The Five Traits of a Successful Writer

writing a book

image from Tara Frey

writing is much more than stringing together sentences of words. This is maybe what it looks like, but there is Magic and Mystery which truly empowers Great Writing. I believe the following are the 5 Traits that define a Great Writer:


1. Mastery of Language


this is first and foremost, and the most obvious Trait. Yes, the writer works with words; but what do words represent? fundamentally, words are IDEAS. They have a sound, a spelling, but deep deep down, each single word in our vocabulary is a Concept / Notion. An Idea in other words. Writers work with these concepts; spin them out into narratives, pile them together into a poetical mix. Think Shakespeare or Milton, and you think of Mastery of Language.

how to develop?

– study etymology – that is, the ‘roots’ of words. For english, this is heavily influenced by Latin and Greek, with a load of German and French.

– read poetry – truly learn how to say a lot with very little. Helps develop rhythm and pace in writing, plus the use of metaphor.

– study the writing of editors – many book / newspaper editors don’t often get a chance to write. They use their skills to help craft the work of others. But when these editors find a project to commit to, the resulting work can be a Masterpiece in Craftsmanship. Well worth studying the books that these people write.


2. Mastery of Psychology

freud cartoon

great writers have an uncanny ability to dive in here and there into the human mind. They know what we are REALLY thinking. And then use this understanding to craft situations and storylines that are ulra-credible and realistic. Think Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) and the unfolding of his gripping detective stories. Characters responding in this way or that, depending on situation and access to different levels of knowledge. AC Doyle understood the human mind.

how to develop?

pop psychology – sounds corny, but works. There are plenty of authors who speak to a mass audience (Stephen Pinker, Malcolm Gladwell for eg). Easy books to read, but hugely profound insights into the human mind.

analyse yourself – watch the turns and tricks of your own mind. Keep a diary, track your emotions and rages. Through self-observation you come to understand others.


3. Mastery of Philosophy


this seems like a strange one, but I will make the case. By Mastery of Philosophy, I mean that each Great Writer has a particular WorldView. This is their PERSONAL PHILOSOPHY; their own particular understanding of the world, one that has been examined and fully developed. They have asked the questions, and come up with their own answers. It is their Personal Vision.

once a writer has this, they can then convey it to their audience. Whether its James Joyce painting his portrait of depressing Ireland, or Henry James portraying his ‘golden age’ america, each of these writers has a distinctive outlook. It is their Philosophy.

how to develop?

study religion / spirituality – here you will confront the big questions in life. It’s not the answers that are important, but the Responses that the Questions evoke in YOU. Why do you think this? or that? or believe in science? or the creator? how did you arrive to such conclusions? what are the lines of reasoning in your arguments? challenge yourself 🙂

examine world events – how do you explain and understand the big events in the world? the wars, the international feuding, the business plundering. Do you have a coherent framework in which to place such happenings? one that you are satisfied with? more big questions which will develop your personal philosophy no end.


4. Mastery of Narrative

book narrative

so we’ve given our writer his words (Mastery of Language), an understanding of human nature (Mastery of Psychology) and a particular worldview (Mastery of Philosophy). What next? well, then the writer has to tell HIS/HER STORY. This is the Narrative. Its no good having information and knowledge if you can’t convey it to others. Teaching is almost the flip side of Learning. Once you have learnt, you almost have the responsibility to pass this on. This is the narrative, a well spun story.

how to develop?

study Jane Austen – all her novels are well developed. They have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Study this flow of development.

study films – not the film scripts, but go watch movies! those that work well have the same beginning, middle and end of the Jane Austen novel. Introduce characters, show them mixing, then demonstrate the outcome. Narrative.


5. Mastery of Opportunity

door of opportunity

all creative artists need a bit of the entrepreneurial streak, and yes, the Successful Writer too. They need an eye and ear for Opportunity and Chance. A short story here, a book review there, a breakthrough magazine article, whatever, the writer is constantly seeking to raise their profile. From obscurity to fame is the story of Opportunities Taken.

know Charles Bukowski? here’s the story of a 20th Century gritty boozing writer and poet. He kept plugging away until he found his Savior Patron. Persistence.


great writer

so you can see that Great Writers aren’t just people who put together words in pretty ways. They are people are pick apart and put together THE WORLD. They have this internal vision, and they convey this to you in a —

1) beautiful, enchanting, effective way (Mastery of Language)

2) convincing, authentic, credible way (Mastery of Psychology

3) meaningful, enlightening, escapist way (Mastery of Philosophy)

4) developed, engrossing, page turning way (Mastery of Narrative)

5) timely, relevant, immediate way (Mastery of Opportunity).

so you can see that Great Writers are also pretty good human beings. They have fascinating life histories, and there is nothing more thrilling for me than diving into a well-written Literary Biography. Writers are amazing!

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just my take on things

blessings and peace



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26 Responses to “The Five Traits of a Successful Writer”

  1. Kris Says:

    very well said. i had this very conversation w/ my fellow cast & crew tonight after closing this last community theater show. We are putting together five 20min short scripts for next season written by our own cast & crew. Writing is not as easy as it looks. What most complained about is, they never sit down & write. But I do. The other thing I think is silly is writers MUST read on a variety of subjects. A write who doesn’t read something every day is like an Olympic athlete who doesn’t train their muscles every day. To build the writing muscle one must read classics as well not just mags & comic books. Thanks for this article.

  2. darkened jade Says:

    Really fascinating read and I agree with all of these traits. One of the pieces of advice I give my students is that in order to write, one has to read widely and experience a wide range of ideas and views. I have always beleived that without this broader knowledge stories and characters can quickly become flat and uninspired. Thanks for an excellent post and a great read.

  3. Linda Stamberger Says:

    Enjoyed this, very true. Never give up.

  4. Michael K. Willis Says:

    Very nice…a rich and evocative piece. My favorite English teacher (in the bygone days when I was a young whippersnapper) used to mentor and encourage me with words much like these. Thanks for bringing that dear lady back to mind on this quiet Sunday morning.

  5. Zuzanna M Says:

    The Power of Words

    Words, words, words
    So many to choose from
    Makes you wonder how
    The imaginations flow.

    Philosophy, Language, History,
    Geography, Empires and more
    Ancient Mayas, Romans, Greek,
    Egyptians, just mention a few.

    The books I cherish a lot
    A price possession for all
    Over the ages till now…
    Those to empower our minds!

    May 10 – 2009
    By ZuzannaM

  6. mommymystic Says:

    excellent, would that I possessed even semi-mastery of half of these **sigh**

  7. Jon Klement Says:

    These are fine points, one and all.

    However, as ruthless as it may make me seem, I would say that writers can have all these qualities and still not be “successful” if you define success as being able to pay your bills from your writing.

    My personal definition of being successful as a writer involves making a financial living at it. (Which, I must confess, in order ot be honest, I am approaching, but have not by any means yet achieved myself.)

  8. banana_the_poet Says:

    Have to agree with Jon Klement if success is measured in money – I am currently a contender for the biggest failed writer of all time.

    But I shall choose to define success as producing written work that pleases and entertains people I have never met, every single day.

    Money – who needs the stuff anyway?
    OK me 😉 **sigh**

  9. Shade Law Says:

    This is a well thought out piece Love. I enjoyed it very much!

  10. Miruh Says:

    I agree, reading poetry is essential to develop writing skills, no matter what writing style we focus on. The art of poetry develops our imagination with its imagery and metaphors that express the writer’s thoughts and feelings.

    Very well written; had a beginning, a middle and an end.:D

  11. Language hack Says:

    Like everyone says it’s important to read every day. But the main point here is that one should also be reading to expand one’s mind to increase knowledge of topics like philosophy and psychology and why not add science to that list?

  12. Rinari Says:

    Sheltered in shadow of flickering flame,
    my muse awaits our dancing game.

    Clear the clutter, set the scene,
    lay the fire, dull the sheen
    of modern life, crisp and clean.

    Sheltered in shadow of flickering flame,
    my muse awaits our dancing game.

    Make a start, spread your wings,
    stretch your mind, consider things
    that challenge thought or pull heart strings.

    Follow fancy’s fickle flight
    along the lonely trails of night
    until you find your guiding light
    that leads you to the final site
    of inspiration shining bright.

    Bite the bullet, grasp the horn,
    fight the fast approaching dawn
    for now your masterpiece is born.

    Sheltered in shadow of flickering flame,
    my muse awaits our dancing game.

    25th March 2009
    Narinder Grewal

  13. roentarre Says:

    Very creative serie in deed.

    I like the last 2 shots the best

  14. Molly Says:

    Hey, great article on writing. Fabulous, really. Love the new website.

  15. downcharlestonblvd Says:

    Organized well, and written well. Thank you for sharing this. good job.

  16. Top Posts « Says:

    […] The Five Traits of a Successful Writer writing is much more than stringing together sentences of words. This is maybe what it looks like, but there is Magic […] […]

  17. Bruce Says:

    If an erstwhile writer had to wait to acquire the 5 traits you speak of before beginning, very few would ever begin. Language mastery is a lifelong endeavor that ends only with your epitaph engraved on your gravestone. Mastery of psychology is also a lifelong pursuit honed only by observing and paying attention to people around you from every walk of life. Movies help the writer vicariously with character development but result in exaggerated stereotypical characters and unrealistic situations aka pulp fiction. Lots of great story lines (dilemmas of choice etc) can be found in Scriptures from every culture. Mastering narrative is I agree a matter of reading Jane Austen and other literary classics. Mastery of philosophy should be changed to Mastery of the moment – primarily because philosophical outlooks on life change at each chronological stage of life. A partier and risk-taker in his twenties may learn through his good or bad experiences begin a way of life in his thirties that makes him look at his life very differently. Change is a variable constant and keeps our lives interesting and worth writing about. So chase the opportunities to write, never stop writing and write with passion.

  18. Cindy Says:


  19. Mysticle Says:

    Very nice summary.

  20. Joe Says:

    You forgot several of the most important tools for writing mastery: a goodly supply of wine, a regular toke on a joint, and frequent commingling with fat-bottomed women. Utilization of these indispensable tools will engender a mastery of the above-mentioned five traits without a lifetime’s devotion to slogging through termite-infested volumes of Kierkegaard, Kant, and Freud.

    By the way, Mysticle, your photo inspires as does the directness of your words. If you are in the Los Angeles area I would enjoy exploring philosophy, psychology, language mastery, and, of course, poetry in a more intimate setting, perhaps over a glass of wine.

  21. Heather Says:

    Very insightful, It’s a good model of what to strive for.

  22. Jennifer johnson Says:

    Writing is the face of language in the outward appearance of symbols, letters. The key intention of writing is communication or conveying messages. People use different kind of tools for writing including pen, paint, pencils, typewriters and comp keyboard. The writing can be formed on the wall , a piece of paper . STOP!!!!!!
    If I will continue explaining the word writing and writer it won’t end it wud take so long but a suitable image can make us understand the required point with in few seconds and thats what I can say about these images. They describe and travel the meaning very well.

  23. Free Streaming Videos Online Says:

    While surfing Bing I found your site…very informative! I enjoy informed about this kind of stuff. I’ll certainly bookmark your website for additional review

  24. 1Randy1 Says:

    wow…… very informative and factual. The Good news is that ” Knowledge is power” , one of my favorite quotes. Nice detailing and debreifing people on how to successfully comprehend traits and charactericts that are included into being a great writter. I appreciate your insight for those who may be looking to become a writter her/his self …… THANKYOU for sharing a piece of your wisdom with the rest of the World

  25. No Vuvuzela85 Says:

    What do you think of the vuvuzela problem?

  26. Halloween Says:

    Wonderful article. You sure can write and teach and inspire. Keep writing, your thoughts are like a breath of fresh air. These 5 Traits are almost what I’ve been thinking of some time ago

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