Sometimes it seems everybody wants to be a writer. Mention to your friends that you’re writing a book and you’ll be greeted by a chorus of: oh, I wish I could do that, if only I had the time, I’ve got loads of great ideas. Either that or they want to know if you’re writing about them. As if you would…
So what does it take to be a writer?
How do you get from “I wish I could do that” to “I’m writing a novel”, or better still “I’m writing my second novel.” They say everybody has a book in them. We all have a story to tell and, in theory, anybody can write. But should they?
The biggest difference between a professional writer and a hopeful amateur is attitude.
Successful writers treat writing like a job. They may not actually work typical office hours, but they understand the myths about writing and have strategies to deal with the distractions. In short, they work. Hard.
The writing life can be lonely, tedious, surprising, exhausting and exhilarating. To succeed as a writer you must be able to withstand long hours of thinking and obsessing, doubting and not knowing, and do all that without losing the plot.
Here are 10 characteristics you need if you want to be a successful writer:
Good writers are good with words. Not necessarily big flashy words that most people can hardly pronounce let alone understand. We can’t all be Will Self. (Luckily for him.) Talent is about picking the right word for the right moment, and not using too many of them. The right adjective, the right verb, in just the right place for maximum impact. Good writers can articulate ideas in a way that connects with readers, igniting their emotions and imagination.
Good writers have imagination. All those perfect words are corralled into visionary storytelling. Imagination is captured and pinned to the page, ready to take flight and find a new home in the mind of the reader. Good writers think creatively, making connections between ideas and images that no-one has ever made before. This can only be achieved by lying through your teeth. Good writers lie. All the time. But the fantasies, illusions and self-deceptions serve a higher purpose: writers lie in order to tell the truth.
Good writers are observant. They are constantly watching people, and themselves, making notes and connections, asking questions. To write well you must be interested in other people: what makes them tick, what do they say, what don’t they say. Good writers listen closely, not only to others but to what is going on within themselves. One question drives successful writers: why?
Good writers are disciplined. In order to write a novel, or any creative work that takes longer than a day, you need a level of persistence that borders on obsessive. If you do not have the ability to be self-disciplined and stick at it through the long hours of self-doubt and many months or years of rejection, you will never find success as a writer.
Good writers are critical of their own work. Writing, as they say, is rewriting. To write well you must be able to deconstruct what you have created and analyse it. Does it work? If not, why not? How can you improve it? Successful writers never assume what they’ve done is good enough. They are always striving to become better writers, which means taking criticism or feedback from others and learning from it. Good writers also know that writing, and criticism, is subjective.
Good writers have negative capability. This is the ability to live with doubt and uncertainty. There is never a point where you know what you’re doing because every piece of work starts with a blank page. In writing, as in the life of the spirit, you are always a beginner. Good writers know that if they push through the doubt, through not knowing, through rejection and misapprehension, they will find, well… something. It may not be what you set out to write, but whatever it is, it will be better than nothing.
Good writers love to read. Many writers say it was reading novels that inspired them to try it for themselves. But it’s not just a diet of fictional stories we’re talking about here. Stories come in many guises. Good writers are well read and read widely. They are always learning, researching, and looking for inspiration in unlikely places. They know this is necessary to keep their imagination fresh.
Good writers are passionate. If you’re going to spend a year or more writing a book, you need to be passionate about it. Successful writers invest emotion and energy in their work. It means something more than a pay check. They care about their work, the story and the characters. They also care about giving their readers something worth reading.
Good writers are ambitious. They aim high, knowing that success comes to those who really want it. To write well you must have confidence in your work and enough self-belief to drive you through the fallow periods. Good writers develop a thick skin and are not afraid to make tough choices in how they spend their time. Success comes at a cost: there are many things you will not be able to do because you’re too busy writing.
Good writers have patience. Becoming a successful writer is a long game, and it’ll probably take longer than you expect, or hope. Writing involves lots of waiting: for feedback, acceptance or rejection, returned calls, payment for work completed, or just for a good idea to materialise. Good writers are realistic about how long things take and set themselves practical goals within achievable timeframes.
Tick all the boxes? Great – go write your book!
Oh, and learn to touch type.
Have I missed any? What other characteristics do writers need? Share below…