What’s “Real” Writing – and Does Yours Count?



(Image from Flickr by erink_photography.)

Back in 2008 – 2009, I had two major strands to my writing: the blogging and freelance web writing that paid the bills, and the fiction I was writing as part of my MA in Creative Writing.

I felt uneasy, though. I worried that my paying work must seem hack-like to my fellow MA students – and that my fiction-writing would look indulgent and silly to the blogging world.

Of course, no-one was paying that much attention to what I was writing. My fears weren’t really about other people’s opinions – they were about my own uncertainty as to what “counted” as proper writing, and my inner critic’s insistence that whatever I was doing, it somehow wasn’t worthy enough.

And I know I’m not the only writer who feels that way.

Let’s take a look at some popular reasons why writers think their words somehow aren’t good enough to count as “proper” or “real” writing:

#1: “It’s only for money.”

The “true artist starving in a garret” image might be comforting when you’re struggling to make ends meet … but don’t let it convince you that anyone who makes money writing is a hack.

There’s nothing sordid about money (even though we Brits might struggle to talk about it!) Unless you’re using your writing to support a scam or something that you consider unethical, you have every reason to be proud of your writing.

Think about it this way: unless you were a good writer, with something to say and the ability to say it well, no-one would be paying you to write.

Writers don’t need “pure” motives to create wonderful books. Little Women, for instance, was written rather reluctantly by Louisa May Alcott, at the request of her publisher, who wanted a story for girls. It became her best-loved book.

#2: “It’s just fan-fiction.”

Fan-fiction writers often have a particular hard time. They may be unable to talk about their writing to friends and family, who’d find the whole idea confusing or weird. They don’t normally have any prospect of making money from their writing (though that’s changing with Amazon’s Kindle Worlds).

I think fan-fiction is a tougher challenge than most forms of writing. Capturing the essence of someone else’s characters is hard. Fan-fiction writers are hugely inventive, too – coming up with original characters, alternative universes, and of course unique plots.

Fan-fiction writers do have a great advantage, though: they’ve got a ready-made audience for their work. This can provide both motivation and useful feedback, helping writers improve faster.

In the past, authors often used characters and even plots from earlier works. For instance, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (written, confusingly, in English) used existing characters and stories, drawing them together and adding new material.

#3: “I know it won’t be published.”

Publication might be your end goal – but that doesn’t mean your writing was wasted if you don’t manage to find an editor who loves it.

Many authors today are turning to self-publishing – for greater creative freedom and a greater share of the profits, not as a second-best alternative to traditional publication. With websites, blogs, and ebooks, it’s easy and relatively cheap to put your writing out there for the world.

You don’t even have to write with publication in mind in order to be a “real” writer. You might keep a journal, for your eyes alone, or you might write letters, for a single reader. You could be writing a memoir, to be read by close family and friends. All of that still counts!

Plenty of authors write at least some material with no thoughts of publication: journals and letters, for instance. (Some of these do get published posthumously, such as Anne Frank’s diary.) Writing for publication, or being published, doesn’t magically make your writing more worthy.


So … whatever you’re writing, keep going, and don’t worry that it’s somehow not “real” writing. Ignore anyone (including your own inner critic) who tries to tell you differently.

I’d love to know what you’re working on – especially if you’re worried it somehow doesn’t count. Drop a comment below…

Thanks for commenting! I read all comments, and reply to as many as I can. Please keep the discussion constructive and friendly. Thank you!

21 thoughts on “What’s “Real” Writing – and Does Yours Count?

  1. Today I started writing the story I’ve had in mind for quite some time. It’s a second trial (I deleted the first draft) and I hope I can manage to write it until The End. Since I’m still looking for a job, I hope I can spend my free time for my writing. It’s hard to keep feeling inspired, though… I do have publication in mind because I want to be a writer – I can’t imagine doing anything else. But I’m worried about the bills, too.

    Anyway, I’m glad you’re back – missed your articles! (PS: Kitty is such a precious girl!)

    • Nurul, it’s great to be back — and I’m touched to have been missed. 🙂

      Best of luck with the story, and with job hunting. Loads of authors have “day jobs” to pay the bills — I worked in IT for nearly two years before I started freelancing, and it’s still my non-fiction writing rather than my fiction that brings in money. I love both, though. Even if you can’t find a job that’s got anything to do with writing, it’ll provide new ideas and new perspectives that you can use as an author.

  2. Ali,

    Just started following and really enjoyed this post. I have been writing in the blog above since 2008 and very few pay any attention. Yet I keep slogging on. I do it because I love it and desire that something I write might make a difference for someone. Anyway, thanks for giving me good reasons to stay the course.

    Pura Vida

    • Thanks, Scott. Do keep on going — you never know how much of an impact you might have on someone.

      In my earlier days of blogging, I had about 30 readers, and it felt like nothing (some of the blogs I read had thousands) … but then I imagined them all in a room together and realised that 30 people reading my work is a whole classroom full of readers!

  3. Awesome post, Ali! Thanks for the words of wisdom. I think many people struggle with this issue, and I’m so glad you addressed it. I think it’s especially hard for fiction writers still working on their craft, struggling but not getting paid for any of it. Even though it’s tough, every word you write will make you a better writer, so keep working at it!
    Jessica Flory’s last blog post ..The Secrets of Getting Romantic Tension into Your Novel

    • Thanks, Jessica. I agree fiction-writers have it tough — and you’re absolutely right about every word making a difference. 🙂

    • Good question! To be honest, it’s both. When I write, it’s with the aim of getting in front of readers (not necessarily immediately) and I’m understandably happy when a post gets lots of comments or my books get good reviews. 🙂 However, I also like feeling that I’ve done my best and written something high-quality — even if it never gets read, or doesn’t get the response I’d hoped for.

      (I’m sometimes surprised at which posts go down well and which ones get a more muted response — it doesn’t always bear much relation to how much time / effort / thought went into the post..!)

      • As I learned from Mark McGuinness and Seth Godin, you have to be able to split your brain: be passionate about the art for the art’s sake, but also have the gumption and drive to share it.

        I’ll tell you what connects with people: it’s not polished prose, it’s heart. Tell the truth about how you feel, and people will line up to read it.
        Joel D Canfield’s last blog post ..Finding Why is a Procrastination-Killer

  4. I sporadically write in a journal, and am currently working on my novel. I also roleplay, which is a huge amount of writing, but in small amounts.

    Thank you for writing about fanfiction! I’ve been wrestling with myself a bit about writing that, so this helped me out!

    • Yay! I think fanfiction writers have it tough, because there’s not a huge amount of respect for fanfiction as an art form / genre outside fairly internetty circles.

      The great thing about a journal (not that I’ve ever been more than *very* sporadic at journalling myself) is being able to look back after a few years have gone by; it’s like a little time machine to your earlier life. 🙂

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful perspectives here. I’m always encouraged to hear authors say that journaling is real writing.

    I’m getting close to finishing the first draft of a short story, my first fiction piece. I don’t work consistently on it for the very reason that it doesn’t feel like real writing. It’s time to find a writers’ group so I can get feedback from someone else besides my inner critic.

    Will your group be opening up any time soon?

    • Jacki — I’m opening up Writers’ Huddle tomorrow (Tues 25th June). You heard it here first…! 🙂

      Very best of luck with the short story; I think it can be very hard to give fiction the time it deserves. What’s working for me at the moment is having a specific time in the week for fiction (Fridays, currently).

      • Good news about the Writers’ Huddle!

        Also — I just finished Lycopolis and loved it. You now have another 5-star Kindle review.

        • Thanks so much for the lovely review, Jacki! I’m really glad you enjoyed Lycopolis. 🙂 Book 2 is coming along slowly, but I’m hoping it’ll be out either late this year or early in 2014.

  6. Sigh–I worry about this all the time. When I try to write for money it feels wrong, because I love the art of fiction and creative nonfiction. I think I’ll look like a hack (or feel like one) if I try other forms of writing. But then I come across a blog like this one and realize it can be done very, very well 🙂

    • Aww,you made me blush. 🙂 Thanks, Elizabeth!

      I find it helps to remember that a heck of a lot of writers wrote for money before me — and produced some wonderful art in the process. There’s a collection of columns by Nick Hornby called “Shakespeare Wrote for Money” (haven’t actually read it yet… but what a great title!)

  7. Hello, Ali

    I read your posts here and on Dailyblogtips.com. You write well and I learn a lot from your writings. I am a professional freelance writer and write for my clients on oDesk, which is one of the top freelancing sites. I just want to know if you think that the number of writing jobs posted on oDesk and Elance will increase or decrease down the road. I work full time on oDesk as a blog and article writer, and I am also planning to start my own How-to website. Is it a good idea to start a How-to website for making money? Please reply me ASAP.

    • Sorry for the slow reply, Abdul! I’ve not used oDesk or Elance myself, but I don’t imagine the jobs will decrease — there’s always a demand for writers. I would suggest, though, that you build up a client list outside the sites. A “how-to” website sounds quite broad — I’d recommend choosing a specific topic to cover.

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