Many young (and adult) people like the idea of being an author. Many even write short stories, or novels, or movie scripts, in their spare time, sometimes publishing them online or in amateur publications, but when they come to the moment where they could chose to become a professional author, most don't dare to take that step. Some, because they realize that they don't want to put the pressure of having to earn their living on what is a pleasant pastime, thus destroying the fun of it. But most, simply because they don't know if they would succeed. There is not test for the ability to be an author, no assessment center to go through, that will tell you if you have what it takes to be successful at the job of writing.

So, without having to waste decades on a lost case, or, conversely, without wasting your life in a job you don't enjoy when you could have become the next John Grisham,

how can you tell that you have what it takes to be an author?

Sure, sheer luck and the unpredictable trends of the market play a huge role in wether or not a book or author will become bestselling, but probably there is something that all authors share that (a) enables them to do the job of writing every day for half a century, and (b) makes them reasonably successful at it for them to earn their living with it.

Beyond the basics of knowing how to read and write (well), how can you tell – without having to live to the end of your life and, looking back, think that that wasn't it?

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    Let your heart yearn for it and make it the desire to fulfill it someday through your 'works'.When I say works I mean your scripts that you've been writing over decades. Thank you. Commented Nov 15, 2014 at 7:20

9 Answers 9


"A professional writer is an amateur who didn't quit." Richard Bach

I think that quote just about sums it up.

Having said that, I think an important element of this question is:

When do you consider yourself a successful writer?

For some people, finishing a novel, publishing it on Amazon and having at least one person read it to the end can be considered 'being a writer' achieved.

For someone else, they won't be happy until they've got their book traditionally published and on the shelves of Waterstones.

Someone else might not consider themselves a 'proper' writer unless they're making their living from writing.

I order to know if you have what it takes, you need to know what you mean by 'being a writer'.

Once you've decided what you consider writing success is, then you will know you have what it takes as soon as you achieve that. If you don't achieve it, then you didn't have what it takes.

Writing (novels, anyway) is not a particularly reliable or effective way to make a living - even many traditionally published authors still have to do other jobs.

So, in my experience, the people who write, never do it because they want to be rich and famous like John Grisham or JK Rowling. They do it because they can't NOT write. They just can't help themselves, and if they try to stop writing for a while they start to get twitchy and bad tempered.

So perhaps it's not about whether someone has what it takes to be a writer, it's about whether the drive is so strong that they have no choice.


You know how John Grisham found out if he had what it took to be an author? He wrote a book and tried to get it published. That's how everyone finds out if they have what it takes.

A few caveats - Grisham, like most aspiring writers, had a day job. In his case he was able to use his day job as a direct contribution to his writing - he was a lawyer and wrote books about the law. Handy. But even if you're working in a 7-11, you can still take things from your job (people you see, thoughts you have, etc.) and use them for your writing.

So you don't have to make the choice between making a living and trying to make it as an author. You can do both, as most authors have.

Also, the idea of "what it takes" makes it sound like a static condition. That is, people either have what it takes or they don't, and if they don't there's nothing to be done. Most people who start writing produce crap, often for quite a while. But if they stick with it, they get better. There's debate about whether innate, unchangeable talent for writing exists, but even if it does, the vast majority of writers also have to put a lot of work into their craft. I'd say it takes a mix of raw talent, positive attitude toward critiques, and practice in order to be a successfully published author. Someone could probably be a good writer with only two of them, but will probably need all three in order to be great.

But the only way to know whether your current work is good enough to publish is to submit it for publication and see what happens.

  • Fairly, a creative mind and a supply of ideas does help.
    – Weckar E.
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 9:43

That depends on your definition of an author. Anyone who writes could be considered an author. But it sounds like your definition is implying that an author is someone who writes and publishes professionally.

If that's the case, then yes, having the standard things like pen/paper and an idea are important. But you also have to have dedication, determination, stubbornness, persistence, whatever synonym you want to use. Because publishing your work is a numbers game. If you stick with it long enough, you'll eventually find someone to take your work.

Two examples: Twilight was accepted by the first agent who saw it, yet Harry Potter was rejected nine times. The first Jack Reacher book was accepted by the first agent, but James Rollins's first book was rejected almost fifty times! (Those are all commercial examples; I don't have numbers on literary fiction.)


So, without having to waste decades on a lost case, or, conversely, without wasting your life in a job you don't enjoy when you could have become the next John Grisham

I will key on this statement. Obviously this is entirely a matter of my own opinion. In his book "On Writing", Stephen King tells a story of an interviewer on a television show in which he was asked "What advice do you have for young people that want to become writers?"

His answer (I may be paraphrasing after this many years): "First, most people that say they want to be writers, don't. They want to have written a novel or movie, so they can do what I am doing here. Be on TV. Be famous and loved by critics. They want to be rich because they wrote a best seller. Now if you put those people aside, what you are left with is people that love to write. So my advice to them is, if you want to be a writer, do what you love, and sit down and write. Every day. Whether you sell anything or not."

One of the things it takes to be a writer is a love of writing. Writing has to be a form of entertainment for you, something you can have fun doing every day, or at least with some kind of clockwork consistency that is nearly every day.

I would say the second (and secondary) thing you need is a knack for critical reading of your own work, and others. To see problems, or hear that something sounds clunky, or that the brilliant passage you wrote last week is not as clear as you thought. A story is a series of transformative steps: Ostensibly about characters, but really about transforming the reader and how they feel. So as a writer you need that analytic ability to see this manipulation of the reader under the covers of the prose and decide if it is working or needs work. Without it, you won't get any better at writing.

I say this is secondary because much of it can be learned by experience. But if you don't love reading, and writing even more than reading, then you don't have what it takes to be a writer.

Let me flip the POV here to provide a contrast. Suppose Alex loves reading. She doesn't aspire to write and never will -- she just loves immersing herself in adventure fiction. She doesn't want to work in the movie business, she doesn't think of herself as creative. Alex has an MBA and makes a very decent living as an accountant keeping corporate books.

I am introducing this character for a reason: Alex reads three hours a day, every day. She has twenty "favorite" authors. She is also married, has sex, has friends. She hopes to be a mother in the next few years.

For Alex, reading fiction is part of her entertainment in life. It won't lead anywhere, or get her promoted or a better job.

Now: Is Alex wasting decades on a lost cause? Will she look back on her life and think she wasted a quarter of her waking hours consuming fiction?

I certainly don't think so! For most of us, work is about creating the resources we need to entertain ourselves. When I was in high school I worked as a dishwasher. Not because I thought this my purpose in life, but because I really wanted the money to entertain myself in other ways.

Entertainment is a value in and of itself, meaning it requires no other justification. So if you find writing entertaining, then you are not wasting decades on a lost cause. Alex's reading is not wasting time, it makes her feel good. Writing without getting published is not wasting time, if it makes you feel good.

That is what Stephen King was brilliantly point out with a simple change of tense: if what you want is to have written, then you probably don't have what it takes to be a writer. If what you want is the money and fame and respect of John Grisham, and failing to get that means you wasted your life by writing, then you probably don't have what it takes to be a writer.

Because, just like my girl Alex enjoying reading for its own sake, it is nearly impossible to get good enough at writing to be a professional writer unless you enjoy writing for its own sake, as a form of entertaining yourself. So much so that when you look back on your life you do not feel that those unpublished stories were a waste of your life, but a part of your life you enjoyed.


To answer the title, you need:

  • paper
  • pen or pencil
  • Story to tell
  • Reader(s) to read your story.

To become great author, you also need

  • publisher
  • more loads of readers
  • Do you really need a pen and paper? ;)
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 13:22
  • yes, if you want to be popular author. Because later on you will send it to publisher. But, speaking of which, it would be totally hilarious to send your work carved in stone ;) Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 13:24
  • That it would, or maybe papyrus! Personally though I prefer to use a computer.
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 13:26
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    Some authors still compose their stories in their minds and distribute them orally.
    – user5645
    Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 8:24
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    I suppose we are looking for a more generic term, though I don't think "distributable medium" will do. Maybe "writing media"? Works first performed orally have fine history, but their composers are not writers. (Can't resist; please excuse pedantry, Pavel, @CLockeWork & what) Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 14:02

You can't know that you will be until you try

Unfortunately, the way you know you can be John Grisham (short of a DNA test) is by dedicating yourself, and years of effort, to getting published; at which point you'll be able to find that book of yours on a book shelf, confirm the text inside of it is yours, and that the glossy name on the front page is indeed John Grisham. That slog you're looking at and feeling like you don't want to approach isn't really optional. However, if you want to know if you're good enough right now the answer is pretty simple. Take that book you wrote, revised, edited; you know, the one that was approved by alpha/beta readers, and try to sell it.

You did write a book, didn't you? Oh, you haven't. Well, then it's impossible to know whether you can be a successful author. Because the only thing that really at the end of the day separates a "successful" author from a person who just writes is how many books they've sold and how many people appreciate those books.

You might be able to tell that you are not ready

Litmus Test

Ok, well, if you haven't written a book then you've at least written a short story? Ok, let's just assume you have. Submit it. I don't care where, but submit it. Send it in. Get someone's honest eyes from your target market or industry on it. Don't ask a friend. Don't ask a relative. They will lie to you because they love you (or fear you, it's all the same really). Submit it to someone you don't know. If they don't write back, you are not there yet.

Ok, non-novice reader, you've read the above thought, "1 person? Did he write 1 Person!? WTF! That's awful advice! I'm sure he meant submit to 200 people."

Good catch, sir. I did in fact mean 200 people. But if you are a novice and you're reading this and you balked at submitting to 1 person, you're not ready yet. If you submit and get feedback for improvement or any response other than a silent rejection you know you have a chance; a small one, but no one spends any time responding to bad work. If they requested revisions, then you are closer to making it than 99% of people who pick up a pen. Good job. Now, get back to work. If they, by the grace of John Grisham, accept your work. Congrats, you've got talent kid. Maybe, just maybe, you're John Grisham.

Baseline Capability

There are certain learning difficulties that might stand in your way. I don't want to go through the list because there's a pretty good chance I'll offend someone; and I don't know what that exact list is; and... it's not just a disability thing, you may be a capable individual with personality defects... The point is... writing a book does tend to require the ability to take varying perspectives and exercise a multitude of sometimes innate, sometimes learned abilities. If you've found mastery of the written word difficult up until this point in your life, you can bet that it's not going to get much easier if you've never been able to improve (supposing you've previously given it a valiant effort and had the benefit of good teachers). Writing can be taught, certainly; I would never say the opposite. But there is a sort of baseline, a min-capability and most people aren't below that line; most people also don't really try to improve their position with respect to that line. If you suspect that you are below that line, you could reach out to a specialist in learning disabilities to acquire some strategies, maybe even to ask for advice. No one will be able to tell you for sure that you can't be a famous author; but if you're in this category it will most certainly and unfairly be harder.

Work Ethic

If you sit down and you can't stay focused when you go to write, and a couple of weeks of effort at trying to write doesn't show any improvement, you likely need to focus on your executive functioning skills and attention. The good news is that this is better for you generically and won't just help your writing life; but if you can't maintain that focus, you can't rightly expect to maintain your attention long enough to finish a book. A book is a marathon, one which requires well formed muscles: those muscles are attention and fortitude. I'm not saying you have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Frankly, that doesn't work. If you pull on your boot straps, the best you can hope for is to not fall over. John Grisham may be a great writer, but he hasn't redefined the laws of physics. Like John Grisham, you must work within the realm of physics, and also you need to able to consistently and regularly perform.

You don't take criticism well

Look, almost no one is ready to publish a book from the outset. If you find you don't get along with people; If you find that you can't learn from other people when they point out your deficiencies; If you find you don't like the kind of interaction where other people tell you how bad you are at things; it is unlikely that writing is going to be your meal ticket. You can probably learn to cope with deficiencies in this area, even get better, but every successful writer is either hard on themselves or has an external someone to do that. If you can't find the constructive element in criticism or can't form working relationships then you likely will not be capable of writing a book. You'll probably also be bad at many other things in life.

If you can't generate story ideas that intrigue others.

Chances are, as a novice, you're thinking of a story someone else has already told. Maybe it's about a young boy who gets told he has to go on a journey and face some great evil, that person who tells him this thing eventually dies after mentoring the young boy into a promising man and then that man must face down evil. Well, it's certainly possible you're doing this intentionally, but if you weren't and I just described your story there's a very good chance you haven't done a enough research into the craft of writing yet and you are telling a story that already exists. Almost every male author who grew up reading fantasy writes a story about a young boy and his dragon. And that book is usually awful and unpublishable. (I wrote one, I'm not unique)

But here's the thing. If you can't come up with a story and tell it in about a sentence and get other people excited then you probably aren't there yet. This is called the pitch; it and various other summarizing techniques are a requirement for becoming famous. You must be able to summarize your work, you must be able to get other people excited about said work. If you can't, then likely can't sell. You can improve your abilities in this area, but it's basically a requirement.

If I could tell you if you could be an author, I'd have a $1,000,000

Probably more. Think about it. You're asking us to predict the future. Do you know anyone who can do that? Do you honestly think that if it were that easy anyone would make it out of high school without a signed contract like a Basketball player? If you could lock down every famous author out of high school you would own the publishing industry. Since no one has done that, it's probably safe to assume that no one has cracked the formula yet.

The other thing you might want to be aware of, since you're already skittish, is that 80% of writers don't make a living on novels. That's probably a low percentage. People write articles for newspapers and it's not great money, but its money. People write ads. People write manuals for how to use computers, machinery or software. None of that is glamerous, but people make money doing it. Most authors who get published get advanced $2000 (if they are very lucky) and never see another dime.

If you're doing this for the fame, if you're doing this for the money, you're probably doing the wrong thing. Go work out, take some acting lessons and get some plastic surgery; it'll probably work out better.


Years ago, I had what I thought was a problem and went to the Writer in Residence at the university I attended. I asked her what I could do to turn it off, every time I sat down to write a term paper, pages of my novel came out.

She looked at me like I had just asked the dumbest question she had ever conceived. She told me that was not a problem and go and write. She said writers write. Later, once the pages of the novel had been created, I could work on my assignments.

What makes a writer? A person writes for the joy of it and later, someone wants to read what they wrote.

Commercial success with fiction is a massive gamble, but people still write.

I write, not with the hope of fame, but to give existence to characters I create and whom I might be the only one who ever knows them. If I do my part to the best of my ability, doing justice to the characters and their tale, someone else might find them intriguing. My purpose is to do them justice, let them live on the page.

  • +1 for the last paragraph. I get what you mean.
    – Liquid
    Commented Oct 24, 2018 at 8:26

The reason why Sylvester Stallone is an author and you're not, is that he wrote 20 scripts before writing Rocky - no matter how bad they might have been (anonimous)


A writer is not someone who writes, is someone who makes a living by writing (N. Gaiman)

I believe these two quotes sum it up. To be a writer you have to write. Write constantly, produce scripts and novels, and push them to the public. 99% of the outcome will be crap, but it will be something you can push, sell, scrap. You can't win the lottery without buying the ticket, and you can't win the olympics without training.

Every writer I know constantly fights with the self-doubt of "not being cut for it", but to find out you only need to try, try and see what happens.

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    Meh. A writer is someone who writes. Period. Perhaps out of enjoyment. Perhaps out of a need to create. Perhaps out of a need to survive. Was Van Gogh not a painter until people began to value and buy his works, all after his death? Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 15:26
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    Just like a musician doesn't need to make a living off of his/her music (or even any money). That would be a professional musician/writer/author.
    – storbror
    Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 14:42

No. You do not need to be a phylosopher in order to be a novel author. It's not about your childhood or your upbringing. But it is realy about what you want to achieve and that all depends on your phylosophy and how you tell your story

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    Seems kind of odd to have answered your own question in this case
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 13:21

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