I’ve heard many times the argument over whether writers are born or made. Can you teach someone to write, or is it inborn talent? I think that argument is too simple. I think the question should be what is talent, and how do we foster it? I’m not talking about knowledge of story structure and principles of grammar. I’m talking about the intangibles that make great writers great:
1. Love of words
I think this is common sense. A passion for words is the most important requirement for writers. You won’t get far in putting words on paper if you can’t stand them. Talented writers are lovers of words and communication. They appreciate the nuances of how words convey meaning. They are never satisfied with a decent word when there is a better one, and they have a good understanding of when there is a better one, even if they don’t know what it is yet. They are unafraid of playing with sentence structures and never doubt the power of language.
As a writer, studying words and grammar is a necessity to the craft. You must understand how to use words and language effectively to convey meaning. Make a study of the works of other writers. Look at how Nabokov plays with language in Lolita. Learn about how Shakespeare crafted at least 1300 new words and many phrases when existing ones did not fit his purpose, which we still use today, by the way.
2. Love of reading
Good writers are made from good readers. I haven’t heard of a successful writer yet who hates to read. How can a writer grow and learn if she isn’t concerned with the works of other writers? How can a writer build on the work of past writers if he never reads them? How can she know a good story if she never experiences them for herself?
Reading makes writers better. It stretches us and teaches us. It gives us successes and failures that are lessons. We learn about the elements of a story and about how words work together to tell it. Reading teaches us about genre, about conventions, about how to take valuable risks. It teaches us about compassion and emotion and how words can convey feeling. Reading is essential practice for a writer. Read everything you can. Read fiction, drama, poetry, nonfiction, manuals, textbooks, anything you can get your hands on. Read widely. Read to learn. Pay attention not only to story, but to how the writer accomplished his or her task.
One often-overlooked trait of good writers is insatiable curiosity. Writers must ask questions and love learning to generate ideas or to decide how to present them correctly. They must be open to new ideas.
Question everything you know. Ask questions of everyone you know. Don’t accept something because it’s common knowledge, or because others say so. Be passionate about learning and follow your interests to new ideas.
4. Tough skin
Even the best writers face criticism. It is impossible to be universally liked, and taste is a fickle thing. You will fail as a writer, and you will have successes, but understand that your successes can often feel like failures when you listen to the criticism. Good writers may listen to criticism, but they move past it. It doesn’t hold them back. The best writers learn that they can’t please everyone and don’t try to appease everyone. They have learned that for a work to be a success, it must please one person, and if it please others along the way, so be it.
Get used to readers not appreciating your work. Learn to understand the difference between criticism to help your work and criticism due to taste. Ignore the latter. Taste is fickle, and when people don’t like your work, that’s their problem. Learn to accept valid criticism about how to make your work better from editors and other writers. Practice by finding beta readers, critique partners, and writing groups.
Writing isn’t a quick way to earn success. The act of putting words on the page, one after another, takes time and effort. Writing a story can take hours or days, and a novel even longer. Then there’s editing. Then there’s the wait for submissions. During the process, no one will tell a writer that his or her work is needed. No one says, “Writer, I think the one thing missing from the world is your novel.” The writer must motivate herself to finish. He must work tirelessly on a manuscript with no promise of success. She must lock herself alone in a room and writer. Oh, and did I mention that writing is lonely? You have to be okay with being alone with your own company for a long time.
Write when you’re tired. Write when you’re lonely. Write when you’re sad. Write when your story is driving you crazy. The only way you’ll be a writer is to write. Put in the long hours and the hard work, and you will see the benefit of practice. You will benefit from completed drafts. You’ll learn a lot about the process.
Good writers take risks. It isn’t about what is popular or what will sell. Writing is about telling a story and doing what needs to be done to make it work. Good writers take risks with plot, character, setting, grammar, and every other element of a story. They play with language and structure and make it work for them, rather than chaining themselves to outmoded conventions that do nothing for the work. Good writers understand the rules, and break them. More importantly, they understand when to break them. They don’t take risks for risk’s sake, but they are unafraid of the risks when necessary.
Don’t break rules for the sake of breaking them, but don’t be afraid to break rules when it will help your writing. Don’t shy away from subjects because they may hurt feelings. Don’t stay away from topics because you’re afraid of how you’ll be perceived. Learn when taking risks is beneficial. The best literature does not exist because it was easy or safe to write. It is great because it challenges ideas or challenges readers. Sometimes it challenges the writers.
7. Emotional strength
Good writers are unafraid of good stories, even if they are painful to write. They don’t shy away from the difficult ones. In fact, they embrace them. They don’t worry about what the public or their families will think if they write on certain topics. They don’t worry about perceptions, they simply create their art.
They have the emotional strength to subject themselves to sadness and fear. They brave the darkest places in their own minds if it means they can create a better story. They test their own emotions and capture them for audiences.
Try writing about your person traumas. Write about what scares you. Write about what makes you sad or angry. Those are the subjects that you can write well about because you are passionate about them. Don’t write something because it’s easy. Stay away from writing something that doesn’t challenge you. Write what challenges you. When you leave your work, you should be emotionally drained, but you should be proud of the challenge of tackling your own monsters.
8. Understanding of human nature
Good writers have a finely developed sense of the essences of human nature. They understand how people act and react. They understand tensions under the surface. They recognize subtleties of character and speech. They understand that when faced with a decision, humans make said decision one way because that is how their natures allow them to react. Writers don’t look at the other humans in their life merely as company and entertainment. They dissect interactions. They watch. They listen. They learn, then they create.
Spend time watching and listening. Don’t always be the first to jump into a conversation. Try to understand what lies beneath the surface of each person you meet. What are the struggles that challenge each person? How do underlying tensions affect his or her behavior? Make it your goal to study people. Ask them tough questions about the meaning of life, about love, about emotions, about perspectives. Get to the root of human nature.
9. Desire to improve
A good writer understands when her skills are lacking and attempts to improve them. He understands when a story isn’t quite right and tries to find the solution. The act of writing is the act of constant growth and change. Writers want to adapt to become better and look for ways to grow. They seek feedback. They try to learn from mistakes. They want to discuss craft with other writers in hopes of learning the secret to success. Good writers are never stagnant.
Make an effort to figure out what you are weakest at in writing and try to improve it. You may need the help of a writing partner to help find your weaknesses. You may need to work with a mentor or take a class to improve. Whatever the struggle, don’t just accept it and move on. Make it your goal to learn how to improve.
When you’ve written a messy draft that feels like a failure, learn from your mistakes. Figure out how you can improve it or write a better draft next time. Don’t simply accept your failures. Learn to improve on them.
10. Have a persistent skewed vision of reality
Good writers tend to ignore the realities of life in favor of creating good art. Sure, there are bills, and the chances that art of any kind will earn enough money to live off are slim, but it doesn’t matter. The chances of being published are slim, and the chances of a book selling once it is published can be even slimmer. They believe that if they just take a chance and put in the effort, it will be worth their while. It doesn’t matter what past results were. They keep trying. The world needs their work, even though no one will say it.
I’m not saying to quit your job and stop paying bills. I am saying that good writers work past those setbacks in order to become great writers. You may have struggles, but you have to focus on writing. To a great writer, none of those struggles matters. Here’s why:
11. They need to write
Great writers are the ones who write because they love it. They don’t do it for money, though most admit it would be nice. They don’t write to amass followers or to become famous.
Great writers write because they love it the act of creating a story. They love to examine people and express the nature humanity. They love to represent culture. Their brain comes up with stories and they can’t shut it off until they tell it. They may agonize during the process of putting words on the page, but when they finish, they agonize until they can start again.
Sure, it’s probably accurate to say that writers are masochists who enjoy suffering, since writing can be a very unpleasant task; however, true writers know that they would go crazy without it. They don’t care if it hurts. They don’t care if they won’t be successful. They write because they need writing. They believe that the world needs writing.
If you don’t feel the need to write, put down your pen. Shut down your computer. Stop. Don’t bother. Writing should be done out of a need and a passion and not for any other reason.
If you need to write, then do it. Don’t make excuses. You won’t be happy until you do. Make an effort to work at it. Give writing everything you’ve got. That means working at it until you think it will make you crazy. That means dedicating your time to improving. That means doing everything in your power to become a successful writer. It will be difficult, but if you’re truly passionate, it won’t matter.
I’m not saying that if you do all these things you’ll pick up these traits. I’m not saying that if you pick up these traits you’ll be successful. There are many factors that play into a writer’s success. I am saying that if you make an effort to improve as a writer, particularly in these aspects, you will be a more successful writer. You will learn to be a better writer in the process, but whatever you do, don’t ever stop trying to learn. None of the best writers ever gave up on improvement. Do your best to foster a life of literary growth, and you will be a better writer.
What are your thoughts on the traits of successful writers? Do you have any other ideas? Do you have tips for improving as a writer? Share them in the comments!