Why Publishing Won't Make You a "Real" Writer
I’m often asked when I plan to publish my first novel, or how my work on that novel is coming along, and I’m incredibly grateful to know there are readers out there eagerly awaiting my fiction debut. If you’re one such reader, thank you!
On occasion, however, I’m asked a different question about my general lack of publishing experience: “What gives you the right to give writing advice when you aren’t even published? You’re not an author. Why should anyone listen to what you say?” This is by no means a common occurrence, but it does happen from time to time, usually once or twice a year. And every time I’m asked this question, I get to thinking about creative validation and what it really means to be a writer.
As someone who talks about writing on the internet, I’ve seen far too many writers set themselves up for disappointment and frustration by seeking creative self-worth in external sources. Maybe you’re one of these writers as well. I know I used to be.
Here are some of the ways I’ve heard this lack of creative confidence manifest over the years:
I’m not really a writer. I just play around with stories sometimes.
I just want one person to love my work. When I receive a 5-star review or fan art or something, I’ll know my stories are worth reading.
I don’t think I’m any good, really. I self-published my book last year but it’s only sold a few copies.
If I can get an agent and a book deal, I’ll know I’ve made it as a writer.
Have you ever said something similar? You aren’t alone. I’ve met dozens of writers who’ve struggled to believe their skills and stories were any good, and I’m always saddened to hear these writers speak so lowly of their work — especially because they have no reason to feel so inadequate in their creative pursuits.
The fact of the matter is that publishing your book won’t make you a real writer.
Neither will landing that agent or book deal, seeing that first five-star review, or hitting a bestseller list. In fact, there isn’t a single external accomplishment you can achieve that can validate your worth as a writer. If the mark of a so-called “real” writer is publishing success, then gaining real writerdom is largely a matter of luck and marketing acumen, not quality writing skills.
With self-publishing, anyone can publish a book of any quality at any time. But even landing an agent and a book deal in the traditional publishing industry doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’re a phenomenal writer. Ignoring the fact that “good writing” is, in many ways, subjective in its definition, agents and publishers simply don’t seek quality writing alone.
Publishing is an industry. More than anything, agents and acquisitions editors need to sign books they believe can sell, and what is marketable isn’t always what is well-written. This is why so many lackluster dystopian novels were published after the success of The Hunger Games, why the romance genre is flooded with books that are cringe-worthy in their cheesiness, and why short stories have long been nearly impossible to sell in the modern market.
At the end of the day, the only way that publishing can truly impact your creative identity is by transforming you from a writer to an author — the pen behind a published work.
That’s not to say your creative achievements can’t provide a sense of pride and accomplishment. Landing an agent and a book deal are both exciting milestones in a writer’s journey, as are publishing, hitting a bestseller list, and receiving positive reader response. But if you seek creative validation in these achievements alone, you’ll build a writing life steeped in emotional turbulence. Why? Because no writing journey is smooth sailing.
Books bomb, readers lose interest, and the industry shifts, leaving authors in the lurch. Publishing might feel validating, but what happens when the book doesn’t sell well? Or when a sharp-tongued reader opposes those five-star ratings with a brutal review? Or when hitting the bestseller list doesn’t result in enough income to quit your day job?
If you’re seeking creative validation in external accomplishments now, you’ll be seeking it in external accomplishments forever. No exciting achievement will ever be enough. There will always be some higher goal to reach, some author who’s experienced more success than you have. You will always feel like a fraud.
True creative validation can only come from one source: yourself.
To cultivate creative confidence, you must believe wholeheartedly that your work has intrinsic value simply because it is work that you value. And to value your work, you must first call yourself what you are: a writer. There is no industry gatekeeper or personal achievement that can name you worthy of the title. As I share in Build Your Best Writing Life:
"The kid popping ollies in an empty parking lot is just as much a skateboarder as legend Tony Hawk. They are both on the board, day after day, doing what they love. Your being a writer is exactly the same. You become a writer the day you decide to pick up the pen (and to keep picking it up), making you just as worthy of the title as Nora Roberts, Toni Morrison, George R. R. Martin, and other writing icons…
“I can’t call myself a writer,” you say. “I’ve never finished a story.”
But you’re working on one, aren’t you? Then you’re a writer.
“I can’t call myself a writer,” you say. “I’ve never been published.”
Is a painter not a painter until they sell their first piece?
The only validation you need to call yourself a writer comes from within. Are you passionate about your work? Are you putting in the time and effort to bring that work to life? Then claim your pen, writer. "
I don’t share writing advice because I’m a bestselling author or an industry professional. I share writing advice because I’m a writer. I put pen to paper every day, working hard to tell the stories I want to tell and to become the writer I want to be. It’s a privilege and a joy to help other writers do the same through my work here at Well-Storied, by sharing the very tips and techniques that have helped me develop my writing and storytelling skills over the last eight years.
Like me, you are a writer. Not because you’re published or because you’re a full-time author or a New York Times bestseller. You’re a writer because you pick up the pen and write, because you work hard to become the writer you want to be, and because you know that your stories matter. No external accomplishment or disappointment can change this fact.
You are a writer. So get your butt in the chair and write.