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What Is a Writer? Introducing the Institute Writer Showcase 

June 19, 2024


What does it mean to be a writer? 

It’s a more complicated question than it might seem—not least because the question of “Am I a writer?” is one that can produce considerable self-doubt in students and unpublished writers (as I can attest from many years of experience teaching writing). As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, in a beautifully concise way: a writer is “a person who writes.” If you write, then you are a writer. However well or badly you may write, the very fact of doing it already sets you apart from all the people who say to themselves, “One of these days I will write a book, or a screenplay, or what-have-you.” It’s easy to have vaguely optimistic and roseate ideas about how wonderful it would be to have written a book—it’s very different to roll up your sleeves, as it were, and get down to it. By the same token, you aren’t a gardener if you only think about gardening and read gardening magazines. You’re a gardener when you start messing around with plants and dirt in the real world, even if it’s only a pot of herbs on your windowsill. 

Interestingly, the word ‘writer’ is almost unchanged from its early medieval beginnings as the Old English word writere, meaning “one who can write,” from the verb writan, “to set down in writing.” For Old English scribes, such as the one who composed Beowulf, the emphasis on the technical aspect of writing made sense: in the seventh or eighth century, only a small proportion of the population could read or write at all, and writing a manuscript (literally manu scriptum, a document written by hand) on parchment or vellum with a quill pen was skilled work. Producing or copying a whole book meant quite a lot of manual labor and also expense for materials.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. Writing is no longer a specialist technical skill; in the Western world of near-universal literacy, anyone can write words down, and with the advent of word processors and computers, it’s possible to compose directly into type, skipping the handwritten part (for which I am personally grateful). Now the internet (purveyor of very mixed blessings) makes it possible for anyone who can type words on a screen to make those words available to a wider audience. In one sense, anybody who has ever composed a tweet or a Facebook status is a ‘writer’; anybody can upload their work to a platform as an e-book and be a ‘published writer.’ 

We have a responsibility to use our gifts and talents well and not waste them or pat ourselves on the back in complacency.

But if everybody and anybody can be a writer, something seems to have been left out of the equation. Turning back to the Oxford English Dictionary, we find that the dictionary says that “a person who writes” applies especially to “a person who writes books, plays, stories, or other works, as an occupation or profession; an author.” The choice of words of “occupation or profession” is important: very few people can make a living, professionally, by their writing, but it’s possible for someone to have writing as an occupation—that is, an activity that is done regularly and occupies one’s attention. If you are interested in writing, and you do it regularly, you are a writer. It’s good to feel empowered, to recognize that if you are doing the writing, then you are a writer. 

But now, as a working writer myself, and a teacher of writing—for thirty years now, as it happens!—I will note that this is a first step, and not the final destination. Alas, too many writers are encouraged by well-intentioned family and friends to stay in this early stage, doing writing but not growing as writers. Often these people become frustrated, bitter, or resentful when they don’t get wider recognition or publishing contracts; they absorbed the false idea that being a writer is a matter of inspiration and innate talent alone, that you either “are a great writer!” just as your mom says, or . . . you’re nothing at all. It’s true that some people do have talents that show themselves in their early writing, but these need to be developed, and writing is hard work. 

And so I turn to a helpful additional phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: a writer is “a person who is in the habit of or skilled in composing pieces of writing.”

I like that very much! A writer is someone who is in the habit of writing. It’s not something you leave for the flash of inspiration; it’s not something you do once in a blue moon; if you are a writer, then writing is a thing you do, as a habit, a practice, a regular part of your life. And a writer is a person who is skilled in composing pieces of writing. Notice the emphasis on the product here: it’s not all about how you feel as a writer, it’s about the “pieces of writing” that you create. Are you skilled at composing them, such that they are good pieces of work? Then you are a writer. And as a teacher of writing, I can attest that the connection between these two things is not accidental. The best way to become skilled in writing is to be in the habit of writing. 

Most people whom I encounter who are interested in writing have absorbed what I might call the ‘lone genius’ image of writing: that a writer has an inspiration, sits down, and produces a perfect piece. Possibly there might be a little adjustment of spelling and grammar, but that’s it. However, this is absolutely not how the best (and happiest) writers work. In my own work as a writer, I’ve been deeply influenced by the work of Diana Glyer on the creative collaboration of the Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien, and their circle of friends). In her academic study The Company They Keep, she demonstrated conclusively that the Inklings offered critique in a variety of ways, encouraged one another, and challenged one another to become better writers. Later, in a book titled Bandersnatch, she showed how we can do what the Inklings did, among ourselves. I use this book as a text when I teach creative writing. 

Writers learn by doing—and in particular, by being challenged to stretch and grow to greater excellence.

Writing in community is important: it helps us to do our best work—and for Christians who are writers, we have a responsibility to use our gifts and talents well and not waste them or pat ourselves on the back in complacency. All too often, Christians accept mediocrity in writing, as if pious good intentions are sufficient, and a wholesome moral message makes up for any and all other faults in the work. Well, it doesn’t. Piety and virtuous messages are not enough: we need writing that is excellent, writing that is compelling, that will draw in readers regardless of whether they share our religious commitments or not.  

This brings us to the Word on Fire Institute’s Writing Community, which I created and run as a place for Christians to grow as writers. The aim of the Writing Community is to help members to develop writing of the highest quality, in a variety of modes, forms, and genres and for a variety of audiences; some of this writing is directly related to evangelization and discipleship, but much of it is not, because as Christians, if we are writing things that are good, true, and beautiful, then we are presenting the truths of the faith, whatever the subject matter may be. The Writing Community also serves to help writers grow in their Christian faith; and to foster fellowship and community among writers. All the time, the writers in the Community are working on their own particular projects, and sharing their work with their fellow writers in small Writing Groups, using a feedback model that I’ve specifically created for the Community. In addition, for the whole Community I provide regular teaching about the art and craft of writing, and periodically run Writer Development Activities, precisely to encourage my writers to practice and develop their skills. Writers learn by doing—and in particular, by being challenged to stretch and grow to greater excellence.

I’m pleased now to announce that we have a new element of our Institute Writing Community: the Writer Showcase. The Showcase is a public, outward-facing site for the very best pieces written and workshopped by Institute members in their Writing Groups, submitted for possible publication by their authors and selected by me as the editor of the Showcase. My plan is to have a new issue of the Showcase twice a year, in each case drawing from the Institute’s Writing Groups. The results are for the wider public to read and share (and indeed, readers are welcome and encouraged to do so, online or in printed copies, as long as the author and original publication location is clearly indicated.) And if you are interested in being a participating member of this community, you are more than welcome to join the Institute and the Writing Community here.

The Spring 2024 issue of the Writer Showcase, The Evangelist’s Bookshelf, comprises a set of recommendations for books that, in a variety of ways, help Christians to share the good news of Christ in a culture that is all too often starved of goodness, truth, and beauty. I enjoyed reading the submissions and selecting the published pieces, and I think you’ll find some interesting and indeed surprising titles on that list. Happy reading (and writing)!