Define Writing

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I’ve read a gazillion (literally) how-to articles concerning writing. Heck, I’ve probably written at least a million of ‘em.

But just the other day, I was pondering this thing we call “writing” and it occurred to me that the reason so many how-tos need to be written is because nobody has taken the time to properly define, exactly, what writing is.

After all, once something is properly defined, it seems to me that many of the “how-tos” will automatically fall into place.

So, considering this article is heading out to over 10k working writers, it’s with just a bit of trepidation that I take on the monumental task of defining, to the best of my ability, what writing is.

As a somewhat intellectual person, at the barest sense, writing is communication. It’s the transmission of my thoughts into your mind. The tools I choose to transmit these thoughts are known as “words.” You filter each of my words through your experiences, perceptions, and biases and (hopefully) a modicum of my intent remains.

On the barest sense we’ve got: my thoughts transmitted through words, translated through your filters, and we’re left with your final interpretation of my thoughts.

Unlike verbal communications, your reader doesn’t have nonverbal cues like intonation, gestures, facial expressions to help with this process. We have printed words. Sometimes we can YELL, emphasize, highlight, or stress but that’s about it.

And how do you get words to say what you mean them to say? Let’s get back to defining writing.

My first definition sounds kinda clinical. Not sure I like it. I’m going to dig deeper.

I correspond with a ton of writers each week. From what I hear, and from personal experience, I have a hunch that to many of us, writing is a dream. It’s something we’ve longed to do forever.

In many respects, these people I correspond with seem to link being a writer with writing. Face it, the prospect of saying, “I’m a writer,” can feel pretty cool. If calling yourself a freelance writer and writing were linked, then barking and being a dog would be linked as well.

But both you and I know that isn’t necessarily true.

Yes. When you write, you’re a writer. But are you a “writer” if you don’t write?

I know tons of “writers” who talk about writing, they visit forums and discuss writing, they may even blog about writing. But writing about writing? Is that writing? Does that make you a writer?

In fact, if you were to really get clear about this subject, you’d have to acknowledge that many of the “how-to” articles actually trip you up when it comes to writing. You get so caught up in technique, not making “mistakes” and doing everything just right, that many aspiring writers wind up spinning their wheels, terrified to simply let go, and let the fingers start flying over the keyboard.

I understand, I’m venturing into some fairly gooey territory here. To make matters worse, I’m about to slip further into the controversy pool here. Starting with this little gem:

If you aren’t actively working on a project, any project of some sort, you aren’t a writer.

Writing isn’t preparation. Writing isn’t planning. Writing is… writing. It’s sitting down every single day and pounding out a few words. Hopefully far more than just a few, but a few will always trump zero.

Writing is not online communications. Writing an e-mail doesn’t make you a writer. Even writing an eloquent e-mail doesn’t necessarily count. Forum posting? Nah.

Writing is not perfection. It’s merely a reflection of your best on any given day.

Writing is consistency. It’s heaven, it’s hell. It’s a life long relationship with the tools of your trade: words.

It’s joy. It’s solitude. It’s introspection, it’s a reflection of your world.

It’s introspection; pouring the message you were given onto the page, unconcerned with potential backlash.

You are modern day scribes, recording the events, no matter how mundane, of your life.

Journalistic writing is often impartial, always striving to reflect both sides of a story. Writing is often manipulative, ask any advertiser.

Writing is pure power. This is why corrupt governments regulate the flow of words.

I agree with Stephen King when he says that writing is telepathy. When you read what I wrote yesterday, you are experiencing my telepathic communication. When you read an ancient manuscript, you are experiencing history.

Writing is magic. Time ceases to exist for the reader while in the throes of a great novel.

Writing can be boring, exciting, thrilling, harrowing… it all depends on the interpretation of the reader.

It’s a truly astounding subject, this thing we call “writing.”

And despite burning this much bandwidth trying to define this nearly undefinable subject, all I can say for sure is this:

Sit down, right now, and start writing. Once you do this, you’re a writer. Period.

I’ve posted this article on my blog and I want to hear from you. What are your thought?

Define writing. And just as an aside, does a working definition of “writing” change the way you approach the craft? Post your comment by clicking below.

  • Judith

    Definitions are definitely key. How can I know what you are saying if I don’t know how you define the word?

    I love the concept that defining takes you the first, most important, step on your journey.

    At the moment I’m finishing an article for a website. So I am a writer.

    However, I’m not actively working on my book — so I’m not an author. There is a difference.

    Thank you for bringing definition to the forefront. When I want to be an author seriously enough, I’ll be working on the book.

    You brought into focus what I need to see and understand. Thanks for the Aha! moment.

  • Beth

    Awesome! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • I am a writer. I am a editor. I am a writing mentor. I am not an author…yet.

    But I am struggling with my local “writing” group. I need to tell them that they are not writers… wanna be writers, maybe. Ummm, I think I’ll just refer them here. You can say it for me.

  • Barbara Johnson

    This is so good Beth. Thank you.

    Yes, I’m one of those with a dream of writing. It’s been my dream for so many years. I kept it nourished all this time in many ways.

    For 25 years now, a friend and I, both writers, have corresponded with paper letters. Like the Seinfeld show, most of the letters are about nothing. We write about our lives and our families–AND what are we doing about our writing dreams. It’s encouraging.

    About 2 years ago, we finally turned to email. Probably why the post office has to charge more for stamps.

    As I read those letterrs, I’m surprised at the good material. Right now I’m gathering the best and going to work on a book about friendship and family and life and seeing God work in the rough places.

    Yes, writing is magic. I totally lose myself in my stories and articles. And when I hear from people who enjoy my writing, I’m thrilled!

    I totally agree with Judith. You brought into focus what I need to see and understand. And Judith discussing the difference between author and writer.

    Thank you both!!

  • I’m a musician, as well as a freelance writer. One can draw a comparison in all the arts, asking, what is music, what is art, what is writing? Those topics are so broad, and under their umbrella are subsets, and subsets under those subsets, until you get into quite specific niche markets. I wish I could speak Italian, because I’m sure the saying loses something in translation, but it goes, Let there be no argument or dissention as to taste. There’s business writing, and creative writing. Under creative writing, there’s poetry, short stories, novels, movie scripts, plays. All are writers. And what if you do write and never sell them, or never even show them, aren’t you still a writer in the broadest sense of the term? Writing may serve its purpose in being therapeutic, say in a journal; or writing that angry letter that you decide not to send. And if it communicate even only to you, doesn’t it quality as writing? Now, not all writing is equal or successful. But that’s a whole other topic, isn’t it?

  • If you consider emailing to be writing, basically we are all writers. We have to write (whoever thought the QWERTY keyboard would literally beome the keys to all success when it was designed to keep early typwriters from jamming up?) to live. We cannot pay our utilities or pay our cell bill so we can talk unless we can write. Therefore, to write is to live. The defining question becomes, “Do I get paid to write with discretion?” Stenographers and court reporters get paid to write, for sure, but not at their own discretion. I call myself a writer because I am, at long last, paid to write with discretion. Anticipation of payment counts, however aspirational and however distant. Payment is the goal of a writer, not necessarily the goal of an artist.

  • Barbara Silberg

    I write poetry (my first love), short stories and novels, as well as write a local interview column for National Awakenings Magazine. (When you squish 3 1/2 hours of interview into an 800-word article, yes, that’s writing.) And I’ve just had an essay published in an anthology: Voices of Autism. I’ve only been paid for the essay and the column.

    But I’ve published few of my poems (none for money–yet) and none of my short stories or novels. Does that mean I’m not a writer? No. That only means I’m not a full-time professional writer.

    I AM a writer because I write, not because I share–or do not share–what I write for a fee. I am a writer because I use my imagination to construct images, characters, scenes, chapters, plots and because I transfer my thoughts onto paper, C or zip drives. I’m a good writer because I go back, study what I’ve put together, then perfect what I’ve already done. If nothing else, the work and thought behind the process makes me a writer.

  • Lori

    I don’t consider myself a writing, but I have always had a wish to become one. I have tried my hand at writing a newsletter for women and had some of the gals who read it say they liked my style, but my schedule is quite busy and often times when I do have a few moments to myself I am pretty tired and am not interested in sitting at the computer clicking a story or article out on the keyboard. I do not have time to write the newsletter anymore and miss that. I have wanted to write articles or even try writing a book. I wish we had a group in town who was interested in writing – but I know of no one interested and again with my schedule I am not sure I would have much time to devote to it even if I found a group or attempted to start one. I have tried writing on, but time again is a factor. I also am critical of what I write and so I end up crossing thru most of what I have put on paper and don’t get far. I have tried to do some journal writing, I enjoy that. I have created or kept prompts I have ran across and work from those and find they do allow me to broaden more of what I write about or my thoughts on different topics and I guess I personally feel it is a form of writing, but no one has ever read what I have written, but there are things I have written I would not mind sharing with others. I may not be a “writer” in the proper definition of the word, but I do believe I am a writer in process and that anything I can do to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is hopefully a step closer to maybe someday making my wish become reality. My biggest wish is to have free time to be able to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I hear of people who are raising a family, volunteer, and still have time to write articles or books and I admire those people and wish I had all that energy! Anyway that’s my two cents on that. Thanks for allowing me a voice and another opportunity to “write and share” my thoughts!!

  • Ian

    It’s not necessarily a definition of writing as such, but I try to approach writing with something 19th century author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, once said: “Words – so innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them”.
    With every word I write I wish to become a better writer, to become a craftsman handling words as a painter would would his paints, to produce a work of art, a thing of beauty, for others to delight in.

  • Michaelangelo said, “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.” He proved that great desire can bring about accomplishment. However, desiring to be, thinking or talking about it does not make a writer, artist, or world class swimmer. I like to think that “I write/paint; therefore I am. It’s the doing that makes it so.