• What Makes a Writer Legitimate?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 14 comments

    Chitter & ChirpIn response to our latest email, which itself was a response to WriteByNight writing coach Steve Adams‘ recent Talking Writing essay “Money is Random,” several of you addressed our sign-off question, “What do you think makes a writer legitimate?” We’ve selected a few of these to share with you today:

    David R. reflects on the moment he sensed his own legitimacy confirmed:

    I dunno. I wrote for free for years to get my name out there and was quite prolific. I thought of myself as perfectly legitimate then, but when I got my first advance that sealed it for me. I understand writing is an art form and writers should do it because they love it, but in my opinion that’s what everyone should do … what they love doing.

    Meanwhile, for Jackson M. the answer boils down to two simple, but often elusive, attributes:

    I’ll go with honesty and compassion. I think those are the two most important elements to making a writer “legit.”

    For Kenneth H., it’s all about connection:

    A writer’s “legitimacy” can be ascertained by two metrics:

    1) People he is not acquainted with seek out his writing, read it and talk about it.

    2) A legitimate writer feels the need to write as acutely as the need to breathe. Any money that accrues as a result of their words-to-page efforts is a happy accident. With the possible exception of Dickens, whose familial obligations combined with a taste for actresses required him to apply himself to his craft to stay financially afloat (read: “get paid for serial stories in Punch magazine”), no legitimate writer sits down to write with the thought of turning a buck. For one thing, there are a great many far less taxing ways to do that. What a genuine writer wants ultimately is to be published. They want a connection with readers. They need it as surely as they need to breathe.


    Martin B. shares with us his attempts to communicate with his book group made up of non-writers:

    The avenues to legitimacy in writing are as varied as the people who walk them. As for success, that, of course, is a different metric altogether.

    I attend this book group, a collection of fairly close friends, but not writers. They know that I’m a writer, though, and I’ve tried sharing with them—because they’ve asked—the difficulties of getting published and how sometimes a writer ends up giving away a story that took him a year to write. To them, my friends, this gifting of a story is pure folly. Of course, the story’s just not good enough, or I’m not good enough, because there’s something just effed up about a writer not being able to sell what he’s produced. Right? No, not right, I tell them. It’s not about money. It’s about legacy. (Oh, yeah, they rolled their eyes on that one. I might need a different set of friends.)

    Among “rescued literature”—non-writers won’t understand this—there’s a book by George Gascoigne, The Adventures of Master F. J. (1573). Gascoigne wrote it knowing he couldn’t publish it during his lifetime because he would have drawn down the wrath of the nobility, including Queen Elizabeth. But he wrote it anyway to document an important aspect of social life in England. Such manuscripts were often circulated among friends but not published. A waste of time? For anyone looking for a strictly monetary rationale for writing, yes, I suppose it would be a waste of time.

    Finally, Justin R. looks at the question through the lens of one of his favorite writers, the late Tom Clancy:

    What makes a writer legitimate? I think it means being buried in your own world. Whether you keep a journal of your life in order to relieve stress or you have always dreamed of seeing your name on the cover of a book on the NY Times Bestsellers list. You don’t have to be a genius to be able to write a book; personally I think you need some inspiration and the will to finish what you start. Tom Clancy only wanted to see his name in print, and while he was writing his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, which is one of my personal all-time favorites, he was working as an insurance agent. He didn’t really intend on becoming famous until one day a news reporter happened to see the late president Ronald Reagan with a copy of the book and asked Reagan what it was, and he replied, “It’s a good yarn.” And that was what set him for life, and there on out he was known as an incredible storyteller.

    What I am trying to say is that regardless of background, we all have the power to achieve greatness as long as we are willing to go the extra mile. For me, writing is an escape from reality into my own world, even if it’s for a matter of hours a week, but when I am writing it’s like I am free, and nothing else matters except for what I am working on. That’s what I think makes a writer legitimate.


    Now it’s time for the rest of you to sound off. What do you think makes a writer legitimate? Let us know in the comments below. And if you’re in need of a weekly (and tasty!) writing treat, subscribe to our email list, either in your right-hand sidebar or by ticking the “Join” box beneath your comment.


    David DuhrWriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is books editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and contributes regularly to the Dallas Morning News, Publishing Perspectives, the Observer and others.

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    J. Sommers

    I don’t think there’s a universal answer. It’s up to each writer to determine at which point he or she becomes legitimate, according to his or her own definition.

    (Is that taking the easy way out?)

    For me, it was getting my first paycheck. But that’s a sad way to define legitimacy, and in no way do I endorse it.

    Though I did happily endorse the check, and had my boyfriend take a photo of me while doing so.

    Jensen B.

    Justin R. writes “What I am trying to say is that regardless of background, we all have the power to achieve greatness.” I would agree with that. But “greatness” and “legitimacy” both have to be defined by each writer him/herself. I think I’m legitimate because I believe that I am legitimate. I felt that way even before I published anything. And when I did publish something (finally!), I didn’t feel any more legit than I did before. But if another writer’s sense of legitimacy comes from publication, or money, or whatever, that’s his or her business. And if that writer… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    [Yes, I’m Justine’s Internet doppelganger :) ] What makes a writer legitimate? I think a better, or at least clarifying, question would be “What makes a writer illegitimate?” Writing pot-boilers to earn a living, like Dickens? Being a flash in the pan, like Harper Lee? I’ve known a couple of famous (within their genres) authors who scorned their own money-makers in favor of their “masterpieces”. What I observed, from reading both, was that their toss-offs actually conveyed the same things that their masterpieces did but in much more digestible form. One of them eventually acknowledged that he had had to… Read more »


    Legitimacy is a perception. Your own level of commitment with your work is almost imperceptible to your audience at some point along the road. “Legit” a word among many for which others you would prefer to be referred to as, but would have little value to you in your level of commitment to your work, which of course would come long before legitimacy is a question. Bukowski said, “the drag is for me, and the ash is for the tray.” Meaning he really didn’t give a crap about what his readers thought, which would seem his legitimacy as well was… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    Well, I don’t know exactly what I can say about myself. My fortes are the essay and technical writing. If what makes a writer legitimate or not depends upon the nature of his or her output, then my legitimacy depends upon whether you, or I, think essays, technical documents, and such are legitimate. More to the point, does the legitimacy of the creator (novelist, poet, painter, composer) depend upon the legitimacy of the creation? (What does that really mean, anyways?) Or is it the other way around? I would say that some of my work is more amusing, more entertaining,… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    My editor is a dear friend. That does pose a problem, rarely, because there are one or two topics that I’m embarrassed to discuss with her.

    Jerry Schwartz

    I should also admit that I’ve probably been one of those “mean” editors at times. If I’m handed a draft that is full of misused words, run-on sentences, inconsistencies of tense and person, grammatical errors, and poor punctuation I can get pretty zealous. My feeling is that you need to know the rules before you break them. With any luck, the author will meet me halfway.

    […] proud of your pub credits, and you ought to be. (Especially if pub credits is your answer to our legitimacy question.) They look wonderful when written out in paragraph form, don’t they, one after another after […]

    Amanda Craig

    I know I’m joining the party late, but I wanted to throw one more wrench into the discussion–and since the conversation might be dead at this point it will just be wedged in there permanently. Wen it comes to a discussion of “real” or “legitimate” writing, I’ve found that even the industry itself can, at times, make writers feel illegitimate (for lack of a better word). I’m a copywriter who plans to write a brilliant novel somewhere down the road in my life. While I prepare to take that plunge, I dig into news and resources that keep me up… Read more »

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