Are you a proper writer?

Years ago, I was on a Society of Authors retreat at Totleigh Barton, the Arvon centre in Devon. It wasn’t a taught course, but an opportunity to explore our writing ambitions as a group and with individual tutors.

Totleigh Barton

The group was made up of successful authors from every area of writing – medical books, Black Lace, children’s fiction, ELT, poetry… Without exception – well, except me, because I wanted to have a go at poetry – they all harboured a secret ambition to write a literary novel. They said they wouldn’t feel like a proper writer unless they could achieve it.

I was struck by this hierarchical view of writing. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with a prominent commentator in the children’s book world at a conference, which went:

Him: So what are you working on at the moment?

Me: I’m mostly writing for educational publishers

He gives me a disparaging look. I give him an enquiring frown. 

Him: Well, it’s second grade, isn’t it? Educational books are never so good.

I was cross and astonished. I’d written for both trade and education, and had always given both my absolute best. I was the same writer, whatever I was writing.

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that mainstream authors might look down their noses at educational writers; they were just different kinds of writing, and demanded different skills.

I had taken, and still take, a holistic view of writing, rather than a hierarchical one. I write all kinds of things for publication and for my own entertainment, including childrens’s and adults’ fiction and non-fiction, educational books, self-help, poetry, magazine articles and blog posts, and every single line I write feels fruitful and worthwhile, whether it finds a publisher or not, because it is helping to develop the writer that I am.

Of course, you could say I simply lack focus!

The holistic approach makes for a joyful writing life. You aren’t trying to hit goals set by the market, or other people’s judgements. You’re open to experiment because the goal is self-discovery, and every new discovery involves an element of adventure.

That’s how I view my writing life –  I’m a proper writer simply by virtue of the fact that I write, as are all the people who gather round my table for writing workshops.

How about you? Are you a proper writer, and if not, what would make you feel as if you were?


60 thoughts on “Are you a proper writer?”

  1. What a great post! I’m an educational writer too, and have often felt that I’ll be a proper writer if/when I’ve published fiction. I’ve been practising describing myself as a writer anyway lately.

    Love the picture of your books 🙂 I want your career! ❤

  2. Hi Beth – it sounds like time to stop practising and move right into that space! You’re a proper writer right now, plus you have some writing goals 🙂

  3. Hi there Jenny! 🙂

    I’m a writer who learns things while she writes, thats why i look forwards to every single day! 🙂

  4. Blimey Laura – it’s all there in that sentence! Writing, learning, and the excitement it brings to everyday life 🙂

  5. I completely agree, Jenny. I am a very holistic writer too and hop from one genre to another as and when I feel like it. To use a hairdressing analogy, as a hairdresser you wouldn’t just colour and never do a perm or a cut would you? This, to me, is what being a writer is about, and, as you say, putting the same amount of time, energy and passion into everything you write.

  6. Nice analogy, Abi 🙂 And to develop it, you wouldn’t say colouring was more or less of a skill than cutting – a well-rounded hairdresser needs all sorts of skills and then all kinds of customers are happy!

  7. This morning I’ve been sorting out boxes and I found various ideas that I have worked up for myself over the years, but have never finished or had published. I felt rather depressed about them at first, but your post is very timely indeed, Jenny. In fact, these ideas represent private experiments that have been vital to my sense of creativity.

    1. I feel another analogy coming on – you can’t grow apples without a tree! The published work comes out of all that creative growth and experimentation. I’ve written absolutely loads of unpublished stuff, some of which I’ve never sought a publisher for, some I’ve spared no efforts trying to place. I’m so glad my post was timely 🙂

  8. Lovely post, Jenny! I’ve written quite a lot of different things, and like you I try to give my best to all of them. But I sometimes encounter fans of my adult nonfiction who can’t understand why I’d bother writing children’s novels, too. And I’ve had fans of the fiction say that they don’t know why I bother with the nonfiction, since it isn’t “real” writing. But I feel called to do them both, and they both feed me as a writer. And like you, I find that’s true whether the work eventually gets published or not.

  9. Thanks Amy – you’re a writer after my own heart! Your comment inspired me to check out your website and blog – which I’m now following.

  10. What a crashing snob! When we pick up a pen or start tapping away on a keyboard we become writers. How annoying. (I admire you for not slapping him, by the way)

    1. I came close! We’re talking about someone very prominent in the children’s book world. As much as anything, I was astonished by his rudeness.

  11. “When are you going to write a proper book?” I’ve been asked that so often! (And my replies have become increasingly hair-curling.) I would ask, is Sendak’s ‘In The Night Kitchens’ a ‘proper book’? (I would call it a masterpiece.)
    I am a writer, which is like any other skilled craft. Sometimes I am employed to make things I wouldn’t necessarily choose to make otherwise – but as a matter of pride, I bring to them all the skill and crafts(wo)manship I have. And sometimes I think I’ve made something out of those pieces of work that’s better than the things I chose to do.
    I hate this snobbery about genre. Aren’t all books educational? (Even the bad ones – they sharpen your critical abilities.) Does calling a book ‘literary’ make it good?
    Dickens was a popular author in his day, not ‘literary’. Keats was despised for being ‘a Cockney’, that is, for appealing to popular taste.
    Write to the best of your ability, whatever you write. Enjoy what you read, whatever it is. And that’s it.

    1. ‘Write to the best of your ability, whatever you write. Enjoy what you read, whatever it is. And that’s it..’ Hooray to all that!

  12. Thank you, thank you What do you write then? – I get asked…
    I am presenting about what is a “proper” writing practice for NAWE next month. We should support each others aspirations not ambition and not top trump!!

  13. Ugh, what a snobby thing to say! Why should any sort of writing be seen as superior to another? I hope you told him exactly what you thought. I’ll send you the scathing cat from my blog post for future use! (And how spooky that we’ve blogged about almost the same thing again!)

  14. I feel like I’m a ‘Proper’ writer even though I have never been traditionally published. I have never sought a traditional publisher though. Instead I chose to go down the route of self publishing. Now I have two books selling on Amazon Kindle and various other online book stores.

  15. It’s weird, but while you must have been writing this comment, I was chatting to friends about how some authors now are choosing to by-pass the traditional route and self-publish. I know several people who have done just that, blazing the inde trail.

  16. hahaha just stand back and watch the space….that guy simply made himself look narrow and unaware….hardly a surprise. Writing is just Nature -perhaps he cant be natural? lol…

    1. Let me put it like this, Mel – he was not a writer of any kind – isn’t it wonderful how people who don’t do a thing can have such confident opinions about it?!

    1. Which is another reason why we shouldn’t make these value-judgements, I think, Alejandra – the most meaningful writing will be whatever genre a writer enjoys writing, and trying to do ‘proper writing’ such as literary fiction will undermine and devalue that

    1. I think that gets to the root of the matter, Escape Artist – when children learn creative writing at school, the focus is on skills and away from finding what they actually want to express. I asked some children on a school visit a few years ago what creative writing they had done recently, and they said, ‘Temporal clauses.’

  17. Love this post Jenny. It’s amazing the reactions people will have depending on what you’re write. I get a totally different response If I name drop a few popular magazines that I write articles for, compared to talking about my blog! I love all types of writing but it’s my blog that brings me the most satisfaction.

  18. Your blog has the most amazing reach Carolyn – every post seems to gather loads of heartfelt comments – you really connect. I find blogging very satisfying too – but as you say, people often don’t even register that as proper writing, they may even consider it a distraction from proper writing, although I’m the same writer, always writing to the best of my ability.

  19. As an editor of educational children’s fiction and a long-time-amateur, just-got-my-first-book-deal writer, I couldn’t agree with this blog more if it came with a cup of tea and a chocolate HobNob. Love it.

  20. Woohoo, Kate – you never mentioned you were a writer – congratulations on your book deal!! (I wish my posts could come complete with a cup of tea and a chocolate hobnob!!)

  21. If you write women’s fiction, you are often not considered ‘ a proper writer’ either – many of my fellow authors get asked ‘when are you going to write a proper book?’. And I was talking to a group at a party once, which included an English teacher-cum-unpublished author and another writer, Helen. The English teacher told the rest of the circle that he was asking ‘Helen for advice, because SHE’S a proper writer.’ With an emphasis on the ‘she’ and a look of disdain to me. In fact, Helen had published one very small-selling non-fiction work, while I had had several novels and non-fiction books published, and was also a successful journalist. However this English teacher still hasn’t been published, and that was 15 years ago!

  22. How rude! I hadn’t thought of women’s fiction, but I guess that could also attract the disdain of some people – particularly would-be writers. I personally feel a lot of would-be writers would actually be writers if they followed their hearts instead of their prejudices.

  23. Strength to your elbow, mate. I’ve written wedding speeches, ghosted UCAS forms, written for TV soaps, and ghosted biographies. I’ve done autobiographies, travel pieces, mentored private clients who want to get their memoirs down, done company histories… yet still I feelt that, with no literary novel out there, I will be looked down upon. I make a frigging LIVING at my craft, I pay TAX. have done for 20 years, and am a SUCCESS.

    1. I love the sound of your writing career! And massive YES to your SUCCESS, because making a living from writing is a huge achievement, and something I’m enormously proud of too 🙂

  24. When I was a teacher there were some fabulously-written text books that I just couldn’t have done without. I think being a good educational writer takes a particular skill – you have to make it work for the teacher, but also for the kids.

    I write partly because it makes me happy, and that includes all kinds of writing. Right now I’m blogging about writing my YA novel, and writing a report. Two entirely different ways of writing, but I find the feeling of contentment at the end of the working day is the same!

    1. Having written both for trade and educational publishers, I could not agree with you more. I’m the same when it comes to that feeling of contentment too – every different kind of writing brings its own pleasure – and when you’ve got a lot of variation, that makes for a lot of pleasure 🙂

  25. Nice post. I feel quite comfy in my skin as an educational writer and mostly mix with folks in the same area. I do feel a bit uncertain about the “author” tag though – it sounds like you have to be the originator of some great “oeuvre” rather than often part of a team contributing bits of text to a practical rather than great literary work.

  26. I heartily agree with you. My mantra is, I write therefore I am. No one can take it away from me, it can be a poem or a novel or a blog; published or secreted in a drawer for no one’s eyes but my own. Holistic over hierarchial any day. The fact that you commit words to a blank page is bravery itself.


  27. 🙂 Elaine – thank you for commenting. I wrote a post about the courage it takes to write a while back – you are so right.

  28. Hi Jenny – just to add to all the responses you’ve had – I do agree with you that it is not what you write, it’s how you write it – and most important, what you put into it, because in the end that is what readers will get out of it. I’ve written a tourist guide book, just published, about Paris during the French Revolution (website if you’re interested:, but I’ve also written a novel (black comedy about infidelity) and am now writing a saga about someone born in 1887 and who lived through WWI, etc. So you could not get three more different things – but as you say, it’s me writing all three, and they are all as important to me.
    Good luck with your writing!

    1. ‘What you put into it’ – yes, indeed, Jan. And that doesn’t just relate to what readers will get out of it, but also what you will get. Free-range writing gives me a feeling of freedom and abundance – I love the sound of yours. I’m going to think about historical writing in my next post – hope to see you there!

  29. I enjoyed this post and all the comments! Weird as I am, I only feel like a ‘proper writer’ when I’m writing non-fiction. When I write fiction, it feels like ‘cheating’ because I’m not researching, planning and creating the perfect way to present the info. Not that fiction isn’t hard – I’ve been dragging out one particular picture book MS for 7 months! For me, I defined myself as a ‘writer’ once it was my full-time job, and I was making a decent salary out of writing alone. And I agree with you, that the more eclectic the mix of work, the better!

    1. Hooray for this! I’ve been speaking up for children’s non-fiction for years. Where are the prizes, the events and the conferences? The only conference I’ve been aware of was in Swansea a while ago, and the opening speaker was Michael Morpurgo, who began by wondering why he was there, considering that he had never written a line of non-fiction. Says it all. Writing non fiction can be every bit as creative as fiction, but in a different way; it could be even more creative if publishers and booksellers were adventurous enough to look beyond the national curriculum.

  30. Hi Jenny,
    Great post! I started out in trade publishing — writing for a business magazine that went to retail executives — and we always felt inferior to editors who worked for consumer magazines. These days, I do a lot of business and consumer-products writing, and I love it — but when I tell people what kind of writing I do, I often get the same reaction that the prominent commentator in your post had. I love writing about bread machines and mattresses and dishwashers — helping readers learn what new stuff is out and how they can avoid buying a lemon. But many people seem to think I won’t be a “real” writer until my as-yet novel gets published!
    Glad to see I’m not alone in loving to write — in any form and for any audience!

  31. ‘I love writing about bread machines…’ – I love that! I reckon any writer who finds what they love writing and gets paid for doing it is blessed indeed 🙂 ‘Helping readers learn…’ – that’s a driver for me too, and one of the reasons I’ve loved writing educational and self-help books.I guess my idea of a ‘proper writer’ is one who always follows their heart.

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