writer, author, novelist: pick one

I always pause when somebody asks me what I do for a living. I don’t mind talking about it, but it would be nice if there was a term to use that was not so ambiguous as the standard three are.

Here’s what I get:

Stranger: What do you do?

Me: I’m a novelist.

Stranger: Have you published anything?

————

Stranger: What do you do?

Me: I’m a writer.

Stranger: What do you write?

Me: Mostly novels.

Stranger: Have you published anything?

————-

Stranger: What do you do?

Me: I’m an author.

Stranger:

Me: I write.

Stranger. Oh. What do you write?

Me: Ransom notes.

Stranger:

Me: I write novels.

Stranger: Like, The DaVinci Code?

Me: Um, no. Quite different, actually.

Stranger: That was a good novel.

Me:

————-

So let me ask you, do you make a distinction between writer, author, novelist?

For me, a writer is somebody who could be writing anything at all. Technical manuals, greeting cards, letters to the editor — as long as it is a primary occupation. A writer isn’t necessarily published.
A novelist is somebody who writes novels, and, in my mind at least, has been published. Although I can imagine somebody saying: I’m a novelist, I have ten novels I can’t sell to anybody. So maybe an novelist is somebody who writes novels and tries to get them published, sometimes successfully.

An author is somebody who does not actually need to write, but who is published. So for example, OJ Simpson is an author (because there’s a so-called book out there with his name on it), but I wouldn’t call him a writer.

Joyce Carol Oates, on the other hand, is an author, a novelist, and a writer while Studs Terkel is a writer and author but not a novelist.

Do you use these terms the same way?  And do you have a suggestion for what I could say to people that would be polite, but forestall the “have you published anything” question?

10 Replies to “writer, author, novelist: pick one”

  1. For me, ‘author’ sounds hoity-toity. ‘Novelist’ sounds like all you’re interested in is writing novels (which granted, might be the case). ‘Writer’ sounds like you’re keeping it real…you write for a living, and you don’t restrict yourself to one format or other. I don’t make any kind of published or non-published connection, and honestly, if someone does it for a living, I would assume they’re published (or else independently wealthy).

  2. I say writer because that really does describe me–I write a variety of things–but that doesn’t stop the blank looks and (what I think are) ridiculous follow-up questions like, for example, have you been published? Many people really don’t grasp that every single word they see everywhere has been written by someone, and they were probably compensated for it.

    With the terms, I would use “author” for anyone who has published a book (whether they’re always a writer or not), “novelist” for someone who, yes, writes novels, and “writer” as a catch-all.

    I say use whatever you’re comfortable with and take the blank looks and dumb questions as compliments–that what you do is so amazing and fabulous, they can’t possibly wrap their heads around it ;)

  3. My take is to blame title confusion on the culture of celebrity. And maybe also – to that thing you’ve written of before: everyone wants to write a novel “before they die.” They’re just smart enough to know that actually being published is the fine line between credibility and dreamland.

    And that’s where vanity publishers can enter and steal credibility from the “author” title.

    “Writer” really sounds like a working person. Blue collar, almost, eh? I mean, sheesh, if they can go on strike, that means they’re in a union, and the picture in my head of a unionized anyone is that they work really hard to make a living (just my opinion, not necessarily truth).

    “Novelist” is almost a boutique title, in my strange head. A bit confining, sure, but descriptive.

    Maybe “I’m a ______ who lives in _______.” or “I’m a _______ who _______ on the side.” would satisfy you better than the simplistic statement. Because who’s simple anymore? And the focus would go onto the last activity you mention, which differentiates you from solo acts right off the bat.

    A novelist who blogs? A writer who blogs? An author who blogs? Do they have different tones? Or for that matter, A writer who drives a cab…An author who drives a cab…A novelist who drives a cab. Interesting how I make assumptions about motivation based on the position of the noun in the statement.

    Sorry – stream of consciousness got me there. It’s all up to you.

  4. You could pre-empt them by saying something like “I’m a novelist. My latest novel has just been published by Putnam. It’s called The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square and it’s a romantic comedy.”

    If you start off by giving them that much information (a) they won’t need to ask the additional question about whether you’re published or not, and (b) you’re spreading the word about Pajama Girls, and if they do ask an additional question, it’s likely to be about the book.

  5. I agree with Laura about how to answer people if they ask — go ahead and give them a bit more information than was initially requested.

    This is a very interesting question. I’m not published but I do write. So, does that make me a writer simply because I write? An author? Well, I guess that’s true also since the definition of an author is:

    a person who writes a novel, poem, essay, etc.; the composer of a literary work, as distinguished from a compiler, translator, editor, or copyist.

    It doesn’t say anything about being published — but it does take in a wide variety of work.

    A novelist? Yes, I guess that, too, because I do write novels. Five of them (so far) which have not been published (and several others which I wouldn’t even consider trying to get published). The title “novelist” really narrows it down — as would “poet” or “essayist”.

    The real question for me is not what I would say once I was published but what do I say now?

    Can you only really claim any of those titles after you’ve been published? Does it only count if you are published? If you actually make money doing it?

    I tell very few people in my “real” life that I write. Because the next question is usually, “what do you write?” And I really don’t want to get into any explanations. I suppose I could just say, “novels” and then when they ask, “what kind?” (and they will), I can just say I’d rather not discuss it. Which sounds arrogant and isn’t likely to ever come out of my mouth.

    Anyway, I think any of those titles will do, to be honest. I don’t think people, in general, really give it much thought one way or the other. Choose the one which fits you best.

  6. I’d first respond with “I’m a published Novelist.”

    If not, then the old “Why yes I am published, are you?” might be fun.

    Or laughing maniacally.

  7. Well, the “have you published anything” can have different meanings. If someone says they are a writer, I’ll want to know if they published anything because I love discovering new authors. But some people will ask that question almost in a condescending or mocking way. I would say you’re a writer, because first of all you haven’t only written novels, and also ’cause it sounds artsy-fartsy :) But seriously though, if they ask have you published anything, I would answer “does it matter?”.

  8. Storyteller is about as “revered” a title as I could imagine, timeless really.
    ..oh right, no, I don’t make a distinction between writer/author/novelist. As far as a forestalling suggestion..other then tattooing the names of your published books on your forehead? hehehe Sounds like a job for whomevers handy to clue peeps in as to your contributions to the reading public :)

    1. I think I agree with all your definitions. Maybe you could forestall the “have you published anything?” question by saying something like …. “I’m a writer (I kind of think that sounds nicer than novelist). Most of my books are historical fiction but some of my recent ones have been contemporary fiction.” If someone said that to me that would suggest to me that they had something published.

  9. I like the novelist answer. And also telling the person about your latest publication – or even about the series that you’ve written.

    I get a totally blank look when I say I am a scientist or that I do scientific research. I usually have to follow it up with a tidbit like “I study the effects of estrogen in the brain.” This usually elicits an interested look &/or conversation. So, more information is sometimes better, I think.

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