Five essential qualities writers need

Writing exercise 3
Writing exercise 3 (Photo credit: aaipodpics)

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:

Trust

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.

Humility

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.

Confidence

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.)

Empathy

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.

Decisiveness

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?

30 thoughts on “Five essential qualities writers need

  1. Perfect timing as i set about finishing last four chaps and marketing / finding an agent for my memior of chasing grizzly bears and being chased by grizzly men in bush Alaska 25 years ago. Eveything you have written here i have felt in the decade i have spent crafting and honing this story. Thank you for your generous thoughts on this topic! -Renee

  2. I am 11 hours away from stepping on a plane and leaving my old life behind. I was waiting for the bus this morning after running my final errands in Perth (at least, for 12 months), and was thinking on exactly the same topic, except I came to no firm conclusions, having no experience… yet. Everything you’ve written here can be applies to any sort of work that one feels deeply enough for to pour oneself into. Photography suffers from a lot of superficial contact and insufficient deep, long term involvement/education. Being guilty of this myself (I am one of those people who has never seen the inside of a darkroom, and learnt everything I know of photography through the internet), I have been working on getting to the “standards” you have mentioned in this post, by taking the time to look and wonder and think on what I am doing, without getting anxious about the potential end result of all of this.

    Loved Zinsser’s 5 tips on better writing. I will stick them somewhere in my notebook!

  3. Last summer I got lucky. I made the decision to follow your blog from my email, because I loved your voice, your experience, and your loyalty to a curious and positive style of writing. I say I got lucky because if it weren’t for my decision to follow you from my email, I wouldn’t have been able to read a single one of your posts since September. Why? Because I live in China now. When I moved to Asia at the end of the summer, it hadn’t even occurred to me that wordpress might be blocked. I was shocked and disappointed when I realized that I could no longer update my website or blog, nor could I read the blogs of so many other people that I’d come to rely on for information and inspiration. If it hadn’t been for my decision to subscribe to your blog, I would have had to sever the relationship I’ve formed with your interesting stories and perspective.

    I just wanted to let you know that even though I’m not commenting, thanks to the great firewall of China, I’m still out here reading and processing and reacting to your writing.

    Thanks for your honesty and dedication.

    McKenzie Malanaphy

    McKenzie H. Malanaphy

    Blog: mckenziem.com writtenarrow.com mckenzie@writtenarrow.com http://linkedin/in/mckenziem

  4. I think you did a great job, not only in picking the most important qualities a writer should posess, but also in describing them. You illustrated them perfectly, following your own advice. Another quality I would add is honesty – you have to be honest with yourself and the readers, in a way or another. If honesty lacks, the story is no good, for you can’t build on something that doesn’t exist. You can be honest even if your piece of writing is pure fiction, after all, it is your perspective, your creation.

  5. I think writers should be able to see the possibilities. By that I mean they should look into every possible avenue to promote their work. At first I was leery of social media, but I’ve since found it very useful. I’ve even made some new friends who might buy my work someday.
    This contrasts to someone I know, who started a group against gun violence long before our current wave of massacres. However not a lot of people attended even though he placed ads in the newspaper and online. I told him he should start an FB because it might get a lot of likes. He said that even if it did, it probably wouldn’t change attendance rates and meetings and vigils. What happened? His group got absorbed into a bigger group.

  6. Wow, you and I have been on similar pages a lot, recently. 🙂 Just posted about time and writing today, and replied to a comment with what I believe are the necessary tools; talent, craft, and persistence. None of these are stagnant.

    1. Thanks…Those are so true. The willingness to completely re-imagine X is crucial…and that can’t happen without self-awareness and reflection to know where your filters/biases are. Even if you do the same-old, same-old, at least it’s a conscious decision.

  7. This is one of those moments that makes you wonder if there’s more to coincidences than, well, coincidence. I pulled out Zinsser’s book yesterday because a potential client wants a week-long writing workshop and mentioned that he loves On Writing Well. I’m taking this as a sign that I should reread it and get a proposal together soon. Thanks for the inspiring post, Caitlin…

  8. Absolutely true. The reality of writing and of writers is that – like any profession – those who succeed are those who understand it conceptually as a whole profession, creating ‘intellectual property’ (mine includes both written material and photographs). All too often, ‘aspirants’ focus on superficial aspects such as the artifice of crafting particular words.
    These details are important, but they follow from being in the right professional ‘place’.

    I also think being in that place opens doors. As you say, it’s a very crowded market out there. I think it’s been made harder by the ubiquity and homogeneity of today’s promotional tools (the ‘democratisation’ of social media). But I believe professional quality wins out. Certainly, professionalism and a sound grasp of business reality counts when dealing with publishers.

    Do you mind if I re-blog this post on my own blog? I think you’ve nailed the essence of writing and I’d like my own readers to share your wisdom – please let me know, thanks.

  9. Dannnnibelle

    I was so honored to wake up this morning and find that, not only had you read my blog (iheartthebrazil.com) but that you liked my recent posts and even commented on my “Austerity Measures” post! I’m new to blogging, and yesterday, I was in need of some writing inspiration and decided to allow wordpress to recommend some of its top-rated blogs to me. You were the top two it recommended, and I am so thankful that it did! I sat in my office yesterday ignoring the work on my desk and taking in every word of your post above. Your writing advice was just what I needed to hear – especially the part about trusting yourself and your audience. I’ve started writing a book with the same title as my blog – “I heart the Brazil (and other misinterpretations in life, love and law)” – but like so many other writers, I often find myself doubting that anyone will want to read my stories. I started my blog as a sort of “tester” to see if anyone will find my writing interesting. I was in need of some encouragement yesterday when I stumbled across your blog and read: “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.” With your impressive resume and thousands of followers, I was so honored to receive your “stamp of approval”! You just gave me a much-needed boost of confidence! Thanks for being so inspirational, Caitlin!
    – Dani

    1. You need to write that book.

      Your writing voice is great — funny, sassy, smart. I love your bravery in moving to NZ, (one of my favorite places in the whole world. Have you visited the Coromandel yet?). I bet your book would sell: 1) many American lawyers are screwed in this economy, (look what you did to solve that); 2) very few young women have the cojones to make such a big leap as to move to a whole new country and one so far away (speaking of inspirational!); 3) you’re relatable — the whole mani/pedi obsession would certainly resonate for many younger readers.

      I loved the specificity of your posts: that the winds come from Antarctica (what a cool detail), for one. It would also show US-centric readers there is a whole world out there well worth exploring. I was sort of amazed you got such a great job so fast — but not so much because in a smaller country, social capital can pile up a lot faster. (I had the reverse experience here, sad to say.)

      I liked your self-deprecation (wanting more $$$ but also aware you really don’t know NZ very well yet.)
      Try it!

      1. Dannnnibelle

        Thanks so much for such detailed (and positive!) feedback, Caitlin! I feel like it’s Christmas or my birthday – your comments have made my day!

        I can tell I’m becoming more Kiwi because your comment about NZ being one of your favorite places in the world filled me with a sense of pride (especially coming from someone who’s visited 40ish countries!). I haven’t visited the Coromandel yet,but it’s next on my list! I hear it’s spectacular up there!

        Thanks again for being such an inspiration! I would love to be able to work with you one day! Now I just need to get back to writing that book…

  10. An interesting list. Perhaps something I’m trying to work on is ‘be brave’, by which I mean take risks and not care what others think. I reckon this is true for both writing fiction and non-fiction. When there’s risk in the work, there’s energy and passion, and – hopefully – readers will engage, no matter the topic. That’s my theory anyway.

  11. Look forward to reading and learning more from of your articles. You’re swamped with followers and comments to tend to, but I signed up to follow you anyway. Because, you have obviously learned how to control all your years of experience and writing talents to help others along their way. That’s the only way to go!

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