What makes a good writer? Specifically, what does it take to make you a good writer?
This post is inspired by Thanet Writer and author, Matthew Munson’s blog post. I took his main points and examined them one by one to see if I agreed or if I could come up with any further points. You should probably check out Matthew’s blog and his new book which is coming out soon.
What Matthew Munson says makes a good writer.
Good writers serve the reader.
Matthew’s first point (and a point well made I think) is that good writing serves the reader, not the writer. It does this, he tells us by anticipating reader questions and answering them.
He is right. All writing is for an audience. That audience could be the writer themselves (a diary, for example) or millions of people (a popular newspaper column for example). Whoever it is for it is for someone.
One of the important tools we writers have is to keep our readers firmly in mind. If you are telling a story, you are trying to put the images, sounds, smells, and emotions from your head and transmit them with words into the heads of readers.
If you are telling a story, you are trying to put the images, sounds, smells, and emotions from your head and transmit them with words into the heads of readers.
With non-fiction work, you are trying to transmit facts and ideas in exactly the same way.
Good writing is grounded in facts with context.
Yes and no, Matthew. Good factual writing should, of course, be grounded with solid data, well informed by objective truth, and given proper context. Poetry and prose, not so much.
Fiction, by its very definition, is able to play fast and loose with the facts.
Opinions – for example, editorials and similar blogs – are again expressions of the self. There is a cross over in that where such writings talk about the real world the best ones talk about what is real and provable rather than plucking “facts” that sound right and fit the current prejudice. Even so, this has nothing to do with good writing and everything to do with journalistic integrity.
Good writing can be anything but grounded. Good writing takes you on a journey. Honest writing might have a solid foundation of objective truth. Trustworthy writing might be well researched. Valuable scientific writing might have a solid grounding in data. But, despite all this, good examples of all of those also take you on a journey with those truths, research, and data.
On the other hand, writing lacking any moral compass might convince you the sky is pink, the earth is flat, and the Nazis were jolly nice people. It could be good writing that makes a very compelling case. In which case the author should probably go to work for somewhere like the Daily Mail where words like integrity are worth nothing more than the 13 points they get you in a game of scrabble.
Good writing happens with the rewrite.
This is only mostly true. Good writing happens with editing and rewrites, it is true. Yet good writing can be hindered by that selfsame process too.
When the inner editor tries to object to a grammatical form too soon, you can end up never finishing the sentence and losing the wider meaning of what you were trying to say. In the Thanet Creative: Writers group, we call this the Dark Editor. If writing were a religion, the Dark Editor would be the devil.
So to clarify Matthew’s point – good writing happens with the rewrite at the right time. (Say, after the first draft).
Good writers aren’t smug.
Dear God, I wish that were true.
I have known very many writers over the years. I can tell you that good writers are frequently smug – it is what has stopped them becoming great writers.
It is not an ordinary smugness – the kind that gently invites a punch to the nose – no this is usually a deep sneering smugness and loudly demands that you hope with every ounce of your being that karma is a thing and that you are still around to see it pay out.
Pride may go before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall but when you meet a truly smug writer – especially when the smugness is ill deserved – that fall cannot come soon enough.
There is something else Matthew says on this point:
…the label seems more meaningful when it’s bestowed upon you by others.
I have to agree. No matter how strongly you acknowledge that you write and by definition, you must, therefore, be a writer, it is still wonderfully uplifting when another acknowledges you as such.
However, being a writer is rough. It is a truism that we are going to see more rejections than you can encompass in a hastily invented simile. To weather that, we need a degree of toughness – either through unreasonable smugness or through a quiet assurance that we know what we are doing.
It is the only way to see off imposter syndrome and the doubts of the Dark Editor.
The best writing is collaborative.
A common fear among writers is the fear that someone will steal your ideas. The truth is no one is going to steal your ideas because any writer worth his salt already has more ideas than they know what to do with and those that lack an abundance of ideas tend to lack the skill to use yours.
While very few blog posts are run past editors and proofreaders, the process of blogging – the feedback from readers – serves the same process. Over time, you simply become better at writing good posts. This still does not happen in a vacuum.
One of the best places to find a supportive community is your local writers’ community. For those who have written and need that vital early feedback – beta reading – a writers’ group can be of incalculable value. Find out more about our writers’ group Thanet Creative: Writers on Facebook or Author Buzz.
Remarkable writers read.
I would go further and say that only the very worst hack writers don’t read. Reading is a vital part of writing because writing (as we just covered) does not happen in a vacuum.
Reading is a vital part of honing your craft. As I said when talking about how writing should serve the reader, you are trying to communicate to others. How though can you communicate effectively if you have no experience of being communicated to?
In some ways, saying writers need to read is as obvious as saying Chefs need to eat. Reading is simply part of the writing process.
Writers must have patience.
This is probably true. To be a good writer you must have dedicationa and that is, more or less, the same thing.
Yet I could also argue that to be a good writer you need impatience. You should impatient to get back to writing, impatient to get it all down on paper, impatient to get on with the story and cover the background details later (and only if they prove important).
Perhaps, then, it is fairer to say a good writer must be both patient and impatient at the same time. After all, in so many aspects a writer is a living contradiction anyway.
Good writers are good listeners and observers.
This is another point that I am unsure if I agree with. Certainly listening and observation skills are very useful to a writer. A writer with these skills has a lot more material to draw upon. Does that mean that you cannot be a good writer without them?
I don’t think it does.
Perhaps the corollary here is that if you want to be a better writer then developing listening and observation skills will make it happen.
What else makes a good writer?
So what else might Matthew have missed out from his list?
A good writer writes.
Perhaps it goes without saying but you cannot be a good writer if you do not do any actual writing. Writing itself is the final act of the creative process but it is the expression of the other skills we have discussed. Without putting the craft into practice a person can at best be considered a potential writer in theory.
Good writers write. The best writers write every day.
A good writer takes constructive criticism to heart.
Remember that we said writing cannot happen in a vacuum? It follows from that idea that the feedback you get must be considered and acted upon. Otherwise, it is as useless as if you had none.
A good writer must develop not only a humility compatible with having others (including less skilled writers) school them and critique them but must also learn how to tell when the feedback is just wrong. That is a skill set which is more art than science.
Good writers express ideas clearly.
You could have all the other skills in abundance but without the ability to clearly express ideas, you will never be a good writer. Not ever.
To be a good writer you must learn to express ideas with clarity. That is, perhaps, what Matthew was getting at when he said that a good writer considers the reader.
Remarkable writers connect the dots for you.
A truly great writer needs to be a sort of visionary reporting back what has been seen from afar. Again, this is part of considering the reader but also aprt of expressing ideas clearly.
The best writers see connections that others have missed and then express those connections so that others can follow along. They connect the dots in a new way and reveal the pattern that was always hiding there.
Remarkable writers could use sci-fi to show us where things are going or they might as easily explain a complex theory. What most writers of fiction do (or should do) is show us a new insight into the human condition. The best and most memorable fictions in any genre do this.
Over to you.
How much do you agree with Matthew Munson’s take of what makes a good writer? Would you agree with the three additions we came up with? What else, would you say, sets good writers apart from the rest of the pack?