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:


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?

The Man To Whom I’m Most Grateful

My photo, from 1982.

He’s someone you’ve likely never heard of, although he’s a well-known and beloved figure in his native France. I dedicated my first book to him and include him — more than 25 years dead — in my second book’s acknowledgements.

Philippe Viannay, (the photo here of him is one I took),  is the most inspiring man I’ve ever met. He founded a newspaper, a sailing school, a journalism school, an international journalism fellowship and a home for wayward boys.

All this, after being a Resistance hero during World War II.

He was in his 60s when we met in Paris, when I was chosen as one of 28 journalists, aged 25 to 35, from 19 countries as Journalists in Europe, an eight-month fellowship that forever changed my life and my notions of what was possible in it, both professionally and personally.

His idea, simple but complicated to fund, was to find the world’s best and most eager bilingual journalists to come and live and travel all over Europe, learning about its people and politics by living them, not parachuting in for a week or studying it only in a classroom.

We each took a 10-day reporting trip, alone, four times, some of which scared us to death — and often produced our best work. No one thought I’d survive the eight-day truck trip from Perpignan to Istanbul with Pierre, the 35-year-old trucker from Rheims. Best trip ever!

Our group, which still remains in touch, included men and women from countries including Brazil, Japan, Italy, New Zealand, Ireland, Togo and Sweden, forging deep and ongoing international friendships.  I now consider Paris a second home and plan to retire to France, at least part-time.

That year also taught me the world is filled with kind people, many unusual ways to get around, amazing and untold stories begging for passionate narrators. The greatest skill we brought — or developed, fast — was se debrouiller — to fend for ourselves. To figure it out. To be resourceful and get it done.

Viannay was joyful, demanding, impatient, demanded the best of everyone. He called me “le terrible Caitlin” — which I finally realized was a great, affectionate compliment, meaning “terrific”, not awful.

He died in 1986. I’ve never cried at work, except for the day I came back to the Montreal Gazette newsroom to hear that news. Amazingly, that room contained two other former fellows, two men who also knew the extraordinary gift Viannay and his progam had given us.

In June 2007, I made the pilgrimage, long overdue, to his grave in his hometown of Concarneau, in Brittany. It was a hot day when I entered the small graveyard and began searching for his final resting place. Surely, given all his extraordinary accomplishments, it was marked with a slab of gleaming granite or an an enormous angel.

I couldn’t find it and finally asked the guard to show it to me.

It was simple and understated, easily missed, just a flat, jagged slab of raw stone, a rock from his beloved Glenans, the sailing school he founded.

I slapped his stone, sat down beside him, and sobbed for a long, long time. My career had nosedived and I felt little but despair at the lost early promise he saw, and nurtured, in me.

More than anyone, he believed in me and my talents, for which I remain in his debt.

Viannay now lives on in every single person whose life he touched.

I remain forever grateful I’m one of them.

True/Slant Crossover Event! Heading North To Meet Two New Colleagues

Boston in 1772 vs. 1880.
Image via Wikipedia

What I enjoy most about True/Slant is having been invited not simply to write, and grow an audience, for a new, lively, smart group of readers. I’ve also met, by phone, email and face to face, great new colleagues, some of whom have become friends — people of all ages whose wit, insights, wisdom and passion can be amazing.

Tomorrow morning I’m on a train up to Boston at the invitation of Jerry Lanson and Jeffrey Seglin, both fellow T/S contributors, who teach journalism at Emerson College. I’ll talk about the ethical issues involved in writing memoir to a class there. I came to True/Slant after a guest lecture last year in April to an NYU class of journalism students that included fellow contributor and Canadian Katie Drummond. Talk about luck.

I’ve emailed T/Sers in China and Canada and have met a few in Manhattan for coffee or lunch. One of them (small world) is the niece of one of my editors from The Globe and Mail, my first journalism job. I hope to get out to Chicago someday to see the cool women who blog from there: Fruszina, Megan, Marjie.

In a time of chaos and upheaval within print journalism, it’s rare and great to find new, collegial peers, even — especially — scattered across a dozen time zones and continents. This visit is a bit of a blind date for all of us, but that’s the T/S spirit. I know it’s going to be fun.

Back To The Alma Mater — After 30 Years

New Mexico State University
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Yesterday was a lovely day for me and my sweetie, a 1980 graduate of New Mexico State University. That’s why we’re in Las Cruces for a few days, so we could visit the campus, his first trip back since graduation.

As I’ve said here, he works for The New York Times, where he’s had a long career. I suggested the journalism school might be happy to see him and have him speak, but, as is his nature, he felt uncomfortable calling them.

So, unannounced, on a clear, sunny afternoon, we decided to drop in and say hello. It was the first day of classes.  The chair, retiring the next day, was delighted, and after a few quick calls, my partner was giving a guest lecture, (some of his best photos are always on his laptop from previous lectures), the teacher whose class we visited a freelancer with whom he’s worked for years but never met.

I am, I admit, shamelessly sentimental about keeping and nurturing relationships, personal and professional. I work with people I’ve known and respected for decades and I value that accumulated trust and respect. Our final stop of this vacation is a ranch near Truth or Consequences, visiting the man who was my partner’s first and toughest mentor, a man who — when sent a package of his newspaper clips for comment — mailed back a pile of small, torn paper strips.

It was so terrific yesterday to be welcomed warmly and unhesitatingly; we’re going back next week to do a two-fer lecture, me on writing, he on photography.

As he did when he was a young and ambitious student in those same classrooms, dreaming of his journalism career, we shared our contact data with the most serious students who came up to chat after class. It will be interesting to see where they end up.