A is for Author

Once upon a time, when I was a Book View Cafe newbie, full of vim and vigor, energy and excitement, I started a series on this blog — the Author’s Alphabet. Alas, I over-estimated my time commitments elsewhere, and the series drifted into silence.

I’ve thought about my Alphabet some more, though. I’ve actually figured out what I want to say about 26 different topics. And so I’m starting over again, with all new posts (but the same old letters of the alphabet!) So without further ado…

When you call a series The Author’s Alphabet, you pretty much know you’re starting with “A is for Author.” (I suppose I could have started with “A is for Alphabet”, but then everyone would expect me to write an exposé about the mega-company-that-was-Google…)

So. A is for Author.


Simple. Straightforward. We all know what author means. Authors write books.

Authors are inscribed in the United States Constitution: Congress has the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their Respective Writings and Discoveries.” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8, emphasis added.) The U.S. Copyright Act of 1976 elaborates on those rights, setting up a system for authors to register their copyrights and to protect against infringement of their work.

But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t have an exclusive category for authors. Instead, it places “writers and authors” in one class, defining their primary occupation as: “originat[ing] and prepar[ing] written material, such as scripts, stories, advertisements, and other material.” Illustrative examples include Advertising Copy Writer and Television Writer.

Along the same lines, Eudora Welty famously called her autobiography One Writer’s Beginnings. One of the long-standing magazines designed to help people who want to be published is Writer’s Digest, and a literary magazine goes by the name of Writer. Thousands of college programs call themselves Creative Writing departments.

Is there a difference between an author and a writer?

Some people attempt to define the difference between author and writer as a difference in function. According to this school, an author creates, develops, and communicates original ideas, while writers record ideas created by others. One individual might perform both functions; however, the Function School seems to believe there are a lot of scribes-for-hire wandering around, capturing the otherwise unbound wisdom of authors.

The Function School’s parsing of words doesn’t have a lot of relationship to reality. There aren’t many people who fill journals with ideas, sketching outlines of concepts in preparation for a non-thinking wordsmith to reduce those concepts to reality. Moreover, the Function School ignores the legal reality of copyright, which explicitly states that authors own the specific expression of general ideas.

Another school defines the difference between authors and writers by the passage of time: writers focus on a single work they are currently creating while authors focus on the body of work they’ve created in the past. According to the Time School, writers are wrapped up in characters and plots, in specific stories they are in the midst of crafting. Authors focus on past works, defining their professional life in terms of the sum of their writing. Authors concentrate on series of novels, on acquiring a presence, a gravitas, in specific genres. Authors are established, and permanent, and career-minded.

The Time School is overly concerned with the success of a storyteller—authors only come into existence after writers see professional recognition. Moreover, the Time School doesn’t adequately recognize that one person can wear multiple hats in creating written work. Once a Time-School writer finishes a single creative piece, she doesn’t shove it in a drawer. Rather, she begins the process of fitting that work into her portfolio, placing it in a series, promoting it in a genre. At the same time, she likely has started on a new work; she flows back and for the between Time-School-defined writer functions and Time-School-defined author functions.

Yet another school divides creators into two camps according to their status: elite authors create literature; writers create everything else (genre books read for entertainment, advertising copy created to sell products, technical writing meant to instruct, etc.) According to the Status School, authors have been forged in the crucibles of great editors at powerhouse traditional publishers. Writers might have worked with less prestigious traditional publishers where they concentrated on churning out pablum for the masses. They might even have skirted traditional publishing altogether; the lowest writers, according to the Status School, are the self-published riffraff.

But the Status School does not reflect the modern reality of publishing. The days of Maxwell Perkins and Albert R. Erskine are long gone. Storytellers regularly make the bestseller lists and win awards without benefit of any traditional publishing houses’ editors. The slippery distinction between high status and low status is immaterial to a reading public hungry for Gone Girl and Fifty Shades of Grey; those avid fans aren’t going to care about fifty shades of meaning of the word “author,” of the word “writer.”

So, where does that leave us?

This series follows yet another school: the Rational School. To the Rational School, author and writer are used interchangeably. Authors and writers are people who tell stories with words. They have a process for their work, regularly allocating time to achieving their writing goals. They focus on specific goals, publishing specific material for a specific audience. Authors and writers keep one eye on their craft and another on their business. The rest of the Author’s Alphabet will look at that process, examine those goals, studying craft and business for the successful, rational storyteller.

What about you? Do you use author and writer interchangeably? If not, how do you define the difference between the terms?




A is for Author — 4 Comments

  1. I use them interchangeably; they mean the same thing, as far as I’m concerned. However, I have noticed that a lot of people seem to think that an author has more prestige than a writer.

  2. When asked what we do for a living, I’ve noticed that most writers answer, “I’m a writer.” The next question is, of course, “What do you write?” But if I answer the first question with, “I’m an author,” I rarely get the follow-on question. Maybe off-putting? Just an observation for you.

  3. I tend to use writer to mean a person who writes, and author when referring to the author of a specific work (or works). As in:

    Mindy Klasky, the author of over forty works of fiction, has been a writer for two decades.