Replacing "Writer"

by Stella.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably had a conversation in which a new acquaintance asked you what you did (in the occupational sense), and on hearing the (somewhat awful) truth, either expressed polite surprise or barely disguised skepticism. This usually gets worse when they discover that you don’t have a distinguished list of credits to your name. It gives the impression that you are, to a certain extent, deluded. For some reason, “writer” has an aura of mystique – not only in terms of personality type but achievement as well. There always seems to be a debate going on as to who is entitled to call him or herself a writer.

Honestly, I don’t know. From a strictly grammatical point of view, one who performs the act of writing is a writer, but that argument only leads you to such counterarguments as, “If you cook food, does that make you a chef?” I guess it’s because “writer” is too all-encompassing. We can break down the classification a bit more: novelist, screenwriter, poet, journalist, blogger, and so on. From an unofficial poll that I took (admittedly – I asked a handful of people out of sheer curiosity, so that probably doesn’t even count as a poll, but anyway) novelist sounded the most intelligent, screenwriter the coolest, poet the most artistic, journalist the most political, and blogger... well... the least to be taken seriously. (If they only knew how much work went into it...)

We could always replace the word writer. Some possible replacements:

Wordsmith – my favorite, I think. Has a respectable ring to it.
Liar – we’re dangerous people, you know. We conjure things out of thin air and make them seem real.
Storyteller – a little on the romantic side.
Scribbler – comical, doesn’t take itself seriously. Has potential.
Pretentious Twit Who Would Starve Without a Day Job – brutally honest, and perhaps a tad hostile.
Bard – poetic, probably not applicable in many cases.

Obviously it’s not an easy word to replace, but it’s something to think about. And write about. Oh sorry. Wordsmith about. No, that doesn’t work. Smith? No. Lie about? That’s easily misinterpreted. Storytell? Not really. Scribble? Mm, possibly. Pretentiously Twi- we’ll just forget that one. Bard about? That’s awful. It can’t even be used as a verb.

The strictly grammatical approach will have to do for the moment. Eventually people will stop using pens and I suppose we’ll all be called typists. Or typers. Or maybe even typos, which would be ironic. I leave it to future generations to decide. At any rate, I’m sure people will still regard writing as having that aura of mystique and most aspiring writers as having that touch of delusion. So it doesn’t really matter in the long run what they call us. As long as it’s something nice. I really don’t want to be a typo.


Jon Haylett said...

I'm surprised you haven't considered the term 'author'. Even though I've had a novel published I still don't consider myself an 'author' - it has too much of a sense of authority, of pomp, arrival and establishment. To me, 'novelist' sounds comic, 'wordsmith' dirty - too like a blacksmith - 'writer', as you suggest, could be a writer of anything, 'blogger' is far too geeky, and 'bard', 'poet', etc simply don't fit. Personally, I like the term 'storyteller', because that's what I am, and there's nothing better than a damn good STORY. On the other hand, it does sound a bit primary-schoolish....

Jon Haylett

kathleenmaher said...

I remember feeling squeamish about calling myself a writer until I realized the question I was attempting to answer was:
"What do you do?"
What the inquirer really wanted to know was how much money I make. Occasionally, perhaps, people see mystique in amateur endeavors, but not often.
Your list, Stella, offers many positive, happy alternatives--even liar might fly if said with a smile. Maybe I'll start getting invited to parties if I stop admitting I can't justify my existence.

Stella said...

Mr. Haylett - I've never had anything published, which is probably why "author" never even crossed my mind ;) And I never thought of wordsmith as dirty! I actually like it because it sounds so active, whereas writer sounds like you sit around daydreaming.

Kathleen - "Maybe I'll start getting invited to parties if I stop admitting I can't justify my existence." That's hilarious. But you don't have to justify anything. Besdies, I always get the feeling that people are worried I'll turn them into a character in something. So maybe you could try that for some comic relief. Say, "You know, you're exactly the sort of person I'm writing about. I think I may put this in!" And watch them freak out :)

kathleenmaher said...

Stella, that's a brilliant idea! And if anyone still refuses to give me my due, I'll go into heretic mode. After all, my fiction focuses tightly on people's transgressive fears and desires.

JP33 said...

It's even worse when you add stay-at-home Mum...I'm not sure which seems taken less seriously as a 'real' full-time job. I had to open a new bank account recently. The clerk asked me my occupation and in the same breath answered for me, 'Housewife?', without even looking up as if it should be hushed up somehow. I wish I'd been fast enough to answer 'writer' or any of the other lyrical terms, just to have seen their reaction. Next time. (And how about 'columnist' or 'correspondent' for the more serious blogger?) Thanks for this Stella.

Paul Burman said...

'Wordsmith' is at the top of the list for me, Stella. I like the timeless quality of the word (it reaches back through the ages to early story-telling), and the suggestion it carries of dealing with the heavy-duty clunkiness of words (blacksmith) as well as shaping the finest of details (silversmith, goldsmith). It's always been the highest compliment I feel that can be offered to a writer.

However, to toss a few other words into the pot, I like the possibilities of 'wordwright' (timeless, and potential for a pun or two) and 'conjuror', except that would take too much explaining and would then sound even more pretentious.

My early favourite was 'maker' because (apparently) the words associated with poem/poet/poetry grow from the Greek for make or create. To be a maker encompasses so much, from being a craftsman and a builder to a god! It lends something biblical to the role, and again the timelessness of telling stories. After all, 'In the beginning was the word ...' and all that.

kathleenmaher said...

JP33: Stay at home mum? It ranks right up there with literature as one of the highest possible callings. Same as stay at home dad--the world needs more of these.

Like writing, being a parent isn't for everyone and it's shame when people assume it is. Think how much better the world might be if, like those who say, "I'll write my novel when I have time," those without a clue said, "I'll have children when I have time." (Except some people sort of do this to kids, only to discover they don't have time, after all, or never intended it to take up so much of their time.)

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is the hunt for a noun. (Think about all that stuff the PC brigade spout about avoiding nouns because they define and reduce. Not a Jew but a Jewish person; not a cripple, not even a disabled person, these days, but someone 'with a disability'.) Nouns are far too definite, far too reductive. What you need is a verb. Just say simply 'I write'.

Rosy T

Stella said...

Kathleen - exactly! :)

JP33 - what Kathleen said. Also, it's important to say "writer" very casually, like you're not going to discuss it, like it's totally obvious. And columnist and correspondent do sound better than blogger. Blogger gives people the impression that you have too much free time.

Paul - That's how I feel about "wordsmith", too. (You're actually the one who reminded me of it because you called Alina a wordsmith.) I like your suggestion of wordwright as well. But maker would be problematic, I think, because it's even broader in definition than "writer" but you do make a elegant case for it. Maybe some day :)

Rosy T - I agree with you in principle, but I don't think it's really a problem; my post was only half-serious. No matter what you'll say about yourself or how you'll phrase it, people will always have their own idea. I think the only thing you can really do is laugh off someone's negative attitude.

Anonymous said...

Stella, I wasn't being entirely serious myself!


Rosy T

kathleenmaher said...

Years ago I was part of a group setting out a particular school's year-long goals, including a new "mission statement."
The professional marketer on the committee repeatedly said, "We'll get to (this detail or that) at the 'wordsmithing' stage."
My impression was that wordsmith and -smithing was marketing jargon for "don't bother with that, it's unimportant," meaning it was so important that those in charge weren't entrusting it to the committee.
That was years ago, of course, and in NY. Still, words change all the time, which was Stella'.

Stella said...

Rosy - sorry for being dense :)

Kathleen - how dare they belittle my beloved word! Honestly, people have no respect.

FLOOG said...

As a newbie, and an unpublished chappie, can I just say firstly what a wonderful site you have here, and one that I will spend some time perusing at my liesure (in amongst the daily grind that is nine to five boring work, motorcycling, and the joys of putting guns to agents head in an effort to make them appreciate my work!)

I loved this particular post, as it struck something of a chord.

As an, ahem...much younger man way back in the early eighties,(frilly shirts, big hair for men, and Duran Duran in the charts!), I used to get funny looks and assumptions of my sexual orientation as being something North of stand up hetrosexual because of my penchant for writing plays and poetry.

It always got under my skin that my writing was categorised in such a way by crass stereotyping from the unwashed masses (trust me, they were unwashed)

A little later in life, my love of writing seemed to draw worried comments from friends and acquaintences, almost as if I was 'a bit different', simply because I chose writing over football violence and Pukka pies on a Saturday morning.

Just a personal thing here, but having never been published, makes me feel a little awkward about labelling myself as a writer or author, as people only have my word that I am, there's no proof sitting on the coffee table.

I Personally prefer to think of myself as a 'Scribbler', a sort of fledgling wanna be writer....

Much like a doodler is not an artist in the traditional sense.

Yes, a 'Scribbler' I am, hoping one day to move up to the next level, 'publish-ready', and onto the dizzy heights of 'Successfully past the proof reader, fingers crossed, wordy type bloke!'

OK, back to my scribling now.

kathleenmaher said...

Two things here--I keep swearing I'm done,'re more interesting than what I should be doing.

Stella, the disrespectful wordsmither is...where, now? And we're here. We're wordsmiths when we wish, writers or authors, poets, and Bartlebys.

floog: Even the greatest authors of our time aren't as well published as they might like.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Stella,
I'm part of the great unpublished masses who prefers to call myself a writer. I work in a performing arts college in the Information Technology field. My school is full of writers, musicians, filmmakers, actors, producers, and audio engineers who cannot claim to make their living doing what they love and aspire to be.

Instead, work at other, more mundane jobs in the hopes of making it in their desired profession one day. The image of the struggling actor waiting tables has become a tired sterotype, and no one begrudges that food server the title of actor. I feel that writers need not apologize for practicing our craft in the realm of the blogosphere and consider our works published even though they are read on line mostly by other writers.

Your article here is well written, funny, and informative. It also raises a valid question. You wrote this, and because of your writing experience, you were able to produce an article which so far has drawn an impressive reponse. No one reading this article would guess you worked at any other occcupation. Why? Because you're a writer, that's why. Me too. -Mike.

Jon Haylett said...

Enough of all this idle chit-chat! Stella, I suggest we carry out the next part of this conversation AFTER we've done some serious, properly SCIENTIFIC research. None of your wishy-washy, arty-farty stuff, but real, analytical, cutting-edge investigatory probing. May I suggest the following? Paul, every time you are asked what you do for a living, call yourself a 'wordwright' and note, carefully, the immediate reaction. Stella, why don't you try 'wordsmith', jp33 could try 'writer', floog 'scribbler' and I'll stick to my beloved 'storyteller'. Oh - and we need others to experiment with boring old 'novellist' and dreadful 'author' (which no-one seems to like!). What about giving it a couple of weeks, then reporting our findings?

Mike French said...

Jon you are a genius! Mad idea but a good one.

Okay I guess I'm stuck with either novelist or author - hmm okay I'll have author - who's going to grab "novelist" ?

Let's run with this for the month of May - e-mail the magazine your findings by the end of the month and we'll put together an article on it during the first week of June.

- best contibution wins £10 or $20 Amazon voucher.

Stella said...

Floog - Don't say a prayer for me nowwwww. Save it till the morning after... Ahem. Don't feel awkward about calling yourself a writer. There's no reason why you shouldn't. Although I do appreciate your use of "scribbler".

Kathleen - Always happy to help someone procrastinate! I got a little carried away with the "how dare they" thing. It's just fun saying (typing) that in supposed indignation, which is odd, because I usually try to avoid sounding indignant when I really am. (Isn't being illogical fun?)

Mr. Grudge - First, thanks :) I'm actually not concerned about the whole thing. It was just something floating around in my head. I don't have a problem calling myself a writer, but it always amuses me to see that incredulous response. I'm always thinking, "Why is that so hard to believe?" But it's like you said, we have to live with the cliches...

Jon - It's an interesting idea, but all of the people who know me already know what I do. So are we talking stopping complete strangers? Because then we'd have to factor in the general surprise of a complete stranger stopping them. And my reasearch is NOT wishy-washy :P

Mike - I seem to have given everyone homework inadvertantly...

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Stella, great post!!! Thanks for pointing me here from your blog.

I had the biggest surprise of all finding out my photos are pubbing first. :D

I wanted to add that I have never found a finer group of people than writers to hang out with, share writing with (cps) or share rejections with. Writers are there for you when you have ups and downs, family crises, times of celebration, and when you want to share great books you have discovered. Have I said I looooove writers!!!

Hugs, JJ

Mike French said...

Arh ... welcome to the buzz here JJ

Hugs :-)

Stella said...

JJ!! Welcome, welcome! Stretch out, get comfortable! :))

Mike - you looney toon. That poll on the front page cracked me up :)

Mike French said...

Stella : See what you've started!

Paul Burman said...

Love that poll!

May have to sell what little integrity I've got in order to buy a few votes ;-)

Always wanted to try vote stacking.

Oops, but now I realise I've voted for something other than I originally suggested. Duh.

Stella said...

Mike - well I guess it had to come out sooner or later that I'm nothing but a troublemaker...

Paul - feel free. I won't judge :) Quite a few people voted for the Pretentious Twit option, which I think means that most of us have some kind of self-deprecating streak. /cheap psychology

JP33 said...

So I tried it at the hairdresser (my third visit this year to the same one, she's quite good) who's now trying to get to know me a little better, it went something like this:

"So what do you do?"
"I'm a writer."
"Oh, (Big smile) have you written anything famous?"
"Not yet, but a few pieces have been published in competitions....(her eyes glaze over)
(I can hardly ask her, what she does...)
"would you like some tea?"

I was casual, honest.(Will keep up the research.) ;-)

I live in Germany, and in German the most commonly used term for 'writer' translates directly as 'word placer' - Schriftsteller. The word for author 'Autor' exists, but it seems less popular and less used, having less meaning behind it. I wonder if it's that 'meaningfulness' we all want to convey, and need to find the best fitting word to suit our own intended meaning.

I join a new book club tomorrow night, I'll go and practice in the mirror, "Yes, I'm a writer." "I write." "I'm a writer" "My business card says, writer." "Oh, I'm a writer, what do you do?" (Casual, very casual, straight faced) That might work....

Paul Burman said...

Quite like 'Schriftsteller', JP33, but 'word placer' puts me in mind of the person who places beer mats on pub tables (or is that a barman?!) and sounds very utilitarian. Interesting how a word can sound poetic (like schriftsteller) but have a very prosaic meaning. Maybe the poetry andmystique of the word is enough. Next time I have a haircut I might strike up the small talk and tell the hairdresser I'm a schriftsteller ... and see where that gets me.

Stella said...

JP33 - If you're feeling very wicked, you can ask them if they'd be interesting in reading some poetry you've written. That always makes people nervous ;)

Paul - Foreign languages usually make the utilitarian sound poetic. It's because the syllable combinations sound unfamiliar. But do try out schriftsteller. At the very least it should make an interesting anecdote. ;)