Friday, April 23, 2010

The Smelly Tulip

By John Gilstrap

A few hundred years ago, some English guy named Willy said, “If you call a rose a tulip, you’re not gonna change what it smells like.” Something like that, but in British.
Willy’s point was that sometimes labels don’t mean all that much. I tend to agree with him. I’d bet that most people who give it any real thought would agree, at least in principle. But only until egos get involved. Once you start messing with people’s sense of identity, labels can matter a lot.

A couple of weeks ago, I was silent witness to a writers’ board flame war that erupted over the assertion that writers and authors are different species, the definitions split by publication status. A “writer,” said one side of the conflict, may not call himself an “author” until the product of the writer’s efforts have been published. This ultimately led to a full-scale assault on the legitimacy of self-publishing as a form of “real” publishing, and it all got really ugly really fast.

There’s a reason why I don’t engage in flame wars: they’re ultimately damaging to everyone involved. But, oh, they can be fun to watch. (Contributing factor number 10,497 to why I’m running behind on my current manuscript.)

Just for grins, though, I thought I’d do a little research. Okay, a very little research. I turned to my new favorite reference,, and looked up the offending words. What I found surprised me:

Writer: “a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., esp. as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.”

Author: “a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work, as distinguished from a compiler, translator, editor, or copyist.”

It would seem by this definition that both camps of the flame war were wrong from the outset. says that “author” is the generic term, while “writer” implies payment as a professional. Who knew?

Is it okay if I don’t care?

Let’s be honest: as humans, we all like to differentiate ourselves from our respective packs. Even among published authors of books, there’s a good bit of ring-knocking based on everything from print run size to publication format, but among professionals, those distinctions actually mean something, if only in terms of commercial clout. In a news room, I would imagine that there’s similar significance to differentiating a beat reporter from an investigative reporter from a web reporter.

I guess my point is that I’m not anti-label; I am anti-meaningless label. Am I missing something here? Do any of you get wrapped around the axle on whether you’re a writer or an author?

For our Killzone denizens who are not yet published, when you’re in the company of other like-minded people—say, in a writers’ conference environment—do you hesitate to call yourself a writer or an author?

What am I missing?


  1. I don't think I've ever said I was a writer at a writers conference, John. I usually get asked what I'm working instead, or what genre I'm writing.

    But I'd probably call myself a writer. I don't think anything much about either term.

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  3. I have not been asked if I'm a writer at at any of the conferences I've attended. I think everyone there assumes that everyone else is a writer.

    I have been asked if I'm published, and I honestly reply not yet.

  4. If you really want to see people get wrapped around the axle, put the word "self-published" before either of your terms.


  5. I've been accused of being a typist before.

  6. But Joe, you're a damned fine typist.

    From my perspective, I'm very leery of "author" because it brings up shades of literary pomposity (like that). I'm a writer and proud to be one.

    One term that has come around recently that I dislike quite a bit is "pre-published" versus "unpublished" or "aspiring." It feels to me as if there's some hubris there, as if success is in the bag.

    However, I'm also one of those guys that figures if you want to call yourself pre-published, aspiring, bestselling, stupendously amazing or whatever, that's not really my problem. I really only care if it affects me and I'd say that most of the time it doesn't, so I just don't care what you call yourself.

  7. Doesn't matter to me. Just don't call me late for dinner.

  8. I'm with Alan.

    And I can type, too.

  9. I never felt comfortable describing myself as a "writer" to anyone until the bulk of my income actually came from writing. I tried it a couple of times and it just didn't sound right, even after my first couple of books were published.

    In private, alone with my coffee cup that said "Writer" on it, that's indeed how I thought of myself, because that's what I wanted to be, and anything that motivated me that way, I'd use.

    "Author", it seems to me, is a description best left to others to apply to you. "Writer" has an every day, lunch pail tone that seems most apt from my perspective.

  10. Reminds me a little of a panel I was on several years ago. The moderator, a bit full of herself, peered at me over her glasses, and said, "And what kind of literature, exactly, do you publish?"

    "I don't publish literature," I said. "I publish books. If any of them are literature, I let others decide."

  11. I'm unpublished as a novelist, and think of myself as a writer. I think of my published friends as authors, out of respect for their accomplishment. I never looked them up in the dictionary, but I'm not surprised at what you found. It was just a distinction I made for myself.

  12. An interesting conundrum. When I'm at a fan conference, I usually ask, "Are you a writer or a reader?"

    At writers conferences, I might ask "What do you write?" and maybe follow-up with "Are you published."

    But actually, it's ususally just a conversation starter.

  13. Since I have made my living as a writer of technical, marketing, and business materials for about 15 years, I call myself a writer. Until about seven years ago, I'd have told you I could write anything but fiction. Turns out I can write that too. Which is all to explain why I'm reserving "author" for myself on the day I'm finally published--though in everyday description, it'll still be "writer," not "author." But all that's entirely for my own psyche.

  14. I have a hard enough time owning, let alone labeling this calling:)
    write. I
    I've been paid.
    I've had things published...

    Aside from dictionary terms... "author" holds a published book connotation for me- as well as a more literary style... not sure why- it's just what I think.

    "Writer" seems more articles, and in process of publication...

    That said, I'll be happy to eventually really own either label. without insecurity. (I'm working on that)

  15. I think of myself as a writer, but I'm still having trouble saying it out loud.

  16. I'd just be happy to be called 'bestseller' one day:)! I'm not sure whether I feel comfortable with either 'writer' or 'author' as yet. I usually say 'writer' but I don't mind being surrounded by some literary aura as an 'author' - I'll take whatever aura I can get!

  17. Both a writer and an author can be considered artists. I am an artist. My paintings are through words.
    Great Post!


  18. I'm a scribbler, a scrabbler, a midnight word scrapper. And always behind deadline.

  19. Very interesting reponses.

    Many of you raise a point that I actually meant to mention in my original post: that I personally am not comfortable calling myself an author. In fact, as one who has a day job in addition to this writing gig, I find myself having to choose my self-labeling based on the audience in the room. (I learned a long time ago, that the question, "What do you do," needs to be answered in ten words or less.)

    If I'm in self-marketing mode, I tell people, "I write books." That, in turn, tees up the question, "What kind of books?" From there, I can start selling.

    If I apply for a loan, I am the director of safety for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc., and the book stuff gets lumped under "other income." But if I'm filling out a bio sheet for a writers conference, the day job usually doesn't get mentioned at all. At a scrap industry-related conference or an industrial safety conference, the writing side of my life will likely never come up.

    It's not that I keep either side of my life secret, it's just that I try not to bore people.

    John Gilstrap

  20. The 'other life' is always a tricky balance. My sister still asks me when I'm going to practice law again - we writers just get no respect:) In this regard I call myself a recovering attorney, an occasional health economist, a full-time mum...oh and I write mysteries in my spare time:)

  21. John, I wondered about that, since our day jobs are similar. I'm in the same boat as you. Ususally when someone asks me, it's automatic that I say, I'm Manager of Environmental Compliance for ...

    Sometimes if I'm in the right crowd, I'll say I'm an Environmental Engineer by day, writer by night.

  22. Quite often I introduce myself as the author, John Gilstrap's, friend and jug buddy.

  23. Rats, Kathryn stole my Scribbler joke. :)

    I've been paid to write everything but fiction for almost 20 years. I have been paid for fiction, but not for a novel...yet! I don't have any trouble calling myself a writer. But Author? Even when I'm at a convention signing book number 10 (that would be the tenth new work, not the tenth copy) I doubt that I would call myself an author. Despite what says, it has a connotation to it that I find a little too pretentious.

    Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go author a shopping list.

  24. The dictionary notwithstanding, I can't help feel that 'author' refers to something accomplished in some kind of past, and 'writer' as an ongoing action being performed, just by the nature of the grammar.
    In other words, I can write all the time, but I can't auth...unless of course I authenticate, or authorize...clearly I'm lost in words. Isn't that what authors and writers do?

  25. I guess I'm a dictionary because I've always taken "author" literally as someone who wrote something, anything. For instance, the author of a nutrition label is, in my mind, very much an author. Just makes sense to me. I think the distinction you mentioned in your post is childish and very much ego-based, as you suggested. I'm not published yet, and am seeking that validation for my novel-writing. That said, I'm the author of everything I write. To say I'm not the author until I'm published is absurd.
    On a side note: writing a book is hard work, and I admire anyone who's accomplished it, published or not.