Posts Tagged ‘writing’

The Five Traits of a Successful Writer

May 10, 2009

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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