Most people can identify good writing fairly easily. Words that compel them to keep reading; that create clear visions of people, places and situations; or simply produce strong emotions or create connections are often mentioned when the discussion turns to great writing. But what is it about people that make them great writers? Although, technically, the characteristics of creative writing and the definition of “good” creative writing are subjective – as evidenced by varying opinions on the same piece of work – there are some qualities that great writers share that can increase your chances of success and of being deemed a good writer yourself.
Desire to Write
The most important quality in a writer is the desire to write. Writing takes time and dedication, and if you are going to put in that level of work, you have to love to write. Writing well isn’t easy for everyone, and if you don’t really want to do it, you aren’t going to enjoy the process or put in the work necessary to develop your craft and constantly work toward becoming a better writer. Being a good creative writer requires discipline and commitment, and if you don’t want to write, that’s going to be next to impossible.
It probably goes without saying, but good creative writers have vivid imaginations – and aren’t afraid to follow their daydreams wherever they may lead. Writers allow themselves to be guided by “What if?” and seek answers to that question. That doesn’t always mean creating mystical, magical worlds of fantasy. With imagination, even a mundane dilemma like, “What if a man took a different route to work one morning?” or “What will drive a customer to buy this product? “can lead to a compelling and creative story. Writers look everywhere for inspiration, and are willing to let their minds wander when they find something interesting. Carry a notebook with you, and jot down things that you see and hear, or sparks of ideas that come to you throughout the day. You might be surprised at where your imagination goes – and how it will help you become a better writer.
A Love of Words
Good writers have a love for words – and the vocabulary to show it. Creative writing is all about using words effectively, whether you are bringing a story to life and transporting readers into another world or trying to convince them to use a different brand of soap. That requires understanding the subtle differences between words and their connotations, and knowing when to use them. Your word choice is a significant contributor to your style and how well you paint a picture for your readers, so it serves you well as a writer to develop your vocabulary and experiment with how you use words.
You may have heard several people say, “I would love to be a writer. I have all of these ideas in my head, but I just don’t know how to put them on paper.” Or they make excuses: They don’t have time; they are not good at spelling; their handwriting is awful.
The fact is, as with any craft, creative writing requires ongoing, regular practice if you want to perfect it. This generally means just sitting down and getting to it. Bestselling novels don’t write themselves, after all, and the only way you are ever going to bring your great ideas to life is by actually dedicating the time to writing. Successful writers devote themselves to their craft, and commit to a writing schedule – usually every day. Some opt to produce a certain number of words each day; others aim to write a specific number of pages or for a predetermined length of time.
However, they measure their progress, though, they all carve out time every day to get it done. On some days, it may seem difficult or impossible to reach your goal, while on others you can keep going long after the timer has stopped. In either case, maintaining that discipline and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard is putting you on the road to becoming a great writer.
A Thick Skin
Creative writing is often a matter of putting your heart and soul onto paper, and you can feel very vulnerable when you allow others to read what you have written. But being a good creative writer requires feedback from others, and that feedback isn’t always going to be great. If you’re planning to write professionally, you need to develop a thick skin and be willing to accept feedback and constructive criticism, and the fact that not everyone is going to love what you’ve written. Sometimes, readers and editors can be harsh, and you need to learn to separate the useful criticisms from those that are simply mean-spirited.
Professional writing also brings with it a fair amount of rejection. Even best-selling authors have had their work turned down by agents and publishers: J.K. Rowling’s pitch for Harry Potter, which included a hand-drawn map of the Hogwarts grounds, was rejected 12 times before it was picked up. Rowling even noted that she received a form letter rejection for the beloved first novel the first time she sent it out for review, and an especially harsh rejection when she tried submitting it under a pen name. A great creative writer needs to be able to overcome that rejection, and keep writing anyway, with an eye toward improving with every draft.
A Love of Reading
Ask writers about what they like to do in their spare time, and most will say, “Read.” Being a voracious reader is a key part of building your writing skills. When you read what others have done, you learn more about the qualities of creative writing, what makes writing compelling and what doesn’t work. You gain insight into how to use words, structure, syntax, tone and style in your own writing. By gaining exposure to many different types of writing, you can better hone your own style, picking and choosing from various techniques to create characters and worlds that are all your own.
A Level of Perfectionism
Rarely, if ever, is any piece of writing perfect on the first draft. There is always something that can be fixed or improved, and a good creative writer recognizes that and is willing to do the work to make her writing better. This might mean cutting entire sections or plot lines, or eliminating characters that aren’t moving the story forward. It might mean adding additional paragraphs, or even entire chapters or sections, to clarify plot points or deepen the story. Great writers are perfectionists, constantly looking for ways to make their work better.
They are also demanding on themselves, and invest time and energy into developing their skills by taking courses, attending workshops and reading about their craft. You are never “done” becoming a writer, but are always working on your skills and becoming the best writer you can be.
Writers are fearless. Again, sharing your work with the world can make you vulnerable, but you can’t be afraid of what the world will think. Be fearless means not being afraid to write terrible first drafts (in fact, in her best-selling guide to writing, Bird by Bird, writer Anne Lamott actually encourages writers to produce terrible first drafts) and then throw them out and start over. Being fearless means going deep into your characters' psyches, and digging out the really interesting bits that can take your story to the next level. Being fearless with your writing means knowing that some people might be made uncomfortable by your words – especially when you’re working on a memoir – and being willing to share them anyway. And, of course, being fearless means sending your work out, putting in the effort to get published, and sharing your creations with the world without fearing rejection, which is inevitable and something to learn from.
When you are writing early drafts, grammar, punctuation and spelling aren’t all that important, especially when you are writing only for yourself. However, if you want to become a professional writer, the nuts and bolts of writing do matter. You don’t need to become the world’s leading expert on commas, but you do need to put in the effort to proof your work and polish it so readers aren’t distracted by misspellings and miss the flow of the story. If you really struggle in this area, enlist the help of a friend who has skills, or hire a professional editor to help you. And remember, the more you practice, the better you will get, so keep learning and working to improve your skills.
Many new writers are advised to “Write what you know” as a way to get started. However, no one knows everything, and even a piece based entirely on your personal experience is likely to require some research. If you are writing creative nonfiction, or any type of nonfiction, you are going to have to fill in gaps with your own research. Knowing how to conduct research and dig out the details you need to round out your writing, is an important skill for great writing. Readers will know when you’re faking it, and even a single misstatement or overlooked detail can destroy your credibility and cause other problems for you and your publisher.
Being an organized writer doesn’t mean you need a fancy office with the latest computer and a container full of perfectly sharpened pencils. After all, bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand writes the first drafts of all of her novels in longhand on legal pads while sitting on the beach or by the pool. However, being organized means being careful with your time, scheduling in your daily writing sessions and keeping track of your progress. If you are submitting your work to agents or publishers, you need to keep careful track of your submissions and their status. If your hard work has paid off and you are getting published, you need to keep track of your deadlines and the work that needs to be completed. You must also catalogue your research, interview notes and other important information. All of this requires organization. While you might have an image of a disheveled and disorganized writer tapping away on a keyboard while the world crashes down around her, that isn’t an accurate depiction. Successful writers follow the creative spirit where it takes them, but also take good notes along the way.
You Can Get Better
If you have the desire to write, the good news is that you can get better. While some argue that the qualities of a good creative writer and writing ability are things you either have or you don’t, the fact is that it can be taught. With practice, determination and a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them, it is possible to improve your skills and develop the qualities of a good creative writer. You might never make it to the top of the bestseller list, or even see your name in print, but when you are called upon to write something, you’ll have the confidence of knowing you can string the words together and accomplish what you set out to do. Commit to practicing, developing your craft and learning about writing, and you can be a better writer.