15 October 2018
What makes a good writer? We've put together a checklist of skills that all contribute to being a good writer – how many of them do you possess?
Telling a story
The best writers have the ability to create a story that people want to read – it’s that simple. Whether you’re writing about cars or politicians or life-changing moments or an imaginary forest filled with dancing foxes, if you can tell your story in a way that makes your reader want to fall into the world you’ve created and find out what happens next, you’re doing something very, very right.
Believing in the story you are telling
If you aren’t convinced by your characters and the story you’re telling, why should anyone else be? The best writing is writing that rings true. That doesn’t mean it has to be based in actual fact, but that it has to carry a sense of conviction. If you’re merely going through the motions, and not fully invested in your story, how can you expect it to have an emotional resonance for the reader?
Making a connection with readers
Remembering the reader is a key skill for writers. If you can reach out to a reader, fire their imagination and make them feel that they are emotionally invested in the story you are telling – that they want to know what happens – you have achieved the storyteller’s biggest ambition: to write something that becomes a part of their readers’ lives.
Entertaining their readers
Good writers always remember that readers could be doing a million other things with their precious time than reading your writing. They could be watching movies, or spending time with their families, or cooking, or socialising, or playing sport, or sleeping. Instead, they have chosen to spend their precious time in a world you have created, in the hope that your words will take them out of their everyday lives. They want to be beguiled and entertained, and we should never forget this, and work hard at satisfying our readers.
Making people see things a new way
Really good writing, like all good art, makes people see the world in a slightly different way – the way the writer has conveyed it in their work. The ability to make your readers look at something and understand it from a new perspective is why writing can be one of the most powerful ways of increasing human understanding.
Having a unique voice
The writers that stand out don’t write like other writers. They write like themselves. Think of your favourite writers. Stephen King doesn’t write like anybody else, he writes like Stephen King. Think of some of the writers you’ve read about in Writing Magazine. Sebastian Faulks writes like Sebastian Faulks. Kei Miller writes like Kei Miller. Dorothy Koomson writes like Dorothy Koomson. Nikesh Shukla writes like Nikesh Shukla. The best writers aren’t pale imitations of successful writers, they are writers who write in their own voice.
Who wants to read a boring writer? Memorable writers have the ability to create an imaginative landscape that readers want to explore and people it with characters that their readers will want to spend time with. And remember that the finest writers use language in an imaginative way, so that readers can find unexpected pleasures in the way words are put together and used.
Great writers understand that readers want to come along for the ride. And if you get your readers on side, there is nowhere they won’t travel with you. So give them an exciting journey! Put yourself in their place – would you rather have a safe, boring, plodding ride/read, or one that took you to places you didn’t know existed?
QUICK LINK Do you want to know the seven secrets of a successful writer? You can find them here
Involving the reader
Remembering your reader is vital. Unless you are writing purely for yourself, successful writers are always aware that what they are writing will be read by a reader, and that reader needs to be able to follow your narrative, believe in your characters and invest in the story you are unfolding for them.
Being good with words
Words are a writer’s basic tools, and writers need to be highly proficient in their use. Would you trust a mechanic who didn’t know how to use a spanner? Then why would you trust a writer who couldn’t construct a decent sentence? Good writers not only have a natural facility with words, but they should enjoy using them and take pleasure in the language they use to communicate their ideas.
Using the right words
Skilled writers use the appropriate language for what they are writing. They do not use big words just to show off that they know what they mean. The best writers use clear, concise language that gets their message across, and they never sound as if they had eaten the dictionary and spat out its most indigestible adjectives.
Finding your voice
Good writers write in their own style, and finding it is one of the aims of all writers. You may have to experiment with different styles to find what your writing voice really is, but it’s time well spent when you realise that now you are writing in your own unique voice – one that readers will recognise as being yours.
Proficient writers understand that whatever it is they’re writing, it needs to have a strong storyline and a trajectory that gets its reader from the beginning to the end. Think of your writing in terms of what happens when, and to who, and it’s worth spending time working out what your main plot incidents are and the order in which you need to put them to make your plot as satisfying as possible for your reader.
Structuring and pacing
Good writing needs bones, ie structure. This involves the writer in creating tension, contrast, light and shade. It needs its writer to know where to place dramatic incidents, and when not to reveal too much too soon. Its writer needs to know when to reveal things to the reader, how to sow the seeds of a twist ending, how to use foreshadowing. A good writer will vary their pace and make sure that even their sentences are not always the same length or the same structure.
One way you can always spot an accomplished author is that the dialogue their characters use rings true. They don’t use dialogue as an info-dump (‘But Sir Charles, the reason Lady LeStrange acts the way she does is because she was dropped on her head when she was a baby’) but as a way of revealing their characters – because good writers understand that readers will be more likely to be invested in their writing if they are involved with their characters.
The ability to write good beginnings. And endings. And middles.
Paying attention to every aspect of their manuscript is what skilful writers do automatically. Of course they need to write a good opening, in order to hook their reader. The middle needs to be a satisfying narrative so the reader doesn’t lose interest. The ending needs to be an effective resolution so the reader feels their reading time is an investment that has paid off. Basically, a good writer takes care of everything.
Grammar and spelling
Writers want their readers to concentrate on their writing, not look for mistakes in it, or stop mid-way through a paragraph to try to make sense of the grammar. Grammar and spelling are invisible in good writing, meaning that the reader doesn’t notice them – readers only notice things like that when they are used wrongly, which makes them stick out.
Understanding the market
Astute writers understand their readers, which on a broader level means understanding the market and its conventions. If you are writing cosy crime, you will do well to understand the genre and its readers and platforms, and the same goes for YA, literary fiction, experimental poetry or long-form journalism. Doing this helps good writing to find the readers it has been written for.
QUICK LINK For more on writing technique, read Richard Skinner’s advice on how to write a novel
No-one ever said this writing game was easy, and successful writers are often the ones who didn’t give up at the first hurdle. Or the second, or the third. Good writers are the ones who keep on going even when its tough. It may be a writing cliché that the difference between an unpublished writer and a published one is persistence, but it’s true.
Writing is like any other skill: it takes practice. The best writers are committed to their writing. They put the hours in. They make time for it. They work at honing their writing so that it’s the best it can be. They show it the love and care it deserves. Good writers realise that just as in any successful relationship, their writing will respond well to being nurtured.
Every writer’s work gets rejected at some point, and there may be times when even the most brilliant writer in the world feels like throwing the towel in. This is where believing in your work comes in. Writers who do that are committed to writing the best piece of work they can. Sometimes other people may not agree, and they may be the editors, agents and publishers who turn your work down. Good writers understand that you learn what you can from the down times, and keep going.
QUICK LINK Need some more top tips? How about 18 ways to be a better writer?
Love of reading
Good writers read. They read a lot. They read voraciously, and they read indiscriminately. They read books they know they will love, and they read books they might hate. They learn something from all of them, and they know that all that reading will make them into a better writer.
Love of writing
How often have you met a really good writer who tells you they hate writing? If you don’t enjoy writing, how do you expect to be any good at it? Good writers love writing. Writing may be hard sometimes, and there is always something new to learn, but good writers should always be able to get back to the joy and pleasure that writing offers them.
QUICK LINK Why not get your creative mojo going and start writing for fun with these quick creative writing exercises
Things involving no skill at all
So you were born with an imagination, a way with words and the ability to tell a story. That’s fantastic, and something to be proud of. But so were lots of other writers – pretty much all of them, in fact. With all that in place, you’re potentially a good writer, and now you need to put the work in and produce some top-notch writing so all that talent doesn’t go to waste.
You can’t bank on winning the lottery, and neither can you bank on your brilliant idea turning into a bestseller or getting the film rights sold. Good writers tend to believe that you make a lot of your own luck, by writing the best you can and remembering that writing is a reward in itself. And we wish you all the luck in the world – happy writing.
QUICK LINK Read this inspiring account of how one writer made her own luck by signing up for a Writing Magazine Creative Writing Course
So why not start ticking off your checklist of skills today by trying a copy of Writing Magazine and enjoy free delivery? It's packed full of writing inspiration, useful tips, competitions to win cash prizes and opportunities to get published.