Is writing work?

What is work? Is writing work? If so, when, or at what point do you earn the right to call yourself a writer?

I chanced upon a very moving blog post yesterday by Jennifer Lynn Krohn that asks a version of that last question. What she said resonated with me and mirrors the struggle a lot of budding writers experience juggling their day jobs with writing. Yet, her post is not just about this struggle of the writer for her daily bread. For me, the post is also about defining herself as a person within the writing profession.

“When I was younger,” she says, “I would shy away from calling myself a writer because my writing wasn’t serious, wasn’t good, wasn’t published, wasn’t published in a paying magazine, and myriad of other reasons. I now say that the only thing that makes a person a writer is that they write.”

Many of us experience a struggle between writing and other jobs that we have to do in our daily lives. We have to decide on time management, allocation of effort, investment and commitment. Writing as a profession only pays the lucky few to justify its existence in their lives.

Yet, anyone who writes even a few words a day knows that writing isn’t easy, that it requires hard work and if there is indeed a muse who simply appears before one and writes through them, that flow of inspiration through their system sure leaves them exhausted like any other work.

Yet, people write on. People keep working at their writing in their different stations in life. Their writing is viewed in different ways depending on who they are. The rich are seen to cultivate writing as an “accomplishment,” something like how Jane Bennet may have played the piano in Pride and Prejudice.  The college student writes despite homework and exams to express an aspect of themselves or to display a side of their identity to others or perhaps because they are not yet tainted with a cynical view of what work is. The depressed write to find themselves and the old write either to live life a second time or to leave the world a legacy. The poor write during their breaks from hard physical labour for reasons much harder to speculate on.

Are all these people writers? Is this writing work? What is work? Is work an activity that either yields pay or some kind of value from an employer or a social system built on consensus where the person who works is rewarded with money or some kind of social/cultural capital such as success and recognition or change that is desired by the writer?

Can writing, in other words, be defined by the usual parameters of what work is?

I don’t know. All I have is a post I wrote a while ago that I find strangely calming and somewhat strangely distanced from the daily humdrum of work. It begins like this:

It’s 4:30 am. It’s quiet enough for me to be able to hear the low gurgle of the refrigerator punctuated by the intermittent swishing sound of the heater as it’s coming on intermittently. The river is dark outside and the lights on the banks of the river are glowing like diamonds because it’s going to be a clear day.

The everyday sounds of the day in full blast are still mute. I can get in touch with a part of myself that turns my thoughts [to] writing.

Was this writing work?

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54 thoughts on “Is writing work?”

  1. I often feel this way as a writer, thinking that if I was a paid writer, maybe I could call myself a writer. But I guess that if you write and are passionate about writing, then, you’re a writer to me. Thanks for the post!

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  2. It is work in so many ways, from an inspiration that becomes an idea which becomes a thought, and hopefully a more finely cultivated thought. Knowing that whatever I write could always be better, but making myself stop because otherwise I would never get anything out there – that is work to me, just as it is work to keep on going until the idea that feels “right” emerges. But what marvelous, wonderful, life affirming work it is! Great post!

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  3. Of course writing is work.

    There are very few things you can do in this world that are worth doing that take no effort. Effort put into a project over time is work.

    Even if it doesn’t feel like it.
    Even if you never publish it.

    Did you spend time writing? Then it’s work.

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  4. This was a very interesting read. From my point of view, writing is most certainly work – it’s my day job. However, I could not do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I personally find a great deal of pleasure and accomplishment in even the most mundane of writing tasks.

    My bread-and-butter is writing stories and related materials in the fantasy, sci-fi and steampunk genres, on behalf of a games company and using their IPs. This is easily the most enjoyable portion of my work, but it is still very hard; summoning up the creative wellspring within can be very challenging, and not exactly predictable. Sometimes things just write themselves, but on other occasions its a real struggle, requiring repeated reworks and edits as if you’re forging a sword.

    In a sense, this is why I find regular business blogging very refreshing – tight, well-defined briefs with a clear endpoint, which you can shape and forge into concise and individual little projects. It sometimes gives a welcome break from composing epic plots and in-depth worldbuilding. Variety is the spice of life imo :)

    P.S – deadlines are actually a great means of galvanising your effort in my experience! XD

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  5. Yep. Writers write. Brenda Ueland, in her marvelous little book, “If You Want to Write,” told me that sitting on the couch with your head lost in a forming story is “writing work.” So, when my wife sees me there, splayed out, lost in thought, and she asks what I’m doing, I just say “working.” She gets it, thank goodness.

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  6. I see writing as work. Now, mind you, I enjoy writing (well beyond content mill writing :) ), but I consider it work, for a very simple reason:

    If I consider it work, then it puts me in the mindset to stick to a schedule. And of course there are different types of writing. Finishing up a first draft and seeing your work done…is wonderful, and maybe not work.

    The fifth copyedit where you want to throw the dog in the trash but you keep going? That’s work. (or torture, sometimes they merge).
    All I can say is that to me, anything you intend to do seriously and well is going to be, at some point, work– doesn’t mean you won’t love it though.

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  7. Hmm, I’ve published two novels, but writing is still something I can’t settle to until I have dealt with everything currently shouting for attention – people or dirty socks. In my mind writing is playtime and I have to earn it. Some days I don’t get to it at all.

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  8. No one here (so far) has used the word “author”. Maybe there is a distinction that anyone can be a writer but to be an author requires having something published. Maybe being an author means writing fiction specifically, just as a poet writes poetry (whether or not it is published). I’ve been a computer programmer but not qualified to be a software engineer, and I have created websites but am not qualified to be a web developer. Until there is a certification for it, I’ll call myself a writer, professional or not.

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  9. I always equate work with doing something I hate, but I see the validity of your question. Even if we’re doing something that we’re passionate about, excelling at it is work. Writing comes to me in a frenzy at times, and sometimes it’s drier than a draught. But, keeping at it is a lot of work and that’s what I believe, makes me a writer.

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  10. Reblogged this on The Writing Catalog and commented:
    This is definitely something to read if you are interested in writing. It touched me, and it made me think. Rather than saving it for an opportune moment in the attention cycle, I decided to reblog it right this minute, because I don’t want to lose it.

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  11. I don’t know if that excerpt you posted was work or not. Only you know that. But, in general, yes, writing is work. And writing is hard for everyone, no matter how experienced or published you are, writing is hard.

    When it comes to the question of whether it is work or not, getting paid doesn’t enter into the equation for me. If I go out into my own back yard on a saturday and dig a ditch, it’s work. If I sit down to write a journal entry that no one is every going to read, but one that needs to express EXACTLY what today is like for me, well, that is work, too.

    I’ve never been published, but I have supported myself with my writing skills for most of the last 20 years, so I am willing to say that a lot of people who write but do not publish are writers.

    I would never, ever tell someone “no, you are not a writer.” That’s not for me to say, it’s for them to say.

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  12. For some reason this too me back to when my mum would right. although she never called herself a writer she said she was a scribbler but I disagree my mum wrote some wonderful stories back when I was a child to read to us.

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  13. Interesting post and an interesting initial post that you are commenting on. I will probably have to add something to it later in response as well. That is a very telling article that you linked.

    I think the first poster here really sums up my thoughts. If you are writing, you are working so long as you are adding value to your experience, to somenoe else’s experience, or to a work. Work is value, and there is very little to wrtin that does not somehow add value.i

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  14. I’d call my writing work but I wouldn’t call myself a writer.

    That’s interesting, isn’t it? I’m not sure I’ll ever call myself a writer. I can’t even see myself owning that identity if I was published or writing full-time for an actual income. Maybe something magical will happen when i reach 30, though! Who knows?

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  15. Ońly you can answer that. To me, it was capturing a moment of your life on paper. Writing is never work for me. All I have is this silly blog, but for me it is therapy and replace and expressing thoughts I could never express through vocal words. Great post. Made me think!

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  16. Of course it’s work. It’s great if you get paid for it, and it’s great if it seems more like play, but it’s definitely work.

    When I was young and still fairly stupid, I shied away from calling myself a writer, even after years of being employed as a professional journalist – my first job out of college and my career for the next 25 years. Back then, a writer was a Bradbury, an O’Connor, a Hemingway – someone with a Great Novel under his or her belt, or a brilliant collection of short stories you could hang from your neck. All the while I was writing and editing thousands of words on deadline on a daily basis as a newspaper editor.

    And yet sometimes even my family – all non-writers – had trouble seeing my career as work. It sounded like something fun to do, even glamorous, as opposed to the *real* work of being a teacher or salesman or accountant. I made it look easy, and I loved my job, so did it count as work?

    I got over that delicate notion in my early 30s, the first time I turned out a 5,000-word magazine cover story within a three-hour deadline, and it was a damn good one, thanks to the dedication and plain, hard effort I had put into my craft over many years. No doubt about it, I was a writer, and it was definitely *work.* If anyone challenged that notion, I invited them to perform the same feat without being eternally embarrassed by the result.

    Whether you write as a professional or write write as an act of compulsion that you perform furtively when you should be doing your day job, no one else can tell you whether you are are “real” writer or not.

    But it’s always work.

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  17. when my writing begins to feel like work I just wanna throw away the pen. In my natural state my mind is far more lucid and capable of producing better results. if I name it ‘work’ I put myself under all kinds of pressure. An interesting blog here. Thanks.

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  18. Yes.

    I think the real question, though, is who exactly is a writer?

    With such a low barrier to entry, anyone can call themselves a writer. If you can put words on a page, congratulations, you are a writer. But as a fiction writer, I consider writing an art. This presents other problems.

    Art is highly subjective. Once you combine that with the low entry barrier, it becomes extremely difficult to say who is and isn’t a writer or who is and isn’t “working” when they write.

    I think the biggest issue here, at least in this country, people don’t understand how to evaluate art anymore. They don’t care so the “anyone can do it” idea becomes pervasive. Because of this, more and more people write and stress about whether they are “working” or not because they simply can’t tell if they are, as you say, creating value. Many, frankly, aren’t.

    But if you are committed to the art, learning technique, studying and absorbing material in your medium, producing an end product you fully intend to place before an audience to be evaluated, setting goals for your future in the medium, then you are definitely working.

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    1. An excellent response. Yes, the question boils down to creating value. I agree. While the “anyone can do it” idea does create problems, as you say, the idea of over-specialization, also extremely prevalent in this country, sometimes creates its own problems. To be a writer, in that sense of specialization, isn’t the same as being a programmer or a doctor. Not only can anyone do it, but by its very nature, everyone should and must be able to do it. Nothing kills writing and narrows its scope like specialization. Yet, writing needs training and skills.

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  19. Thanks for posting this…it is a subject on which I spend a lot of time in conversation.

    Is writing work? Yes, damned hard work. Is writing vocational employment? For me, yes; but for many, no or not yet.

    I was fortunate to find an employment version of my passion (magazine writing, ad copy writing), albeit the employment version is not the form of writing about which I am currently passionate (screenplays, comedy writing). But even though I have yet to sell a screenplay, my business card reads “Storyteller” because no matter what I do in life (e.g., my amateur photography), I am creating a story.

    I believe, you are what you choose to be…that it is something determined from within rather than from external metrics (e.g., permission, salary, job title). You are a writer if and when you say you are a writer.

    But everyone’s journey is their own and I wish them all the best.

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  20. Interesting question. For me, “work” has a negative connotation, so I’m reluctant to call writing work, because it might take the fun out of it :) There are lots of things done for fun that are difficult or time consuming (scrapbooking, model car building, etc.), but I wouldn’t call them work, either.

    For me, I struggle with calling myself a writer because I’ve not published anything aside from my blog, and poetry contests from high school/college days. It’s true, the product is writing, but I can’t bring myself to use the label of “writer.”

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  21. It’s weird, in my day job, there’s been a debate raging for years as to what kind of programmers can call themselves developers. Or, what kind of people who write code for a living can call themselves programmers. Now it seems that in the thing I do for relaxation and personal expression, people are debating what does and doesn’t constitute writing. At this point in my career, I write more personal stuff in blog posts than I do code at my job (now managing programmers). Does that make me a writer and not a developer? I wouldn’t call myself a writer and I’m not sure I’d still call myself a developer, but I know both activities when I see them.

    If you’re making your living as a writer, it’s work. If you hope to someday make a living / portion of your living as a writer, then you’re investing in your future self (which is work). If you’re writing for any other reasons, and the result of your writing adds value somewhere, to someone, then it’s OK with me if you call yourself a writer and it’s OK if you say you’re working when you write.

    I’d like to think that if you feel like you’re working when you write, then you’re working. If you write as well as you do but you don’t feel like you’re working when you do it, then you’re blessed.

    I hope you all figure this out, but I hope you keep writing.
    D

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    1. I’m glad you commented. Your comment has a way of tracing a logical progression, in sort of in an “if/then” loop that I found interesting which is probably a reflection of your background. One imp aspect of being a writer for work or fun is that it’s always influenced by the other work/fun activities you do, such as your comment here.

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      1. I totally get this. I really enjoyed this comment from Dan. I write because it is the best thing I have done for myself in years. No pay. No job. Just simple pleasure. I do hope others find something of value when they do read my blog. Alesia

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