Have you ever told someone in your life that you’re a writer? Did you immediately regret it? As with any other profession, there is no lack of misconceptions about what it is like to be a writer. Some of these misconceptions are simply annoying, but others can be downright harmful. Here are a few of the most common misconceptions about life as a writer.
You’re rich and famous (and if you’re not, you will be soon)
In 2020 one sad truth is that for many people, average people with average educations, writers are only notable if they’re famous household names. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin are names that the average person over the age of say 20 would be able to recognize (even if they couldn’t come up with the title of one of their books). It should come as no surprise then, that most people have no real conception of the thousands upon thousands of full time writers who are not rich and famous, but who make modest incomes more comparable to that of a teacher or a nurse than that of a NFL player. This misconception seems harmless on first glance, but it does lead to some dangerous assumptions — such as the belief that pirating books only hurts the rich and that writers who object to piracy are greedy, rather than worried about how they might pay the rent. And if you’re considering writing a book as a fast track to fame and fortune, understand that you might have better luck just buying lotto tickets.
Writing isn’t a real job
Has a friend or a family member ever said something to you along the lines of “wow, it must be nice to not have to work!” Most non-writers imagine you sitting at your computer after a leisurely lie-in, a nice cup of coffee in hand, sitting down to a relaxing few hours at the keyboard, doing that a few days a week for a few months, and then boom, you’ve got a book. Very few people have any idea how much work goes into producing a novel — the multiple rounds of revisions, the re-writes, the editing, the frustrations of the query process. Then, if you are lucky enough to get an agent, comes more editing, sending your book out on submission, waiting anxiously and hoping someone buys your book. Once you have a book deal, then come the pressures of marketing, knowing that if your book doesn’t sell well you might not be given the chance to publish another. All in all the process of writing a book involves several years of intense and stressful work. Is it the same as an office job? A teaching job? No. Writers have more control over their own schedules, it is true, but they tend to have less control over their income, and a lot more uncertainty, especially when they are just starting out.
Everyone has at least one book in them
Tell someone you’re writing a book and there’s a good chance that person will tell you they’ve always wanted to write a novel too. One of these days, they say, they’re going to do it. After all, don’t they say everyone has at least one book in them? Peek your head into any amateur Facebook writing group and you’ll see plenty of people in those groups who harbor big dreams of big book deals but have absolutely zero sense of how much skill, practice, talent, and hard work goes into writing a book. Perhaps because writing itself is a basic skill — we are all taught in grade school how to string words together to form sentences, even to write essays. “I got an A in English,” they might think, “how hard could it be?” Some of them may even have dabbled in fan fiction even, receiving accolades from fans so hungry for content that they’re willing to overlook the occasional lapse in voice or shifting POV. However, the truth is that writing isn’t easy, and not everyone can do it. Even if most educated people do understand the mechanics of writing, actually crafting a novel requires more than just an idea and the ability to write coherent sentences. A writer must understand how to create tension, how to craft believable dialogue, how to write interesting characters. Simply the act of actually completing a full length novel takes more patience than many people.
Ideas are a writer’s most important currency
This misconception seems to be particularly common among people who have had one good idea that they think would make a great book (or sometimes movie). Once I saw a wannabe writer unironically ask a group of fellow writers “how much do you think my idea is worth?” as if an idea alone has inherent value and that authors should be paying top dollar for such quality inspiration. I’ve seen amateur writers ask, in writing groups, “how do you all protect your ideas?” and other equally amateur writers suggest, in all seriousness, that you should guard your ideas tight, never let them see the light of day, lest someone steal them. These sorts of comments are a sure sign of someone who has no real understanding of what goes into making an idea into a book. Most writers will gladly tell you that the ideas are not the hard part. I have at least a dozen book ideas rambling around inside my head, and have no need to steal anyone else’s ideas. The ideas are easy — what’s difficult about writing is taking that idea and molding it into roughly 100,000 words with characters, description, dialogue, conflict, the works. In fact, give the same idea to two writers and the end result might be two entirely different books, one might be a Nobel prize winner, the other one garbage. The idea doesn’t make the book, the execution does.
All writers do is write
While it is true that the bulk of a writer’s job involves the physical act of putting words to the page, there is actually a lot more to writing than that. If I am writing historical fiction, for instance, I have to spend hours upon hours doing research, almost as if I were doing a dissertation for a PhD rather than writing a novel, and that’s before I ever write the first word. I will need to find pictures of the places I’m depicting, know the dates and timelines and people involved, and know all of the details about life in that era. If I get even one detail wrong, you better believe my readers will be ready to pounce: “This writer clearly didn’t do her research. Actually, in medieval France the type of head covering worn in 1345 would have been an escoffion and not a gable hood.” Don’t think readers are this petty? Read some of the reviews of popular historical fiction authors, and focus on the one and two star reviews. Historical accuracy will no doubt figure heavily. And research isn’t just for historical fiction writers — fantasy writers have to do research, as do contemporary writers, thriller writers, horror writers, and well, practically all writers. Say you’re writing a book set in a British boarding school, yet you’ve never attended a British boarding school yourself. Good writers don’t just “make things up,” they make sure that the details of their story are as realistic as possible, which requires a tremendous amount of preparation work.
There’s no doubt that writing is a very misunderstood profession, and one that, like many artistic pursuits, inspires at the same time both envy and derision. The next time you find yourself making generalizations or assumptions about the profession of writing, keep these things in mind. The writers in your life will thank you for it.