What Does It Mean to be a REAL Writer?

am I a writer

Is a “real” writer a journalist or newspaper reporter? (image via Digital Sextant, flickr)

Are you a real writer? What does that mean to you?

As the creator of Quips and Tips for Successful Writers, one of the things I’ve always, always struggled with is the fact that I’m not a traditionally published author.

Can I run a strong, successful writing website when I’ve never been published? Never worked with an editor at a publishing house? Never received royalty checks? Never mourned my remainders?

Sure, I’ve been supporting myself as a freelance writer and blogger for four years, I write BC Women’s Hospital’s monthly eNews articles, I get article assignments from editors without having to pitch, I speak at conferences, and I even turn down consulting and writing work.

But it’s not enough.

This weekend I spoke at the first annual Women and Words Conference in Vancouver, and I asked several people if I can really call myself a writer. They said yes, of course, definitely, you’re all that and more!

The thing is, I don’t feel like a real writer.

If you’re in the same boat and you want to make money writing, read Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer by Moira Allen. A fantastic resource for writers!

Anyway, I’m ramping up my writing career — or “upping my game”, as one of the women at the conference encouraged us to do! I’m returning to my pursuit of a traditional book publishing contract. An agent.

Here’s the fleece, the confirmation that I’m moving in the right direction: I just discovered that someone called Auden posted a huge list of her favorite “Quips and Tips” writing links on Mibba – The Adventurous Writer. Lots of people left comments; here’s the one that really resonated with me:

“I could never trust people who give writerly advice without actually being actual published writers,” says Mr W.H.

Though the sentence needs a bit o’ editing, the sentiment reflects my exact feelings! To me, a real writer is someone who 1) makes money writing; and 2) has been traditionally published.

Fellow scribes, what do YOU think it means to be a REAL writer?

Do you feel weird calling yourself a writer? How about a blogger, story teller, poet? I welcome your thoughts below…

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44 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to be a REAL Writer?”

  1. Hi, I always doubted myself and don’t consider myself a real writer. I’m glad to see I’m not alone, and appreciate your words more than you know. Thank you.

  2. To me, being a REAL writer means writing every day no matter if you’re getting published or not. I like that Laurie said different definitions depend on different writers, because what makes me a real writer isn’t what makes another writer a writer. I hope that makes sense!

  3. Really great and interesting points mentioned in the post and comments. I have to say while I was reading through this, one question kept coming to me: Is there such a thing as a “fake” writer?

  4. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks for piping up, de Groote! I really appreciate it.

    Maybe it is my own insecurities and self-doubts that make me think I’m not a real writer unless I get published traditionally.

    My dream has always been to write inspirational, motivational things to help people and improve their lives. I’m DOING that, but seem to be hung up on getting a book published. What in Sam Hill is my problem, anyway??!! 🙂

  5. “To me, a real writer is someone who 1) makes money writing; and 2) has been traditionally published.”

    Completely disagree.

    A “real” writer is someone who feels enough to write, and can actually do it well: spinning words, expressing the feelings and capturing interest.

    Publication today, in the Blogophere / FaceTwittingTumblr era, has nothing to do with “real” writing. Needing attention and posting poorly formed diary sentences is not writing.

    As Truman put it, ‘that’s just typing’.

    Being paid, also, does not a “real” writer make.

  6. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks for your comments!

    I’m with Dan: a professional writer is one who is published and making money. I don’t think I’m suffering a “crisis of confidence”, which a few of my friends have said. I just think I have a strict definition of what it means to be a real writer.

    Maybe the secret is in the difference between professional writer and writer. I want to be a professional writer. No – maybe a professional blogger.

  7. I think being a professional writer one has to be published and making money. However, I think a writer can be anyone who enjoys writing for him/her self and others. As long as you enjoy to write, then you are a writer. Regardless of being payed or having your stuff published, you are writing because you enjoy to write. Writing is one of those things people don’t just do for the money. So, paid or not, published or not, we are all real writers.

  8. Hi Todd

    I myself did not consider my self as a writer before. However, Due to exposure and constant practice, my skills kept on improving steadily. My wife and I now have blog sites of our own. It never even touched my mind that it would happen.

    Besides, how would you know if you would not even try?
    I wonder if you have heard of nueroplasticity. Scientists who study the brain believe that we can learn anything or any skill. However, with fear and doubt in one’s mind, he would be limiting his learning and skill acquiring.

  9. For me a real writer means who write from his heat,and who have a lot of passion towards his/her profession. Anyone with a good imagination and good vocabulary can write awesome stuff.

  10. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thank you so much for your comments, Vicki! You made my week – I really appreciate it. May karma be good to you 🙂

  11. Laurie,

    Not only do I consider you a ‘real’ writer, but a fine one. Your blog is one of only a dozen or so that I follow on a regular basis. You offer helpful advice, techniques and ideas naturally. It doesn’t come off as some hack writing to earn a few dollars. You’re a natural teacher and net worker.

    Don’t beat yourself up about being a ‘hack’ writer. I know what you mean though, I think I spend way too much time exchanging words for money. I figure I’m learning something by doing this that I couldn’t learn any other way. Like being more prolific, accurate, inspirational and cohesive. As a poet, it has always been about minimums. I’ve had to change the way I think about writing in order to grow.

    I’m a published-in-print and an award-winning poet. Whoo hoo. I won a grand prize once. It still doesn’t mean anything to me unless I can publish my own work in the traditional way. Do you think we might be unreasonably stuck on traditional?

    I really just wanted to say that you are a writer. A real good one.

  12. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Thanks for your definition of a real writer, Jenny – I appreciate it!

    I can’t believe how much support and encouragement I’ve received here. You guys are so great!

  13. Jenny @ BingoBabe.co.uk

    Hi Laurie, my definition of a real writer is just someone who enjoys writing and does so on a regular basis. I don’t think it has anything to do with your following or your technical ability.

    I guess its all subjective though, i digress. Nice post, thanks!

  14. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Good point, Jacob.

    Being a “real” writer is so subjective. Like with anything, when we try to apply our definitions of something to other people (how things “should” be), we run into trouble.

    Rachel, thanks for commenting! I’m glad you, too, recognize the prestige that accompanies being traditionally published…and I think the harder it is to get published, the more prestigious it is.

    “A writer is who you are and what you do.” I like it!

  15. Great post and comment thread! Some very interesting points raised by all. I am a professional copywriter. I get paid for my writing. I am a writer. But, as was raised in the comments above, I am not a published author. I agree with you Laurie, that being a traditionally published author has a certain prestige about it. I too would like to be published one day. But I still believe I am a REAL writer. It is who I am and what I do.

  16. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Shortly after writing this post, I sent a couple dozen query letters to literary agents. So far, four have requested a complete book proposal.

    I want to be traditionally published. I guess there’s some validation in that, a sense of accomplishment, achievement, satisfaction.

    Some writers don’t need external validation or a publishing contract, but I do. Well…I don’t NEED it…I just want it! I’ve always dreamed of writing books, of getting my books published.

    I have to say, dear friends, that your comments have helped me clarify what it means to me to be a “real writer”….and the key is in the TO ME.

    To me, a real writer isn’t just “someone who writes.” For me to call myself a “real writer”….well, I’m still figuring that out! It has something to do with earning money — but not just “hacking” away at crap I don’t want really want to write.

    Speaking of hacks, thanks Sam for bringing us the definition. I knew hacks was derogatory!

    Thanks for your insights, Doug and Uppal — I appreciate it.

    I’ve never read The Old Man and the Sea. I wonder if that means I’m not a real reader? 🙂

  17. I agree with Doug’s perspective about writing.There are all sorts of writer’s in the world as there are all sorts of people. Pursued as a vocation or as an avocation,the process of writing is a different ball game altogether.Look at Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’.Heart wrenching stark realism which tugs at your heart when you find the old fisherman’s largest catch after so many day’s of failure ,nibbled to the bones by the sharks. The Sisyphean spirit of the old man is portrayed so poignantly. Imagine how Hemingway would’ve gone through those moments in his own self before penning them! This literary product must’ve enriched him and his publishers hugely.

  18. I can’t comment because you’re all far smarter than I and I feel out of my element. I just have to say this thread is really interesting. I’m not a writer, but I read voraciously.

  19. Okay Sam, it IS derogatory – I was trying to skirt it in order to be inoffensive. They’re professional writers, though, just as much as a ‘B’ movie producer is a professional movie producer. The market for lower grade product exists in any field and someone will always exploit it.

  20. To Doug: “hack” is most definitely a derogatory word. It means “mediocre and disdained writer.”

    From Wikipedia:

    Hack writer is a colloquial and usually pejorative term used to refer to a writer who is paid to write low-quality, rushed articles or books “to order”, often with a short deadline. In a fiction-writing context, the term is used to describe writers who are paid to churn out sensational, lower-quality “pulp” fiction such as “true crime” novels or “bodice ripping” paperbacks. In journalism, the term is used to describe a writer who is deemed to operate as a “mercenary” or “pen for hire”, expressing their client’s political opinions in pamphlets or newspaper articles. So-called “hack writers” are usually paid by the number of words in their book or article; as a result, hack writing has a reputation for quantity taking precedence over quality.

    The term “hack writer” was first used in the 18th century, “when publishing was establishing itself as a business employing writers who could produce to order.” [1] The derivation of the term “hack” was a “shortening of hackney, which described a horse that was easy to ride and available for hire.”

  21. Wanting wider readership doesn’t make you a hack, Laurie. Putting sales before craft does. If you care more about the money made than producing quality work, then you’re a hack by the definition I’m using. There’re certainly lots of hacks around, undoubtedly more than there are writers of quality – ask any editor. And ‘hack’ isn’t a dirty word, I don’t think, or a derogatory one, just a term reflecting the emphasis of the writer. However, I figure if money’s the goal there are much easier and more certain ways to get it than by writing. As well, from my perspective, how can you write if you’re not interested in both the content and the presentation of the work? I’d find it very difficult to maintain interest if it’s nothing more than a factory-type approach (though I’ve certainly entertained pursuing that approach over the years and in fact tried once and found it impossible). Then again, I suppose for a lot of people writing is nothing but a job, just a grind that they endure for the money. God bless them – like I said before, to each his own as long as you’re writing. I’m just glad it’s not that way for me and I hope it never is – it’d be like a part of me died. But that’s just me.

  22. Charlotte Rains Dixon

    Thanks for writing this, Laurie. It is an issue that many of us who have embraced the digital world face, myself among them. I’ve actually done a lot of work with my coach around the idea that I won’t be considered literary enough if I publish Ebooks.

    I’ve finally achieved peace by treading a middle ground: I continue to publish Ebooks and offer teleclasses, while also pitching my novel and soon-to-be-completed book proposal to the traditional publishing world. Foot on both arenas.

  23. Hi Laurie, I read your article,sbsequent comments and your responses to them. No doubt it has generated a healthy discussion.

    Why this demoralising exercise of trying to be adjudged as a real writer?

    I think somebody who pursues the writing process sincerely, passionately,with his heart and soul and is successful in giving voice to his/her thoughts, feelings,ideas,opinions,impressions, reflections which are concerned with any facet of life in the past,present or future has no business to bother about any tag.Provided of course he/she possesses some degrees to boast of(an icing on the cake).

    What about: I write therefore I AM A WRITER.Or simple a writer writes.

    It is natural for you to have self doubt, since you are working in the capacity of a teacher and an advisor who helps others to write better.And you want some concrete validation.

    Laurie,your credibility is not at stake at all. The popularity of your blog is proof enough.Believe me It is only two months that I found this site and I have benefitted immensely after reading your write ups which are so well written and lucid. You have such a lovely trait of being approachable.You are a teacher and and a writer in the real sense !

    You are right, getting published in the traditional sense would act as booster dose for one’s self confidence.

  24. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Doug ~ very interesting point. James Patterson, the “king of the hacks” compared to Ernest Hemingway, studied until Kingdom come. They’re both “real” writers in their own right…So, would you rather be studied or read widely? Honestly, I’d rather be read widely. Call me a hack!

    Jason ~ you made my day! Thank you so much for your kind words.

    Gini ~ it’s not a self-esteem or self-confidence or psychological thing…it’s more of a credibility issue. Can I really write articles on getting books published if I’ve never been published? No, I don’t think so.

    Everyone ~ I read your responses to my hubby Bruce, and he made a good point: “successful writers” is a broad category. I’m a successful freelance writer and blogger. I’m not experienced as a script writer, novelist, poet, or a published nonfiction author. Do I need to be everything to all writers? No.

    But, I still think it’d be cool to write a book for a traditional publisher 🙂

  25. Hey Laurie,
    I subscribed to your blog a while ago for a few reasons.
    1 – I’m interested in learning more about the craft, and your promise of tips and tricks was timely
    2 – you’re local – us island folks need to stick together!
    3 – i like what you write.

    I think the 3rd reason is pretty much the answer to your question. If your audience enjoys what you write for them, does that not make you a “real” writer?

    A good friend of mine summed it up early on for me: writers write.

    And you, my local friend, write well. You’re certainly real in my books…

  26. Me again – just re-read your article, Laurie (this really got me thinking) and what stood out to me was where you commented on all the writing you’ve done and been paid for but still, “it’s not enough.” I don’t believe that upping your game to being published by a traditional publisher will feel like enough either – it sounds like you’re battling with a psychological perspective issue.

    I remember not feeling like a writer either but at some point I crossed that line (without having to be traditionally published) to getting that it has nothing to do with how anyone else defines writer or who qualifies me as a writer – it was more about self-esteem, feeling enough, and stepping out of group mind beliefs about having to fit in to a certain set of standards that are ‘made up’ anyway.

    I hope you can see and “feel” yourself as a writer so you can choose your writing gigs from a place of empowerment instead of needing prove something or feel okay about what you are doing. You are a magnificent writer (it’s just your ego critic that tells you you’re not).


  27. I was thinking some more about this and was reminded of Ernest Hemingway. He had worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Star then began his fiction career by writing and selling short stories. During this period he wrote a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in which he lamented that he wouldn’t be a real writer until he wrote a novel. Obviously he was a successful, professional writer, but to him the novel was the measure that determined when one became a true writer. I guess the answer to the question of what constitutes true writing – and subsequently makes a real writer – varies from person to person. Whatever is gratifying, I suppose. If the measure is money, fine – James Patterson is the highest paid novelist in the world but nobody with a bit of knowledge of the craft would consider his work notable beyond its earning power. He’ll be forgotten the minute he dies as have many big sellers before him, but I doubt he cares a whit about that. Fifty million dollars a year undoubtedly matters more to him than how he is remembered (which makes him the King of the Hacks). Hemingway felt differently, had different goals, and while he never sold like Patterson, his work will be studied for centuries to come. To each his own as long as you’re writing.

  28. Such an interesting quesion and so many interesting comments. The bottom line to me is that if you feel you are not a real writer until someone else (a publisher etc) publishes you and makes it “so” then you are giving your power away to others to define you and influence how you feel about yourself and your work – we are sooo way beyond that in today’s time of freedom, evolution and consciousness.

    I also don’t think a person will have much luck getting traditionally published until they “own” that they are a real writer – as within, so without the saying goes. In the end, it’s just a game and you get to choose how you play and who you play with (unless you don’t believe that).


  29. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Rob ~ Yes, if we were more specific than just “writer”, it would be easier to define what we mean by “real writer.” But, do you need a public forum to call yourself a writer? Isn’t just articulating yourself enough?

    Donn ~ Your comment made me realize that lots of people write books, and they’re not necessarily REAL writers. Like you said, writing – being a writer – is an identity. It’s not an occupation, like my doctor/lawyer example. (But truthfully, I want writing to be my sole occupation!)

    Angie ~ Thanks for responding to Sam. Sam, I’m with Angie on that one.

    Alexandra ~ Thanks for your thoughts. You teased out the difference between writing and getting published…and those ARE two different things. Good point.

    Larry ~ I love your definition of what a “real” writer is 🙂

    Heiddi ~ Thanks for your support. I guess we can be “real” writers, feel like frauds, and keep writing! Part of the struggle for me is that I have this blog about successful writing, and I want to be credible. I want to intimately know that which I teach.

    Robert Ballantyne ~ You seem to have a knack for cutting through the fluff and seeing to the heart of the matter! Thanks for your insights. Figuring out *why* I want to get traditionally published is a really good idea…what’s my motivation?

    Something for all writers to chew on.

    I really appreciate your comments — thank you!


  30. The definition of a ‘hack writer’ is one who writes for money. The general interpretation is that quality, passion, and attention to the craft are unimportant to the hack as long as he is published and paid. Is he a ‘real’ writer? Sure, but not an admirable one. Franz Kafka wrote some of the most remarkable prose in history and yet was never published in his lifetime and never made a cent writing. In fact he never wanted his work published, instructing his executor to burn all of his manuscripts after his death. Thankfully this didn’t happen. Was Kafka a ‘real’ writer even though he was never published and never made money. Absolutely, and an extremely admirable one. There is no one definition for what it means to be a writer other than ‘one who writes’.

  31. Robert Ballantyne

    Writing is something that you do for self expression, for working out ideas, for a client, or to communicate with other people. If you are a successful writer, then when you read what you wrote you can see that you did express yourself, or you did work out those ideas and have achieved some clarity, or the client is satisfied with the job you did (usually by paying you or providing some other form of exchange), or you have some reason to believe that you have (or someday may have) communicated with other people.

    The issue about being a writer is that you have achieved some level of success by writing. To be a writer, first you must have written. Then you need to be satisfied that you have met your goal for success in writing.That’s all. You are a writer.

    But that is not really the issue you raised. You said, “I don’t feel like a real writer.” Ok, you don’t feel like a real writer. Maybe how you feel about this simply does not matter. Or, it is ok not to feel like a real writer as long as you are writing and are successful doing what you are doing.

    I would suggest that receiving royalty cheques is only one relatively small measure of success as a writer. It also means that your personal satisfaction in your writing depends upon achieving approval from a very tiny group of people: those would publish your work and authorize those cheques.

    As I think about this, I am wondering if the desire for only that kind of approval is truly a worthy personal goal.

    It might be if you have something that you passionately want to express by using the traditional publishing options. I wouldn’t recommend that you write a book so that you can have the lumber on the bookshelf and the isbn on your résumé.

  32. I write therefore I’m a writer. What makes us writers is the act of writing. Plain and simple. I don’t need anyone to tell me that I’m a writer. I write.
    The need to have others confirm that we are is connected to our inner fears that we’re frauds. Laurie – I have them too. So much that even though I want to write for magazines, have bought & read tons of books, and have even started researching/writing articles, it hasn’t happened for me. But, that doesn’t take away from the fact that I’m a writer.
    Support is always good to help us keep these feelings at bay. Laurie you ARE a writer. 🙂
    Great post!

  33. larry czerwonka

    If you fashion words into sentences, sentences which convey meaning and spark feelings and new thoughts in those reading your work then you ARE a writer!

  34. Hi Laurie,
    What a nasty little question. Great timing though, as I am right now wrestling with Phase II of same: “What, exactly, is a ‘published’ writer?”

    When we’re talking about anything creative – writing, painting, music, design, etc. – the concept of ‘real’ does not apply. Anybody can (attempt to) do any of these things. I would think, then, that the more important clarification is, “Yeah, but are they any good at it?”

    Because ‘quality’ of creation is purely subjective, the whole idea of qualifying one’s talent becomes moot. It is experience – and the knowledge and wisdom that come with it – above all that defines us.

    I went to L’Universite du Quebec and learned to speak French. I was 18, away from home for the first time, in a province where I was suddenly legally able to drink. After all was said and done, it turned out that I didn’t need the actual ‘Certificat’ to prove I could speak French. (Thankfully!)

    If I create and print a document that looks exactly like a law degree and hang it on my wall, I am no closer to being a lawyer than I was yesterday. There’s a process.

    The greatest creation is that of life. Anyone can become a mother/father. But the true test of ability comes when mother/father become mom/dad. It’s the process that matters.

    To my adopted children, I am legally mother. It is the process – the time, the effort, the pain, the passion – that makes me their mom.

    Having written two novels – neither of which I ever intended to publish – I now call myself a writer. I lived those stories, created those characters, loved them, and missed them terribly in the end. I experienced the process that saw me sitting at my keyboard prepared to write my hero and heroine into their first kiss. I can’t explain my fascination as I watched them start to bicker, get angry at each other, and stomp off in different directions. I can’t explain how it felt to watch my words take on a life beyond my own imagination. But every writer out there knows exactly what I’m talking about.

    It’s the process that makes one a writer – of any style, genre, and form. In whatever fashion one chooses to express him or herself through the written word, no matter how often, how much, how good, or how bad, one becomes a writer by writing.

    Publishing, in any form, is irrelevant.

    It’s just a convenient way for us to try to measure what kind of writer you are.

  35. Sam ~ Although I don’t think you meant it as an insult, the idea that bloggers aren’t writers doesn’t sit well with me. Are there bloggers that are poor writers? Of course. I’ve read blogs that are absolutely horrid, I’ve read blogs that are absolutely spectacular. Blogging is a platform, nothing more.

  36. Laurie, I’ve even had the privilege of having my name on a book and cashing royalty checks–but it was for “just” a textbook. It would be easy to beat myself up about that. Musicians do the same thing. What’s it take to be a “real” musician? Get paid for it? Get paid a certain amount? Does getting paid to play in a bar count? Does it have to be something requiring tickets?

    A few thoughts:

    The vast majority of “real” writers, people who write all the time, people who get paid to write, never publish a book. They write for magazines or newspapers, etc. Many of them earn more than some of the writers who manage to get a book bought by a publisher–and then the book tanks because it’s not promoted. They’re certainly “real” writers.

    I agree with Rob: using doctors and lawyers as the standard would mean we must also decide there are very few “real” mechanics, “real” computer technicians, etc. In each of those fields, there are certifications for demonstrating a certain kind of proficiency, but that doesn’t mean the others are not real.

    There is also the trap of thinking that “real” is somehow tied to whether someone else pays for it. Was Emily Dickinson not a real writer because no one either paid or published her during her lifetime?

    Connected to thoughts about Emily, there is this: we use the phrase “I am a writer” the same way we use the phrase “I am male.” You are talking about identity. I casually use the phrase “I am a teacher,” but really I am not. It is more accurate to say, “I teach.” It is not a characteristic or an identity the way “I am six feet tall” is. So I’ve learned to say, “I write.” Sometimes, “I write for a living.” At other times, “I write for self-fulfillment.” Whether I’m “real” or not–I don’t think that term has any meaning at all, ironically. For sure, I’m not going to leave it to someone else to decide for me.

    Within the point about doctors and lawyers is the fact that, by force of law, you cannot call yourself by an occupational title unless you have met certain requirements. I really, really do not want to let any government decide whether I’m a writer or not.

    I think a silly commercial for a dating site captured it: they’re in a bar, and she says to him, “Wow, darts. Is that a real sport?” And he says, pointing to a logo on his shirt, “I don’t know. Is this a real sponsor?” It’s a very quick way of getting at a point: there’s a difference between the activity and how the activity is supported financially.

  37. Lawyers and doctors are different – that involves specific training. Writers go through the same training, but it doesn’t involve a school curriculum. It’s about reading, reading, and more reading…then writing, writing, and more writing.

    I would add that publishing a book doesn’t automatically make you a writer. If you get paid to write in some form or fashion, you’re a writer. If you can articulate yourself and have a public forum for that (blog, freelance articles, corporate website) then you’re a writer.

    Writer is a bit too generic a term today. I think specificity is required when talking about writers: Non-fiction, fiction, biographer, freelance, blogger, corporate copywriter, etc. To bring the comparison ’round again, it’s more useful to talk about kinds of doctors and lawyers (obstetrician, pediatrician, brain surgeon, corporate, real estate, patent attorney) than use the “generic” terms.

  38. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen

    Chen ~ that’s why I don’t feel like a real writer! No royalty checks to autograph 🙁

    Sam ~ how does that jive with being a “real” lawyer or “real” doctor? Some occupations require some sort of eduction or credential before people can call themselves by that title. Shouldn’t writing/writers be the same?

  39. A real writer is someone who writes everyday. Bloggers aren’t real writers – half of them don’t even know how to write.

    I’m a real writer. I don’t have a blog, but I write every day, sometimes just for ten minutes.

    You’re a real writer if you call yourself a writer.

  40. Some say you can tell a “real” writer by the number of times they autograph the back of royalty checks.