Are You a Good Writer?

What makes a writer good or bad or meh?

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But a writer doesn’t necessarily want to get “there” first. Instead, a writer’s goal is to create “there”, which means meandering and taking side roads and sometimes getting lost.

A recent Twitter discussion prompted me to think deeply about what good writing is and isn’t. I like writing that draws me in with poetic, lyrical prose. My husband prefers concise, succinct writing that gives him the information he needs quickly. What’s great writing to me, constitutes as fluff to my husband.

So which of us right?

My name is Julia and I’m a bad writer…

julia rosienI was a freelance writer for many years and earned my chops writing for publications like Health, Women’s Health, Wedding Style, The American Bar Association Journal, CBC Radio, Conceive, Chicago Sun-Times, The Christian Science Monitor and The Boston Globe.

Before I earned those publishing credits, I earned a whole lots of no’s. My writing wasn’t good enough, strong enough, focused enough. To some editors, it was bad writing. Had I listened to (and believed) those editors, I’d probably be selling coffee at Starbucks today.

Thankfully I had some very strong cheerleaders who believed in me and encouraged me to protect my will to write. So who do you believe? For a while, I believed the cheerleaders and with each rejection, I grew a little stronger. I learned to dust off the negativity and keep writing.

Then I started listening to myself. I ignored the “bad writer” label and the “good writer” label and found my voice. Turns out, that voice was stronger than I thought.

I’ve taught writing in a prison, in a college and to a wide variety of corporate clients. The women I taught in the prison needed to write their stories. It was like ripping a bandaid off a wound and once it was done, they threw it away. My college students approached writing as a process and invested in reworking the same essay again and again. In the corporate world, I taught employees how inject their personality into the official message.

The common thread? Writing comes from somewhere deep inside of you and needs protecting. For some of us, sharing our writing is like getting naked in public. For my prison students, that was easy – judgement wasn’t new to them. For the rest of us, the story is a little different.

The art of rewriting

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Being willing to rework your writing over and over again is what separates the good from the great, the hobbyist from the professional. Just like a singer or athlete, being born with talent will only get you so far.

My publishing credits may have earned me the title of a good writer, but I’ll settle for fair. And then I’ll tell you my secret. Re-writing is the most crucial step in the writing process. It can be frustrating, especially when you’re still in “writer mode” and you believe you’ve written a brilliant piece.

I don’t write a blog post in the morning and publish it in the afternoon. An editor of mine once told me that his average editing process took 17 rewrites – something he measured long before computers. That’s a lot of paper.

There are as many approaches to rewriting as there are writers.

Realize this: re-writing your article or blog post will make your writing cleaner, stronger and might even earn you the label of good writer someday. If you care about that kind of thing…

Observations on becoming a “Good Writer”

  • Protect your will to write. It’s the source of your strength.
  • Critics want you to write like them. Take what makes sense to you and delete the rest.
  • Find a niche. Find a few niches. Write about what you love, or at least what you like.
  • Respect yourself and your craft and remember it’s a craft. You have to keep working at it to get better.
  • To maintain your own unique writer’s voice, experiment often and change slowly.
  • It doesn’t make any difference whether a critique is harsh, diplomatic, or complementary, they can hurt. A Snicker’s bar close by can help. Seriously.
  • Help other writers when you can. We’re all in this together.
  • Believe in yourself.
  • Protect your will to write.

“Writing is not a contest. Every writer is starting from a different point and is bound for different destinations. Don’t get paralyzed by the thought that you are competing with everybody else who is trying to write and presumably doing it better.”
~ William Zinsser

what makes a good writer“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
~ Pablo Picasso

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
~ Albert Einstein

When you walk to the edge
of all the light you have
And you take the first step into
the darkness of the unknown
You must believe that
one of two things will happen
There will be something solid
for you to stand upon
or you will be
taught to fly.
~ Patrick Overton

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9 Responses to “Are You a Good Writer?”

  1. Jim Tigwell says:

    A thousand times this. I do believe in good writers, but only insofar as being a good writer means being a good editor. It means stalking through the halls of your narrative with an assault rifle and placing the cold barrel against the temple of a sobbing paragraph. You made that paragraph. You love it. It’s your writing. But it was too clunky, or the facts don’t fit together right, and your love for that paragraph can’t override your love for a good product. So you pull the trigger. All the stray sentences and Oxford commas gasp when the next round snaps into the chamber, and you scan the article for another victim.

    That’s the hard part about editing. It means getting rid of the parts that you like. Removing the things that you love in favour of what’s good. And that’s not easy, which is why we use editors. They see it with fresh eyes, without attachment to a specific set of clauses or that wink at the reader in chapter three. But when you get that list, it seems harder. They just don’t understand it, you say. But they do. They’re editors. Fight with them if they’re stifling your voice, but understand the editing is what makes writing good. Atwood, MacLennan, Mitchell, they’re all great writers, but they also have great editors.

    • Julia Rosien says:

      Brilliant, Jim! One of my favorite editors once told me that I should be stripping half of the original piece away before I’m finished. He also told me to write at a grade 6 level, which annoyed me beyond belief. Then he said this to me: “the bible is written at 6 level, get over yourself.” Picked my jaw off the floor and proceeded :-)

      Thanks so much for stopping by and adding such great insights!

  2. Caryn says:

    As a shameless bibliophile I have to assert that I agree with @Clippo that there are absolutely what could be called ‘bad’ writers out there. But that assertion deserves an explanation into what I have observed to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writers. The goal of writing, one could argue, is to articulate a thought or an idea. A good writer can not only articulate an idea, but can also put that idea into a context that a reader can identify with and understand. A bad writer, in my experience, is someone who is unable to communicate well – the direction of their articulation is disjointed and the architecture of their prose is riddled with superfluous tangents. The deciding factor between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ can really be traced back to what you touched on though, and that’s the ability, willingness and discipline to grow and learn how to articulate better. So yes, I would absolutely say that there are bad writers out there – they are people who refuse to discipline themselves and learn how to communicate more effectively.

    • Julia Rosien says:

      Well said, Caryn and I agree, in principle. There are some writers that I’ll be happy to tell you are great writers, they astound me and speak to me and I connect with them in ways I don’t with other writers. But my opinion of good is just that – it’s an opinion. It’s not a fact. It can’t be scientifically proven. Sure, an awful lot of people might agree with me and their books or articles become sought after because a group of people like them. But for every person who likes their work, there could be another person who doesn’t like it. Not everyone liked James Frey when he published a Million Little Pieces – I was one of them. And I was astounded that Oprah loved his work so much – did that make me an idot for not liking his work? Not at all, it means that good is too subjective – and it’s too hurtful to those who sit outside that label. A published author doesn’t make a good author – it just means s/he’s found the right editor.

      I still get very nervous when I write and the thought of being called a bad writer can paralyze me. I choose not to use labels like good or bad because I know how they make me feel.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts – seriously love this conversation!

  3. Kat says:

    Taste is subjective; however, I firmly believe that there are writers who fall squarely into the good category. We may not all appreciate their work (based on our tastes and style preferences), but exceptional talent can be spotted.
    I agree that one of the greatest skills to develop is the ability to edit and rewrite one’s work. In my personal blogging I’ve chosen not to do that as extensively as I’m naturally inclined to. The blog is my space to practise free writing and connect with readers in as genuine a manner as possible. Allowing myself to write without the need to continuously edit words and phrases allows the words to flow easier in other forms of writing where a story needs to come out first, and then be edited.

    • Julia Rosien says:

      Hi Kat, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I agree that good things rise to the top and that maybe I’ve gone a little over the top to make my point about labels. I really do love that this conversation has grown richer since taking it off twitter and giving people a chance to say more. And I love that my opinion is still just that, my opinion. Thank you again!

  4. I think “a good writer” is one who’s actually read.

    If a person offers up words in such a way that word-weary human beings notice and read the first sentence… and then the next… and stay right there with the writer to the end… that’s a good writer.

    A writer wrestles with words like a grizzly bear – it’s all out. It’s a bloody and difficult business.
    Themes, objectives, narrative arc, factual precision, engaging phrase… many a hidden craft. Including, critically, editing.

    But READING – that must be either Easy, or Worth It.

    So if people find it enjoyable to read your words, or if people find your words worth hanging in there because of something valuable within – that’s a good writer.

    Thanks for the brain stimulation this morning, Julia! Enjoyed this piece. Writers enjoy reading about writing, yes?

    • Julia Rosien says:

      Beautifully written, Stephanie. Thank you for stimulating my brain and turning the conversation around. like beauty, good writing is in the eye of the beholder. Can’t wait to see you next week in High Point!

  5. Ali Davies says:

    Hi Julia,
    Your post highlighted a very important point:
    “Be careful who you listen to”
    I think good writing is such a subjective thing. What one person loves and thinks is a masterpeice another person might think is drivel.
    Imagine if J.K. Rowling had listened to all the publishers that rejected her many years ago and given up – there would be no Harry Potter. And her latest book – venturing into the adult book market – highlights this too – some people are saying they love it, others trashing it.
    So as your point highlights, we need to be careful who we listen to as we progress down our writing path – and that includes our own negative self talk!


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