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When is a Writer No Longer “Aspiring”?

Apparently that term — aspiring writer — is derogatory to some.

People who write are writers, they say. Whether or not they are payed or published. Thus, calling someone an “aspiring writer” is the equivalent of calling them a wannabe… even if they haven’t published anything. Of course, if this is true, it shrinks the “perceived” chasm between lots of professions and professionals. Then…

  • Anyone who plays a guitar is a musician.
  • Anyone who paints is an artist.
  • Anyone who acts is an actor.
  • Anyone who golfs is a golfer.
  • Anyone who writes is a writer.

Thus, a craftsperson never “arrives,” “graduates,” or “breaks out.” They’re just more of what they already were.

Perhaps it’s an exercise in semantics, but I’ve always considered the term “aspiring writer” to be rather helpful, descriptive, and not in the least derogatory. Just Google the phrase “aspiring writer” and you’ll find Articles for Aspiring Writers, Links for Aspiring Writers, Scholarships for Aspiring Writers, and Tips for Aspiring Writers. If the term is that degrading, you sure can’t tell by its mainstream usage. Most folks understand what is meant by the term “aspiring writer.”

It’s those who ARE “aspiring” who often take umbrage.

Recently, fellow WordServe client Jody Hedlund offered Encouragement for Aspiring Writers. So by using that phrase, was Jody being condescending to some writers? On the contrary, Jody was being encouraging (which she always is). Nevertheless she, like me (and most everyone else), recognizes a distinction between someone who is striving for professional publication and someone who has been contracted, professionally published, and/or is paid to write.

And maybe that’s the sticking point. In today’s publishing world, anyone can publish a book. So does this mean they are no longer “aspiring”?

I spoke to a man at my first book signing who, rather ashamedly, admitted that he’d published a book. Why was he ashamed? He’d self-published a devotional book for teens but rushed into the project. It was poorly edited and he’d developed no outlets for selling the book. Thus, boxes of his “published” book sat dusty in his office. Not only had he lost money on the venture, he had little plan to ever recoup that investment. Now he writes casually, hopes to finish a novel, and seek more mainstream publication.

Question: Is he still “aspiring”?

Which is to say, I’m beginning to think the term is relative. Note: That wasn’t always so. Most people used to understand what was meant by “aspiring musician,” “aspiring bodybuilder,” “aspiring journalist,” “aspiring chef,” “aspiring ANYTHING.” It USED to mean someone was aspiring toward some sort of accomplished professional status. But, apparently, that’s changed.

So maybe it comes down to WHAT we’re aspiring towards. You know, if you’re aspiring just to write, then once you start writing, you’re no longer “aspiring.” If you’re aspiring to simply publish a book anyhow, anywhere, any way, then once you do that, you’re no longer “aspiring.” But if you’re like most writers, you are aspiring towards mainstream traditional publication, or some professional equivalent. You are foregoing self-publishing or, at least, seeking a larger market than your circle of family and friends. One that, also, pays.

After six or seven years at this writing gig — which includes blogging, becoming agented, having pieces published in various print and digital outlets, signing a two-book contract, blah, blah, blah, I’ve FINALLY mustered the courage to call myself a professional writer in public circles. (Does anyone else have such reluctance?) Those conversations usually look like this:

“So what kind of work do you do?”

MIKE: “I have two jobs. I’m a construction worker and a novelist.”

I would not have said that two years ago. Yes, I was writing back then. Yes, I was agented back then. Yes, I had completed a full-length novel back then. But I had not been contracted, so I was still “aspiring.” It was a simple admission of a.) Where I was at, and b.) Where I wanted to be.

In fact, in many ways, I still consider myself to be “aspiring.”

All that to say, the term “aspiring writer” has NOTHING to do with one’s skill level, determination, or commitment to the craft. It has simply to do with one’s published or non-published status. At least, that’s how I see it.

So what do you think: When is someone no longer an “aspiring writer”?

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{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Bryan Thomas Schmidt October 23, 2011, 4:21 PM

    It blows my mind how easy it is to upset people. Aspiring to something was once admirable– a sign of bettering one’s self, a sign of reaching beyond the ordinary. Any writer who fails to aspire to do better isn’t worth his or her salt. The writing life is a journey. You can always learn more about craft. Always improve. In a sense, we are always aspiring. But aspiring to professional publication is a perfectly reasonable distinction. And given the synonyms and definitions below, any one who complains is silly and ignorant of what it means
    as·pire? ?[uh-spahyuhr] Show IPA
    verb (used without object), -pired, -pir·ing.
    to long, aim, or seek ambitiously; be eagerly desirous, especially for something great or of high value (usually followed by to, after, or an infinitive): to aspire after literary immortality; to aspire to be a doctor.
    Archaic. to rise up; soar; mount; tower.

    Main Entry: endeavor
    Part of Speech: verb
    Definition: attempt to achieve something
    Synonyms: address, aim, apply, aspire, assay, bid for, buck, determine, dig, do one’s best, drive at, essay, go for broke, go for, grind, hammer away, hassle, have a crack, have a shot at, have a swing at, hump, hustle, intend, labor, make a run at, make an effort, offer, peg away, plug, pour it on, purpose, push, risk, scratch, seek, strain, strive, struggle, sweat, take on, take pains, try, undertake, venture

  • Leanna October 23, 2011, 5:40 PM

    I know it’s just semantics but to me aspiring writer implies that you don’t currently write but plan/hope to write.

    I would describe myself as a writer (because I do write) and an aspiring author (because I plan/hope to publish what I write one day).

    Other than that writer/author switch, I agree with you. 🙂

    • Mike Duran October 24, 2011, 4:05 AM

      Leanna, you might like THIS POST at Storytellers Unplugged. The author makes a good argument that the difference between a writer and an “aspiring writer” is that true writers devote themselves to writing, learning the craft, and seeking broader publication, whereas the “aspiring writer” simply dreams about such things, but makes minimal (if any) effort.

    • Katherine Coble October 24, 2011, 12:32 PM


  • Virginia Hernandez October 23, 2011, 6:02 PM

    I think aspiring is quite nice. Better than what I always call myself. Wanna-be published writer. Yours sounds a lot better.

  • August McLaughlin October 23, 2011, 6:54 PM

    “Aspiring” to me sounds a lot like writer’s block…which I don’t much believe in.

    I considered myself a writer from the moment I decided it was so. Since then, I’ve written every day. As an author, which is past tense, I’ve completed (authored) my first novel and am writing (present tense) my second. Attitude is so key in this business…and in life in general. If we don’t believe in our work, who will?

    Thanks for the insightful post, Mike! Glad I found your blog. 🙂

  • Katie Hart October 23, 2011, 7:20 PM

    I agree with Leanna – aspiring author seems to fit better. I see an aspiring writer as someone who may read how-to books and attend writing conferences, but hasn’t really set pen to paper much yet.

    How much writing would a person have to do for me to view them as a writer, not just an aspiring writer? As you mentioned, I think it has a lot to do with that person’s goals, but in general I would see it as someone who writes regularly (an hour plus a week) toward a goal (articles or books – I’d tend to discount blogging unless it was more article-like instead of disorganized rants). I would also see someone as a writer if they wrote less frequently, but received income for the work they did.

    I see myself as a freelance writer (since I write articles for publication regularly) and an aspiring novelist (I’ve written novels but haven’t gotten one published). When people ask what I do, I usually tell them I’m a writer, though I’m definitely more prone to do that since I currently don’t have a “day job.”

  • Brenda Jackson October 23, 2011, 10:34 PM

    I don’t have the energy to take umbrage at every little turn of phrase and am not the least phased by being an aspiring writer. As to when I will no longer be aspiring? I’ll let you know. While my first response is “after I’m published” (and I don’t measure that by just traditional), I also know how hard I am on myself and my work so even after I’m published there’s a good chance I’ll still consider myself to be aspiring because I’ll always want to write better, stronger, more powerful fiction.

    • Mike Duran October 24, 2011, 7:02 AM

      Ha! I’m like you, Brenda. I feel like I’m still “aspiring.” There’s so much more I’d like to do and do better. Not sure if I need to lower my standards or just concede to be forever “aspiring.”

  • Patrick Todoroff October 24, 2011, 5:24 AM

    Semantics, connotations…. It’s important to define terms. “An aspiring writer” is one who has a strong desire to write. “Aspiring author” – meaning their ambition is publication – is a better term. Of all people, don’t you think writers should be aware of the distinction and meanings of words?

    I encounter so many people in writing groups/writing community who say they want to be a writer but don’t actually write that “Writers write.” has become my stock phrase.

    It’s seems obvious to me that we should aspire to better ourselves and our craft. But first you have to actually be doing the thing you aspire to improve.

    • Katherine Coble October 24, 2011, 12:46 PM

      An aside: Patrick, I think you must attend the World’s most annoying writers’ groups. 😉

      Whenever you mention the number of people in them who _don’t ever write_ I always end up wondering why those folks don’t just go bowling instead.

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller October 24, 2011, 4:50 PM

      Patrick, I agree with you. When Mike asked the question about aspiring writers over on Facebook, I had no hint that he meant “published author.”

      Aspire means to “direct one’s hopes or ambitions toward achieving something.” I don’t direct my hopes toward writing. I write. I have short stories and articles and completed novels and five years worth of blog posts (which amounts to 1,449 posts — on my personal site alone — or approximately another six books).

      Now if you asked about my status as a published novelist, I’d say I’m aspiring to publication.

      What other people might be thinking, I couldn’t say, but I know I don’t interpret “writer” as only those who have published novels.


  • Jonathan October 24, 2011, 5:44 AM

    Leanna has it write (pun intended). I posted on my blog some time back that while I am a writer I aspire to be an author, the difference being that an author is published. Although even this is not quite right, because I have been published–in a technical magazine of national distribution that mostly sits on the dusty shelves of university libraries hidden in the LOC format they use. So, technically, I suppose my definition of author would be published and filed in the Dewey Decimal System.

    For many years I aspired to become a licensed engineer. I aspired to become a father. I have always been a writer, but I aspire to become an author.

  • TC Avey October 24, 2011, 8:11 AM

    Well thought out. I can honestly say I have never put much thought into this. I consider myself to be “aspiring” for many of the same reasons you do/did and I have no problem with anyone calling me that.

    Perhaps it is because I have earned two college degree’s and know the hard work that goes into becoming a “professional anything”, therefore I know I have a great deal of hard work to do to become an actual “writer”.

    I wonder if some people take an issue at being called “aspiring” because of pride or self esteem issues? Or maybe it’s just part of how our society seems to be geared. When did hard work become so taboo with some sections of our society?

  • Jill October 24, 2011, 8:34 AM

    The root of aspire is the same as in the word respire. It means “to breathe on”. If you’re an aspiring writer, you’re breathing life into your vision. In other words, you’ve stepped beyond the concept in your mind and brought it to life. Hence, if I ever stop being an aspiring writer, my work is going to expire. Further hence, if I stop aspiring, I won’t be any kind of writer at all.

    I read Jody’s post (was anybody actually offended by it?). I did think it had a mixed message, though, because she compared wanting to be a published writer to her son wanting to be Batman when he grows up! 😉

  • Manahania October 24, 2011, 8:48 AM

    Perhaps the designation mistakes identity? I would like “transpire” better all together. The tentative quality of “aspire” is typically used by reviewers, judges, etc. to relish their own importance.
    How many struggling artists and writers were only recognized for their contribution postmortem? Perhaps the “aspiring” is more a morphing that needs to happen on the side of the reader. In a recent study answers to mathematical word problems received three attentions. 1. Correct, 2. Incorrect and 3. Perplexing. 3, is a whole new way of looking at answers that are derived at by minds who’s logical processing is simply “different” form the common.
    The ones that judge are now learning to be taken back by unconventional processing. I love it!

  • Erica October 24, 2011, 8:55 AM

    Hey Mike! Awesome post as usual.

    First I’d like to say I played around with words and career titles for over a year now. I didn’t know whether to call myself a writer, professional writier, author, published author, or aspiring author.

    It was a wind funnel of a year for me and sometimes a word’s connotation of a matter means more than the denotative meaning- I get that.

    So I looked at what I actually “did” 1)I write all the time, 2) I have published a poem in a University Journal and one book of poems in 2010, 3) I am currently working on a novel.

    What does that sound like to me? Well, my email signature now reads Author because I have published something and I do write. If I have not published I’d be called a writer, just not a “published” writer yet.

    And to me, it does not matter if you are self published or not…the word published is still in there. Your words are not sitting collecting dust..it is bound and distributed.

    That was my two cents 🙂

  • SherryT October 24, 2011, 9:31 AM

    I agree with the distinction between writer & author made by both Leanna & Patrick. At the same time, I’m conflicted or maybe just confused about my own standing.
    When I began writing in 1979, no one asked me what I was doing or what I called myself. No one “labelled” me, so I never needed to make the distinction between writer or author, aspiring or otherwise. I don’t know how I would have reacted in the 70’s & 80’s to such labels.
    If someone asks me now what I do, I say that I’m retired from such-and-such library and that I write. (verb, not noun) I’ve been saying this for over a decade–both before & after the publication of my books.
    Who/what do I actually think I am? I’m not sure but I’m closer to thinking of myself as an aspiring author–and probably for the worst possible reason.
    I don’t think this because I’m humble or because I strongly desire to learn more of the craft, though I do! The self-description springs from my frustration at consistently poor sales & virtually no recognition outside the kindly fellowship of the Lost Genre Guild. Wounded ego.
    Recently, I had my short story, “Shadow Harper” accepted for publication in “UnCONventional”. My inclusion in the anthology, the complex work with editors & galleys, the publisher’s very professional PR plans, even the more complex contract all worked together to convince me for the first time that I’m now a professional author.
    Two books beginning in 2008 with virtually no marketing and nearly non-existent sales never did that. This is from the person who pre-publication used to say she would be content if one person, even one person she never knew, were to read the 1st book and get something out of it.
    How could I feel like “just an aspiring writer” up until the acceptance of “Shadow Harper”? Mea culpa.

  • Katherine Coble October 24, 2011, 12:42 PM

    As with others I am a writer who aspires to have a completed, professionally published work of fiction.

    I’ve had plenty of NF published as either WFH or in shelter publications. (white papers for the risk management industry, etc.)

    There are all kinds of writing in the world and at the risk of being labelled “too sensitive”: yes, I am offended when someone refers to me as an ‘aspiring writer’ simply because I haven’t propubbed any fiction yet. To me that’s like a heart surgeon saying an OBGYN isn’t a doctor yet.

    I will accept “aspiring novelist” gladly and “aspiring author” grudgingly. But I passed “aspiring writer” around the time I was ten and finally mastered cursive. At that point I went from oral storyteller to writer and it’s been onward ever since.

  • Heather Sunseri October 24, 2011, 3:25 PM

    Hi, Mike. I really tried not to comment on this post (yet, here I am, I know), because I truly loathe labels. I don’t think I’ll ever have an opinion as to whether someone else should have the right to call themselves a writer before they are published. It just seems a little too judgy and gate keeperish.

  • Laurie M. October 24, 2011, 10:48 PM

    I stopped thinking of myself as an artist when I stopped creating art. Outside of my own head, however, I never referred to myself as an artist, lest others confuse me with a professional, or think I was being pretentious.

    If I am not a writer, than what am I when I am writing? I think of myself as a writer, because I am ever writing. I never identify myself as one, because I am an amateur. I’m not sure what to do with the word “aspiring”. I don’t find it insulting or offensive, but my literal mind interprets it as a person who likes the idea of writing, but hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

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