Writing — what we read here or elsewhere — is merely the end product, the visible, finished material emerging from a long process that really begins with an idea or a dream or a vision of something. Many people who say they really want to write well and be widely read and maybe even well-paid for it sometimes focus a lot of wasted energy on the wrong things.
They fuss over the font on their blog or their SEO or how to find an agent or what their book cover looks like.
It’s much more basic.
Here are five qualities anyone who wants to write well — and find a large readership — needs:
To publish your work requires tremendous trust. First, in yourself, that you have something worth hearing and have the skills to express it clearly and compellingly. Second, in your audience — that there is an audience out there for your work. Third, in your agent, (should you wish to publish traditionally). Fourth, in your editor(s). Fifth, journalists must also, (with open eyes and a healthy skepticism of “facts”), trust their sources, and their editors and copy editors.
You have to trust in your skills and experience to see you through, even when you’ve never tackled a subject or genre before. It’s like anything else — you can’t grow unless you push yourself into new and untried areas. Given the nature of journalism and publishing right now, being able to move quickly and persuasively into new ways of using your skills is essential to earning a good living.
Walk into a bookstore or library — and look around. There are millions of books already in print. In addition to every other form of media out there, from Twitter and Pinterest to movies, TV and video games, these books are competing for your readers’ time and attention. Whose work is currently selling most, to whom, and why? Whose work has lasted for decades or centuries or even millennia and why? Asking readers to give us their time and attention means acknowledging those who have done it so well for so long.
We don’t have to ape them, but the marketplace of ideas is a very, very crowded one.
And yet…If you can’t summon the confidence in your voice and ideas and analysis, why would anyone else? If you lack confidence in your skills, take classes and read great writers and see what they do so well. Do whatever is necessary to develop the skill to tell your story. Then do it!
Also have the confidence that your material may have valuable iterations in other paid media, from film and television to theatrical productions to ideas you haven’t even imagined. Re-define “writing” as “intellectual property” and you will start to look at your work very differently, and protectively. (A ferocious agent and skilled entertainment attorney are key to this step.)
You can’t be an intelligent or useful journalist without empathy — whether you’re interviewing a politician, a welfare mother, a billionaire banker or a criminal. You have to be able to imagine how the world looks and feels to them and care deeply enough to ask them thoughtful and probing questions. Same for writers of fiction, whose characters must live and breathe for us as readers.
What to say, and how to say it and in what detail? There’s no standard metric, no safe dividing line or blinking yellow warning light on our computer or notebook to warn us when we’ve moved from terrific to boring. We choose every word and then we must commit to it, even after the 10th or 20th draft. It has to go the printer! Editors are waiting. Readers expect to hear from you.
Decide what you want to express and get on with it. The only people who can call themselves writers write — they don’t just talk about writing.
I’m finally reading (and loving!) this book, a classic, by Howard Zinsser, “On Writing Well.” It’s funny and filled with fantastic advice. Here are his five tips.
What do you think are other qualities a writer needs most?