… I’m at the age where I want the credit.So, I just need to write more and put out more original stuff and see where it takes me… even if it ends up taking me nowhere. After all, a writer just writes… right? lol

    1. RIGHT!!

      Other than fiction, my professional writing gigs have rarely, if ever, allowed me the complete freedom to write whatever I wanted and still get paid for it. I could put my own slant on a thing; I could pick and choose focus areas. But generally speaking, a work for hire is just that – and people don’t often hire writers without having a fairly clear idea of what they want those writers to write about. “Fill the page with words” is rarely the goal. But I like being creative within parameters – it’s like working a puzzle (I find number puzzles merely frustrating, but writing sonnets or “a 400 word article on the challenges facing the U.N. today” can be fun).

      Think about it – if you speak a second language, people will come up to you and say, “Say something in [whatever the language is].” Suddenly, your mind goes blank. You have studied this language for YEARS and have many things to say – and yet, you’re tongue-tied. That’s writer’s block. If someone says, “Order dinner in [name of the language],” it’s so much easier. You still have plenty of room to get creative, but they’ve narrowed the scope – given you parameters to work within – and it’s easier to quickly come up with something to say.

      To me, that’s what writer’s block often really is – having too much to say and no parameters. It’s overwhelming. Where do you begin? You have to narrow the topic. Some people never seem to have this problem. Others – well, it’s as if someone’s laid out the whole smorgasbord of everything in the world, and you only have the appetite for a snack, but don’t want to miss out on something amazing. That’s writer’s block. I’m betting if you asked someone with “writer’s block” to write 500 words about their left sock, they could manage it.

    2. I think the need to get credit can be inversely proportional to the pay. 🙂 Or maybe to the lasting quality of the work – I have no illusions that most of my writing for hire is of enduring literary value; I hope it’s been useful. But in technical writing, technology changes and the manual becomes as obsolete as its subject. Even in fiction, what’s “hot” today may not be, tomorrow, and the most “enduring” works may not be “hot” in the author’s lifetime.

      I want credit – more to the point, I don’t want someone else taking credit for MY work – but I’m glad I’m not overly caught up in that. My thing about copyright is that I hate to see people step all over others and claim credit – and get paid well – for work they didn’t do.

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