Monday, 27 December 2010

What Makes a Good Writer?

There is no definitive answer to this question, but we can say that many elements work together to make a good writer.

Writing isn’t just about knowing how to spell and put words in order, or how to tell a good tale. It isn’t about how many creative writing degrees you have either, because if you don’t have the raw talent to begin with, then your writing will just remain average.

If anything, a good writer has the ability to entertain us, to bring out our emotions, to make us empathise, to make us understand and to take us on a journey. That’s because writing is an art form; it takes a great deal of creativity and passion, as well as practical application, to achieve this. I must point out that having a creative writing degree of some sort does not qualify you to automatic publication. The truth is, and this will sound harsh, while it helps you understand the techniques of creative writing, it doesn’t teach you the talent of writing. Rather like painting and drawing, the ability to write is a talent that is garnered in us from an early age. You are either born with it or you are not.

Remember, some of the greatest writers from the last 150 years didn’t have a degree in anything. What they did have, and do have, is an amazing talent to express themselves via the written word.

Those people who suddenly wake up one day and decide they want to be a writer are on a road to nowhere. It doesn’t work like that. It takes years of learning the craft and honing one’s skill and talent to be a writer. You instinctively know and understand words. Every writer should have an understanding of linguistics and language. Having the skill to succinctly and eloquently express your story is important and I think this is something you either have or don’t have. This ability will mark an average writer from a good one. The love of words and the yearning to tell a good story is paramount, because without these elements, good writing is beyond your reach.

In addition to that, there is the knowledge of how to construct sentences, how to use grammar correctly, how to form ideas and bring them to life. These are also the kind of factors that determine whether someone is a good writer. Writers must have basic skills and knowledge of grammar. Don’t think that agents and publishers will happily correct your grammar mistakes when you send your MS to them, because they won’t. If you don’t have the right grammar skills in place, then you seriously need to learn them. A manuscript littered with mistakes won’t get a second glance.

Good writing is also about learning how to give your writing a personality and style, to get your reader involved with your story on a personal and emotional level. It’s about understanding your potential audience and understanding who you are as a writer.

As mentioned in a previous article, reading is important to a writer on many levels because it fosters an understanding of how things should be done, but also how to construct prose. It also helps your vocabulary and helps develop your writing style.

Of course, not everyone is born to write. If you can’t sing, then it means you shouldn’t be a singer. If you can’t draw and paint, it means you’re not an artist. If you’re not very good at writing, then...well, you get the picture. Unfortunately, the shops are full of ‘actor turned writer’ novels, or ‘singer turned writer’ novels and so on. Apart from novels which have been ghostwritten, for those ‘celebs’ who have managed to write their own novels, the end results are quite dire. And that’s because they were not actually born with the raw talent in the first place. I can’t emphasis enough that the ability to write well doesn’t materialise at the click of your fingers.

It isn’t just about having the talent, the knowledge, skills, vocabulary or a sense of expression; you also need a fertile imagination. The mind is your creative nerve centre and the greatest tool a writer has. If you don’t have a strong imagination, this isn’t going to help the creative process of writing. A good writer will involve his or her readers by drawing them into an imaginary world that actually seems very real. They must feel the emotions of the characters and they must empathise and understand them. Good writers can achieve this, bad writers won’t.

A good writer is also observant. Writing is, essentially, probing how and why we do what we do; it’s about human nature, so whether it’s about love, jealousy, hate, revenge, tyranny, greed, lust...they all invoke the emotions of human beings. All writers are social commentators; all have something to say about the people that inhabit our world. This is why we write.

Above all, a good writer will always remain objective to his or own opinions. So many writers fall into the trap of expressing their own views within their writing. This is a sign of a bad writer, and you can tell they are ‘preaching’ their views because they have a tendency to reiterate these views constantly throughout a story. Writing should be subjective and it should remain so.

So, what makes a good writer? So many things, of course. Storytelling is a craft that captures the beauty of expression through language. Choosing the right words, understanding their meaning and affecting a response. It’s not an easy job. Not everyone can do it well. A good writer might take years to become that good, decades even. They take the time to nurture their writing; they will take their time over writing a story. That’s because quality counts, not quantity. They instinctively know when something is good and works well and when it doesn’t.

For me, the measure of a good writer is not how many pieces of work they have published, but rather the value and excellence of each piece.

Don’t aspire to be a good writer, but instead aspire to be a great writer.


Next time: Overcoming writer’s block.

10 comments:

  1. That was excellent, AJ. I'm working very hard to become a better writer (whish I hope is paying off), but as you said I'm the only person that can make it work.

    It does wind me up when you see novels by actors, singers etc hitting the number one spot when we know that they probably wouldn't have been published if it wasn't for the fact that they are who they are!!

    Hope you had a great Christmas and all the very best for 2011.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Fiona.

    And thanks David. Hope 2011 sees you become the great writer you want to be. We can all do it!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree that 'preaching' in creative writing is wrong, but disagree that we should avoid expressing our own views. If we don't really believe in what we're saying, then we can't expect to take the reader with us.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks Patsy, interesting point. Yes, there are some snippets of us all that find a place in our writing, but I offer this advice to new writers in the hope they do not fall into the trap of expressing their own views through their writing. It should remain objective always. As writers, everything we write is done so with conviction. How can you write objectively about a Muslim lead character if you despise Islam? You can't, otherwise you have no story. You can't allow your views to creep into your writing in that way, and this is the point I hope new writers will understand.

    ReplyDelete
  5. A very thought provoking article!

    I agree you do have to hone the art to make it a more hooky grabbing kind of interesting story. ?born - is questionalbe. As is not, honing the craft, somewhat bred creativity - I hope to answer this question for myself one day.

    hmmm! thought provoking.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I once read that a child who studies chess from the age of 6 to 12 will outplay most people who study the game for 6 years much later in their lives, as these are the years we absorb the most of our studies.

    Could it be that people aren't necessarily born gifted, but that they start learning at an early enough age it only APPEARED they were born so?

    Unless you're reading this at a very young age it's all the same, that is you've either got "it" or you don't and that's that. However, I disagree with the notion we're born with it, as much as this idea of less competition comforts me.

    Could our resentment towards the actor-turned-writers out there (I hate them too, but publishing is a business so...) be causing us to act elitist and pretend there's some kind of gene that gives us the right to write?

    I often feel stifled by how much competition exists, at which times it comforts me to believe that: A. you can only write if you have it, B. I have it, and C. not many other people have it. I could very well be wrong on all three counts. However, I don't know how to exist happily as just another fish in the sea, and I don't know how any writer possibly could.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Well done!This is amazing!

    Very interesting point, the comment above about being born with the talent, I would like to think so too!

    I agree with reading being helpfull, I find that I've improved a lot from reading work of others.

    ReplyDelete
  8. If you want to be a good writer you have to work a lot.

    ReplyDelete