Someone recently wrote the following email to me:
“A question came up during a guild meeting recently regarding published writings, such as letters to the editor of newspapers. Can one mention these letters to agents, or is it a waste of time, irrelevant?
“Several years ago you posted on Facebook that if you write every day, you can call yourself a writer. While I do write every day (for entertainment) and have completed four novels and am working on a fifth, all of which are unpublished by choice, I’ve also written many letters to editors of newspapers that have been published.
“Because I’m not receiving funds regularly, say through royalties, I don’t feel that I can refer to myself as a writer. More specifically, I don’t place that title in a description area of an application or even on a Facebook bio.
At what point can a person consider himself or herself a writer? That question arises often. When I speak to gatherings of writers and that question comes up, I say, “Look around you. Where are you? You came to a meeting for writers. If you are interested in writing, you are a writer.”
People who are golfers read articles about golf, go to seminars about golf, and talk to other golfers about golfing. People who are writers read articles about writing, go to seminars about writing, and talk to other writers about writing. Golfers golf. Writers write. If you write, you are a writer. If you get published and/or get paid for writing, good for you, but those things aren’t the only way to determine whether you are a writer. Golfers don’t have to win the green jacket at the Masters Tournament to be considered golfers, do they?
Writers are people who have an avid interest in putting words and sentences together. It doesn’t matter if you never get paid for your writing. You write because you enjoy it, so you are a writer. It doesn’t matter if you write letters to the editor, articles for magazines, private journals never meant for the public, or bestselling novels. If you write, you are a writer.
If I said that you have to write every day to be called a writer, I misspoke. Golfers don’t golf every day. Writers merely have to write when they make the time to write. If you sit down to write only one day a week or twice a month, you are a writer.
As a preteen I wrote a family newsletter in conjunction with my cousin of the same age. We made several copies by hand and distributed them to family members. Were we writers at age twelve? You bet.
When I was in high school I took creative writing courses. When I finished school I subscribed to magazines for writers. I worked at menial jobs to pay my expenses and didn’t even own a typewriter, but I kept journals of my thoughts, events, and feelings. I was a writer then too.
I worked in a business brokerage office when I was in my twenties. In addition to some secretarial duties, I wrote and edited business profiles and wrote letters to prospects. I was being paid for being a secretary, not a writer, but was I a writer? Yes.
A literary magazine published two of my poems when I was about twenty-five. It “paid” me in two contributor’s copies. Did the fact that I didn’t get money diminish the fact that I’d been published? No. Did getting published make me a writer? No. I was already a writer.
One might argue that the first time I legitimately became a writer was when I became a reporter and news editor of a weekly newspaper, but it’s not true. I had been a writer from the time I was twelve.
If you write, you are a writer. If you read articles about writing because you are interested in writing, you are a writer. If you write your memoirs, you are a writer. If you write novels, you are a writer. If you write short stories, you are a writer. If you write, you are a writer. Have I made myself clear?
Folks have also asked me, “When can I be called an author?”
Long ago the term author referred to a person who had sold a novel or nonfiction book to a traditional publisher. When self-publishing became popular, some people tried to use the term author to delineate the difference between traditionally published writers and those who had self-published. Today, though, the term author simply refers to a writer. The words are interchangeable. If you consider yourself an author, you can call yourself one. If you write, you are an author.
Be aware, though, that if you tell people you are an author or a writer, the next thing they will ask is, “What have you written?” Be prepared to answer, and do it with conviction and authority. Your answer can be as simple as, “I have written my memoirs for my family members” or as complex as “I have written a three-book series and am looking for a publisher.” You might say, “I am writing a novel and plan to self-publish.” You might say, “I write letters to the editor, and I’m proud to say that many of them have been accepted and published.” Best of all you might be able to say, “Here’s my latest novel. It sells for twelve dollars. Would you like to buy a copy?”
This information is a long way to answer your question of whether to mention to agents that your letters to the editor have been published, but I wanted to make a point. As a newspaper editor many years ago, I published only the best, clearest, and most important letters to the editor. I threw in the trash all the poorly written ones, the ones that got off subject, and the ones that failed to offer a solution or come to a sensible conclusion. I know firsthand that if an editor chose to publish your letters, they were worthy of publication. Yes, you can say your letters have been published in newspapers. It shows that you have strong writing skills.
If you have written anything, whether it has been published or not, you are a writer. Believe in yourself. If you want to be a writer, you are already one. Say in the mirror, if you have to: “I am a writer.” You have to believe it to achieve it. I didn’t originate that saying, but we all know it’s true.