Scalzi posted this last night, and I read it while eating dinner, and it got me thinking…
The (distilled) questions that were posed are:
When may you call yourself a writer? When may you call yourself a professional writer? When may you say you are a good writer?
The spirit of the questions, I think, hints towards prose writing (and Scalzi’s answers lends themselves more towards his fiction writing), but there are lots of “professional writers” in various media sources besides prose fiction. The distinction ultimately falls on the line of what the desired results are: thoughtful, coherent communication of ideas and events (reporting), or the thoughtful, coherent communication of a fictional narrative experience, aka: storytelling. The distinction between the two can be very fuzzy (hence we now have Creative Nonfiction), and while the core structural abilities are the same, the produced outcomes aren’t. One can be a good writer (technically) but a not-so-good storyteller.
The highlights, though, in case you decide not to follow the link above (for shame)…
(Question 1): A writer, on the other hand, chooses written words, and chooses them not just for mechanical and practical reasons, but for (or also for) esthetic and artistic purposes. Writerswant to write, rather than have to write. In presenting an idea, the medium they intend for it to be in is the written word.
(Question 3): When you are in control of your instrument. In the case of fiction in particular, this means having the ability to make your reader have the emotional response you intended for them to have, when you set down to write. To put it another way, when a competent writer tells you a story, you know what happened. When a good writer tells you a story, you feel it happen to you.
You’ll know when you’re a good writer when your craft is good enough that you don’t worry about whether you can do what you want to do with your writing, and instead you wonder about how you’re going to do it. You probably won’t notice the first time this happens. When you do notice it, it probably won’t be a big deal. You’ll be more focused on the writing.
At which point comes the self-assessment, and why it got me thinking last night. I am a good writer (in the technical sense) – my sentences are fine. Even with a few punctuation issues (darned commas!) my grammar makes sense. I know how to proof for spellings and complete thoughts. I’ve been told by instructors that when I’ve turned stories in they know the mechanics are something they won’t need to worry about. For me, it’s all about the storytelling. I think I am an okay storyteller (on paper) – definitely “competent with flashes of good” – but it is definitely my weaker skill of the two. I think the ideas are there, but have yet to be coaxed into being, something that should come with a lot more time spent spilling thoughts onto the page. But through getting the Masters – by the stories I chose to write – I’ve found myself moving more from the “Can I…?” to “How will I…?” state of mind.
I say this as someone who has only began begun focusing on wanting to be a prose writer (storyteller) in the past four years. To channel Heinlein, I’m still working on my first million words of prose. Hopefully I’ll be a better storyteller by the time I get there, and maybe I can have “flashes of great.”