1. A Great Writer Is A Life Observer
When the sun’s rays lit alight a leaf in flight, what do you see?
Do you care enough to see the leaf’s every vein set aflame, as if new suns were born within each ray – or more?
If not, don’t bother fancying yourself a great writer: a loaf of bread cannot be baked without flour, and a great writer cannot be baked without observation.
Without observation, you can only write of what you heard from others, within patterns of what you read from others.
Writing skill is merely the package in which we deliver the true gift.
The true gift comes from within our hearts, like a rare pearl within the azure caves of our lives.
Our lives are the root of problem-solving and ideation, character formation and psychological insight, and the many other qualities that are spoken of in ‘great writer characteristics’ articles.
Language is merely the skin covering life’s fruits.
Words are at worst a mirage and at best a map of the terrain of experience.
Experience is the ink with which great stories are written.
A great writer cares:
- To live a great life to write great stories with, as an observer of and participant in their own life.
- To grasp details with accuracy, using the many senses of mind and body, discerning the details of each situation.
- To absorb each fragment of life, retaining a continuous stream of conscious awareness throughout all life events.
2. A Great Writer Is A Strategic Thinker
Mere data is not of much use without the intelligence to connect the data into useful insight.
Similar to the qualities of writers originating in life, so too do the skills of language originate in thought.
A great writer ought to be interested in actual thought…their own thought, self-reasoned based on their own understanding of their own life, and not read in a book that someone else wrote of their life. The latter is at most a map that helps direct one to the terrain, but if one never walked a terrain, then one might in time come to think that the map is itself the terrain.
It has often been said that wisdom is experience distilled by insight. Great writers gain that insight through caring to reason and understand their own life experiences.
3. A Great Writer Is An Empathetic Listener
Caring about the reader means many things:
- Anticipating the reader’s questions and difficulties, clearing the path for them before they walk through it.
- Understanding the reader’s needs and purpose for reading, fulfilling them so smoothly that they crave more.
- Caring to match the complexity and length of one’s writing to what the reader finds comfortable yet engaging.
- Finding ways to improve the simplicity, clarity, elegance, and evocativeness of one’s writing to the benefit of one’s reader.
4. A Great Writer Is A Lifelong Self-Teacher
Quality Over Quantity
It is easy to write a thousand words a day.
It is easy to figure out what to write; if it is worth writing, it will usually come pouring out with the urgency of a physiological need.
It is also easy to figure out how to write it; if you read and write most of the day, elegant catchphrases and evocative metaphors are waiting to burst out at the tip of your tongue.
What is hard is to return to the piece, and make it better, over and over again. To learn, to self-reflect, to self-analyze, to self-critique each writing.
Quality writers know that there is no limit to how much they can improve. There is no such thing as a top or summit where they can sit on their laurels. The journey is itself the destination. Self-improvement is never-ending.
Self-improvement requires constant perseverance and application of effort; the effort to write each time better than last time, to learn the lessons of each writing session, and to pursue an ever-rising bar for quality.
Persistence Over Speed
As with any skill of mind or body, regular practice and targeted effort drive self-improvement. The feedback loop created between knowledge and application provides the real-world information our mind and body need to grow.
All aspects of writing from dialogue to storytelling, all mental functions behind them from imagination to planning, and all of the writing genres where they are applied need to be trained both individually and in synergy on a regular basis in order to achieve the greatest results, to attain the highest writing skills.
Running faster alone won’t help you lift heavier weights, and lifting heavier weights alone won’t help you run faster. Likewise is the mind; it needs training in all areas and directions in order to develop harmoniously, the product of which harmony will be seen in the creativeness of your own works.
Excellence Over Mediocrity
A great writer is, by definition, aiming for greatness, and not settling for good enough. This drive for greatness is the makings of many a great writer.
Michelangelo the great artist, sculptor, and architect used to burn sketches that were not sufficiently perfected, and likewise, a great writer is not afraid to ruthlessly edit or abandon their amateurish work.
If a work is not up to one’s standards, then the choice is to either discard it to make way (and time) for another or else improve upon it until it does get worthy of claiming as one’s own.
Taking some time away from an old piece can reveal previously non-obvious ways to salvage it.
Just as the environment can have an impact on productivity, so can mood and the level of stress and rest.
Sometimes, it’s worth it to review an unsatisfactory work with a fresh perspective, a tranquil mind, and a well-rested eye.
Submitting mediocre content will serve only to diminish your self-esteem as well as your client’s esteem of you and your work.
5. A Great Writer Is A Meticulous Researcher
A big part of being a writer is being a researcher.
Gaining experience is, of course, the best way to gain accurate knowledge, but even then, one must learn which experience to gain and how to gain it. Due to time, budget, or safety constraints, it is not always feasible to gain sufficient experience with a topic to enable quality self-created thoughts on the topic.
While the honest and honorable choice, in this case, would be to simply not write on the topic, one may still hold a curiosity for the topic, inquisitively ponder the topic, gather information about the topic, and share (in writing) opinions on the topic with the aim of sparking useful thoughts and perhaps gleaning a map to be used to guide one’s future search for experience.
All of that is acceptable and even desirable, so long as one does not claim oneself an authority on the topic on the basis of having read a few books (or by today’s standards, a few articles) on the topic.
Still, that is precisely what most employers want from a writer, isn’t it?
‘Make high-quality, authoritative pieces for me…even though you never heard about this before…I’ll pay you a day’s wages to be the world’s top expert on this stuff – so that I can look like it, too!’
And you take the hundred dollars and write on physics like you’re Newton, on linguistics like you’re Wittgenstein, and on mythology like you’re Campbell…
…Except, you can’t quite make light with a battery, wires, and a light bulb, you can’t pass a fifth-grade literacy exam (from fifty years ago), and you’re still not sure if Ra was a Greek, Roman, or some other hero, god, or something else.
But you’ve gotta have your money, and the employers gotta have more people’s money, so we’ll all throw honesty in the recycling bin and pull the veil over each other’s eyes.
The reader can then pretend to be smart by reciting your words, the employer can pretend to be the best in the field by claiming to have written your words, and you can claim your hundred bucks and pretend to be making a good living off the gullibility of your clients and readers.
…Or, you can be an honest writer, and confine your writing within a niche that you do have experience with.
Authoritative Writing Requires Experience-Based Research
A writer cannot write authoritatively about things outside their areas of experience, skill, and expertise, and is not afraid to direct the customer to a different writer within a different niche.
A quality writer has one or several niches that they excel in, and will not dishonestly claim expertise where they have little to none.
That is not to say that a writer may not be flexible; on the contrary, writing is enjoyable because of the constantly expanding horizons it affords. Learning new things is fun, and helps cultivate a growth mindset.
The writing skill will come in handy on all topics. A great writer can still write an engaging, entertaining piece even on topics they have little to no authority on.
Just, please, don’t ask me to lie, or you can take your hundred bucks back.
6. A Great Writer Is A Mindful Introspector
Care to know your own personality, and to adjust your environment and writing routine to your own needs.
All people are different, with different personalities, different minds, and different traits and thoughts. As a writer, and as a person, we need to find and learn to be in harmony with ourselves. This means ceasing to conform to what someone else thinks we should be while continuing to care to behave respectfully towards others.
In writing as in life, we ought to be the masters of our fate; to learn enough about what inspires us to give our best efforts in order to create for ourselves the kind of stimulating environment that will help us get the best results for our work.
Gertrude Stein wrote in a Model T Car, Dame Edith Sitwell wrote her poems in a coffin. The point is not to straitjacket yourself into someone else’s pattern of inspiration (especially not a coffin), but to find your own spot of liberation.
I love to write when it rains. I’m considering staying close to a rainforest or a lake. At one point I enjoyed writing in a Gothic king’s chair on a Baroque writing desk; the fine design of the throne room inspired me.
Figure out the inner and outer environment that inspire you most and work to create them in your own life.
7. A Great Writer Is A Voracious Reader
Great writers read, read, read, and learn, learn, learn, every single day.
Not only skill but also knowledge is important. Not only of the craft of writing and one’s area of expertise but also of what it means to be human. While the most accurate knowledge comes from observation, observing the voice, style, and craft of another’s writing can help improve one’s one. That’s where reading with awareness comes in.
To read with awareness means to carefully analyze how different authors start their articles or paragraphs, how they end their articles, and how they structure the body of the article. To observe what kind of vocabulary they use and how many illustrations do they use. To look at every single thing the other writers do, just like many actors look at the other actors how they perform, then eventually they become outstanding actors themselves.
Studying carefully the work of other great writers does not make one unoriginal or a thief. On the contrary, it deepens one’s respect for other great works. It immerses one in the underworks of greatness. It exposes one to the ingredients of greatness.
8. A Great Writer Is A Ruthless Self-Editor
No matter how experienced you are, or how skilled you are as a writer, editing is paramount. Everyone makes typos or occasionally has grammatical errors in their work. The last thing you want is for the person you are writing for to find a silly error you didn’t catch yourself.
Additionally, editing allows you to ensure your writing is at the quality that you expect of yourself. Is your voice coming across how you want it to? Does it sound different when it’s read aloud? I always read through my work multiple times, and each time I do, there is something I change.
(Sometimes I think I could edit forever, and learning when to stop editing is a skill within itself as well. But that is a topic for another article.)
A related skill is being able to handle the criticism and editing of others.
A great writer can not only handle criticism, but can listen to it, utilize it, and thrive off of it. Constructive feedback is how we grow. If you are too prideful to accept feedback from those who are more experienced than you, you will remain stagnant (if not regress). On the other hand, if you rely too much on others’ feedback, you may never properly develop the ability to self-critique your own thoughts and skills.
This doesn’t mean you have to take every piece of advice you’re offered. But listen, consider, and evaluate every word of advice you’re given. Be open to understanding the areas where others think you can improve.
9. A Great Writer Is A Road Opener
Mark Twain described how a good writer treats sentences: “At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won’t be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water; it will be a torch-light procession.” He also might’ve said: “Write with clarity and don’t be indulgent.” But he didn’t.
That doesn’t mean you need to be a literary genius, of course. It only means you have to hone your own unique perspective and approach.
This may seem to be one of the most elusive things to learn, but it is, in fact, one of the simplest. By reading a lot, writing a lot, and living a lot, one has the foundations to combine the patterns and techniques of others and self-emerge one’s own. What drives the quality of the process is one’s own quantity of effort, attention, and caring. All tend to come naturally when one is genuinely interested in the process and topic of writing.
10. A Great Writer Is A Disciplined Worker
You know those stories of bohemian poets who lounge around all day, get a brilliant idea, and get famous overnight?
They left a few details out of that picture.
Like how those poets were writing for hours every day without a break before their idea struck them.
Like how they incubated various elements of the idea for months before it came to them.
Like how those elements took them years and years of reading, research, and thinking to gather.
And you know, everybody tells you to be unique…but doesn’t quite tell you how.
Learn from everybody else who ever was unique, then mix them and fill in the gaps to reveal your own blend of uniqueness.
What does this mean for a writer?
Reading a lot and writing a lot.
To write a lot, you have to treat your writing with respect and reverence. Writing time has to be a sacred time for you.
It should be as important, urgent, and exacting in its regularity of schedule, distraction-free productivity, and intolerance to errors as a job your life depends upon.
Because your life’s soul may well depend upon it. If you treat your muse with disrespect, your muse may leave, and your inspiration well may run dry.
The way you treat and shape your chosen craft is the way you treat and shape your soul.
Writing is your spiritual practice.
A great writer, being interested to participate in their own life, will observe, self-critique, and seek to expand their experience, thoughts, and knowledge, and through the efforts of reading, writing, and creating, will continuously improve as a writer through self-learning and self-editing, and expand one’s writing skills, niche, and area of expertise through laborious research, observation, and experimentation.
Great writers, through the natural disposition afforded by passionate interest, gain the skills and the knowledge to please their employer, their readers, and themselves, while also preserving honesty and integrity and cultivating their own unique voice and style.