What makes a good writer?

People I respect, trust and love in differing proportions have told me, many times, that they like how I write. I have a style, it seems, that is “lyrical, easy and a joy to read” (a direct quote from an essay/short story I wrote a year or so back). Welcoming; funny, others have said when grades weren’t riding on the product.

My own writing aside, for it is phenomenally hard to judge your own worth, I know that in turn there are writers who I like and writers who I don’t. I seem to innately know what makes a good sentence, though I am often times hard pushed to articulate and analyse precisely what grabs me about certain writers.

As an aside, given my line of work, I am fortunately getting rapidly better at this!

At a stab I would say it is the voice and personality good authors bring across the page. Words should flow easily and be a joy to read to the point you don’t know you are reading. Rather you are watching the story unfold in your mind with no conscious effort. Great authors take words and ideas and play with them till they make your brain sing. Each time you read them you get something different from the piece. From the comfort-blanket-fluffy of a decent chick lit, to the tense suspense (can I DO that to the English language?!) of a brilliantly plotted thriller…

There is no excuse for bad writing, as I frequently yell at a book or the TV screen at yet another awful offering with wooden dialogue and paint by numbers plotting.

People think it is hard, but it is not, is it? I just write down the words I hear spoken in my head. I speak, so I write. Moose mumbled that she couldn’t write like me. Who would want to? Surely it is better to write like yourself? In my last job I was the proof reader and copy editor of choice for the whole office, and a few heads of service from the next office over as well. I never quite understood why people felt they needed my help, but clearly the words just fit together for me.

But I am still not sure what makes a good writer.

It is not a strong adherence to grammar or rigid sentence structure; I certainly couldn’t pick an adverb out of a police line up. It isn’t even a varied vocabulary, though it certainly doesn’t do any damage. When I helped people do rewrites of their work, the first thing I always did was get them to put the pen and paper away and just talk to me. Tell me what they wanted to say. Once freed from the idea they had to sound “impressive” on the page, or be the next incarnation of Shakespeare, they would find their own voice. Their own pattern and what they then wrote invariably sounded true. My job was then nothing more than acting like a spell-checker with legs and a cute smile.

Maybe then it is the sense of flow and rhythm and a pattern to the words. I repeat: if you can speak, you can write.

I’ve been vocal in the past, and was vocal just last night, about my loathing for Dan Brown (he of Da Vinci Code fame). I shall stress once more for readers newer to Bright Meadow that I have no problem with what he wrote (unlike my Renaissance Historian landlord), rather my hatred is reserved for how he wrote. Or more precisely, for the execrable excuse for prose he vomited onto the page. Certain people should never be let in front of the word processor, let alone find an editor to take them onto their list. His writing is just so stilted, with a jerky rhythm, and dialogue that is the literary equivalent to badly dubbed Japanese samurai movies.


In contrast, a book I started reading last night: Crowboy by David Calcutt. From the first line I was hooked. I found myself speaking aloud in the character’s accent.

    “So I’m outside the city one evening on me usual rounds, sorting through the leftovers and picking me way through the day’s dead. Not that there’s much to be took. The best of the fighting’s over now. That all happened in the first few weeks after the soldiers come, and what with the city having took a good battering and the best of its people dead or run off, everybody’s got themselves settled down not to a good long siege”

Whole chapters, the whole book, written in the accents, the very voices, of the characters themselves. That is hard to do. It is tricky enough to find your own voice in writing. It is that much harder to be consistent with the voices of others, especially in varied and non-standard dialects.

Maybe this need for a coherent voice is partly why I dislike so many first-person narratives. So few writers can pull it off, most of the time it just jars as I read.

I am becoming something of a writing snob. There are so many great authors out there, but they are drowning under the weight of the mediocre. Why should I waste my precious time on a sub-standard product? Quality speaks over quantity every time, or at least it should. I know a book is good when I find myself slowing down from my usual break-neck reading pace, to savour what is written. When I get to the end of the book and instantly go looking to see what else the author has written. When people have to throw things at me to get my attention. When I miss my bus stop because I am engrossed.

That is the sign of a good writer.

I just wish I could pin down exactly what they did and how they did it. Because it is more than just a “voice”, I know it is. It has to be. It can’t be that simple?

14 thoughts on “What makes a good writer?

  1. Honestly, when you put aside issues of plot and characterization, I think what you’re left with largely *is* the quality of a writer’s voice, the skill of stringing words together in pleasing ways. I’ve been through lots of creative writing classes and workshops, and countless times, I’ve heard the instructor advise students to read their work aloud. But too often, they just don’t; if they had, they would have spotted the stilted dialogue, the lack of contractions, and other elementary mistakes.

    But the other part of the magic is having the skill to create people and worlds using words on the page — to describe individuals, places and scenes so well that they seem both alive and true to life. That’s the hardest part to learn, because it’s so hard to explain and define. I think the best writers either have that skill instinctively or learn it by osmosis, from reading other exceptional writers… and also by trying and failing and trying again, until they get it right.

  2. You make a good point about characterization Cheryl. Personally, I know it is something I need to work on. I’ve got the “voice”, but the characters themselves are just a leetle bit one dimensional at times!

  3. Good to know, Cas. Who’s your boss, and which part of the department do you work in? I think I’m coming down to see Liz Cross on Wednesday 26th, so may have chance to say hello.

  4. It hasn’t come through yet, Cas. But will definitely say hi if you’re around. I’ll let you know what time I’ll be there, when I know.

  5. How does someone begin the process of becoming a “good writer?” I am compiling inspirational stories of how people’s lives were impacted by dying children, into a book and weaving my own narrative throughout. Any tips on how to keep the stories as the focus and stay out of the way?

  6. Hi Katie, welcome to Bright Meadow, and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you.

    You raise an interesting question – how does the writer step out the way of the story? Unfortunately, I know of no hard and fast rules. All I can recommend is read LOTS and try and see how the greats do it. My suspicion is that you will find the characters in those stories have their own voice. They live on the page because they lived in the writers mind – rather than forcing your own words into the book, try and let the characters speak through you.

    Tricky, yes, but practice helps. Keep writing and it will come!

  7. I have yet been able to get past the criticisms in my head when it comes to my own writing. Wanting to make it “impressive” is a hard principal to give up. The ego must die. Any suggestions?

  8. Hi Lissy, welcome to Bright Meadow firstly 🙂

    If you work out a way to lock the ego up for the duration of writing, let the rest of us know! I think the mark of a good writer is that they always think they could be better, so they keep trying. Neil Gaiman has a good piece of advice: write the first draft, stick it in a drawer for a year, then come back to it. You will have totally fresh eyes and be able to rewrite, making it so much MORE awesome than it was already. Then try and get it published!

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