Can you call yourself a writer before you’ve written one million words? #amwriting

posted in: On writing | 8

IMG_7874Okay, it’s rant time again. I regularly pop around the blogoverse to see what’s what and I’ll often read a writing-related post. I did that yesterday (sorry, can’t find the post in question) and read the whole damn thing even though I started rolling my eyes pretty early in the piece.


Apparently you have to write a million words before you can call yourself a writer. It’s one of those bits of advice that does the rounds from time to time. This article went even further and said you should write ten one hundred thousand word novels and only try to sell the last one. Oh, I have to be fair. After you’d done that you could go back and re-hash the first nine because then you’d know how to do it. And the analogies were trotted out. It takes one million name-your-poison to achieve whatever. One million hours of practice to be a great violinist/pianist/guitar player. One million dabs with a paint brush to make a great painter etc etc.

So what makes a ‘good writer’?

Everybody knows Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling can’t write for toffee. But James Joyce, Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway can. Uh-huh. I’m a Philistine. Classifying something as ‘literature’ is enough to have me headed for the hills. I have not and will not read any more of Ulysses than the couple of pages I tried years ago. I never liked Dickens, despite having the books inflicted on me at high school and the one year of English Lit I should never have taken at university. No, I don’t think much of Dan Brown’s books, or Stephenie Meyers’. I wonder if they care? On the other hand, I loved Harry Potter and still do. My taste is for ‘genre’ fiction – science fiction, crime and fantasy. I love Tolkien, Asimov, Agatha Christie, Peter Robinson.

I’m quite willing to believe many of those writers I just listed wrote more than one million words. But not before they published their first work. And if you think you can’t sell your first novel, have a look at this list of ‘first novels’. I can add a few more, writers I know who have done exceedingly well out of their first novels. Toby Neal, whose Lei crime series has become a best seller and Elspeth Cooper, whose first two books were both nominated for the David Gemmell award. And yes, I know that Tolkien virtually rewrote The Lord of the Rings many times. I believe we refer to that process as ‘editing’.

Have I written one million words? Probably. A bunch of essays and a dissertation for my honours degree in history, a few short stories that disappeared somewhere, some fan fiction, numerous shopping lists, analysis reports for clients. Do they count? I had to learn to spell and use grammar correctly for some of those. Though I can’t vouch for the shopping lists. Few people are likely to realise that ‘ums’ on a shopping list at our house actually stands for ‘what are we going to have for dinner tonight?’

By now you’ve probably realised that I don’t think you need to have written a million words before you try to be published. Which does not mean that I don’t think it’s a good idea to hone your skills. Of course it is. However, you can be technically the best writer in the world but if you write a lousy story – you’ve lost the plot. Pardon the pun. In fact let me give you some examples. Asimov’s Foundation series is a classic of science fiction. However, I believe he took the series one or two books too far. I loved The Lord of the Rings but gave up on The Silmarillion. I’m sure we can all name examples where that’s happened.

Which simply illustrates the ONLY Rule of Writing that has any real credibility.


Ends rant. Got anything you’d like to add?


8 Responses

  1. David Michael Williams

    Hmm…I hope it wasn’t my website (titled One Million Words) that set you off!

    Then again, in one of my early posts (, I agree with you: one million is an arbitrary number. Some writers will need fewer and some will need many, many more before they have a well-written story.

    I also agree with this sentiment: anyone who writes is a writer; no “aspiring” qualifier needed.

    However, I do think there are different levels of writers, and in my blog I sometimes refer to “the dabbler” (though not disparagingly). The dabbler is someone who writes for the sheer joy of creation and (possibly) doesn’t consider any audience other than him/herself. I was once a dabbler, but when I made the conscious choice to start writing manuscripts with an eye toward publishing, I changed my approach to storytelling.

    That was back when self-publishing was taboo, but I have no regrets about cranking out those first few — admittedly amateurish — novels. And I’m grateful that self-publishing wasn’t as popular back then as it is today because I’m pretty sure I would have been tempted to publish them “as is,” and (to this day), they aren’t ready for mass market. They likely will never be anything more than finger exercises.

    And that’s the danger of the “anyone can be an author” paradigm. Sure, editors at traditional publishing houses have always had very high standards (with an eye toward business, bottom lines, etc.), and art is always subjective, so having those gatekeepers intrinsically prevented some good stuff from getting published.

    On the other hand, if any dabbler/novice/unprepared writer can (and does) publish his/her “early works” prematurely, it doesn’t really do anyone much good — not the readers and certainly not the writer.

    Today we find ourselves in the Wild West of publishing, and a reader never knows what kind of quality he is going to get when buying a book.

    Though perhaps that’s always been true, to some degree…

  2. Emma Larkins

    ALL OF THE YES!!! I admit that I do try and roughly track the number of words I’ve written, and I probably write better now than I did 100,000 words ago. But it takes a lot more to improve your writing than just typing out an endless stream of words. You can write 10,000,000,000 words and still be a terrible writer (really!) if you never take the time to re-write, edit, have a professional editor edit for you, receive critiques, submit for publication, get feedback from beta readers, take a class, experiment, read other people’s work, etc., etc. And sometimes, even “terrible writers” can find an audience who loves them! Rules like this are made for people to justify meaningless, stuffy-pants positions they hold. “Real writers” are too busy out finding their own systems for success to make this sort of stuff up 🙂

  3. mona karel

    For some reviewers, If you use polysyllabic words, your work is literary. And heaven forfend you write with too much “style”

  4. A.B. Shepherd

    Well said Greta. Of course writing skills need to be honed, but what a bunch of elitist garbage that person was spouting.

    I agree that literary fiction makes me run too. I want to read something that intrigues me, excites me and makes me feel things. Literary fiction doesn’t do that for me.

    • admin

      Marj is right, though, about the difficulty we sometimes face putting books into ‘boxes’. Books labelled as ‘literary’ might not be, I guess. But I’m sure we’ll all stick with the generalisation.

  5. Marj

    “Classifying something as ‘literature’ is enough to have me headed for the hills.”

    Oh yes indeed! You must have had the same dreadful English teachers as I did. The ghastly ‘literature’ that we were expected to attach farfetched meaning to. And yet, when HC did a review on ‘Not a Man’, they called it literary fiction. Maybe it was because, like me, they couldn’t fit it into a genre.

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