At intervals throughout your journey, you’ve probably wondered whether you’re a good writer. Unfortunately, I can’t sympathize because that thought hasn’t occasionally crossed my mind.
It’s crossed my mind dozens, hundreds, thousands of times. Yearly, weekly, daily, until doubts have frozen my keyboard and encased my creativity in the ice of fear. Anxiety sometimes arises when I see a bestseller and realize my book can’t compare, after I receive a blistering critique, or while I’m banging my head on my desk.
But whenever and wherever the fear originates, the only way to melt it is by asking myself, What is the definition of a good writer? I used to have misconceptions about it, and if you read on, you may discover that you’re not such a horrible writer after all.
Good Writers Are Conscious of Their Weaknesses
Before I go any further, I want you to know that bad writers do exist. But, contrary to what you might assume, a bad writer isn’t someone who makes mistakes. A bad writer is someone who is unaware or (even worse) denies that his writing has flaws. His claim of perfection prevents him from growing in his craft. Try to critique or edit a bad writer’s work, and he’ll accuse you of proclaiming holy war.
In contrast, a good writer acknowledges that she has room to improve. She gobbles up constructive criticism (or she does for the most part, since the sight of red ink can be unnerving) and seriously considers advice. However, a good writer does more than recognize her faults. A bad writer bemoans his messy manuscript and dooms himself to hopelessness. A good writer, after shedding a few tears, wipes her cheeks and seeks to repair her story. Though she won’t always succeed and might repeat the same errors, she is actively striving to overcome her weaknesses.
Ironically, being skilled at writing isn’t entirely synonymous with being a good writer. I sound like I’m contradicting myself, don’t I? The quality of your work and the depth of your knowledge determines whether you’re skilled. But being a good writer involves fostering the mindset and habits that will lead you to become proficient at writing. Even if you’re just beginning to learn the ins and outs of story craft, pursuit of excellence will eventually sand out your rough edges, and in the meantime you’re exhibiting the traits of a good writer.
Good Writers Persevere
During childhood, I’m sure you heard your parents say, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” A good writer chips at obstacles until a crack forms. She keeps sending out queries after her fiftieth rejection, pounding the keyboard when the well of inspiration has run dry, and experimenting with marketing methods even when no one’s buying books.
This doesn’t mean a good writer is never tempted to give up. I’ve threatened to quit more times than I’d care to admit. I remember when I hit a low spot in my writing career. My dreams of publication seemed unattainable. No one was reading my blog. My WIP was a disaster waiting to be read. For a few days, I abandoned my aspirations. But those were some of the most unhappy days of my life. No matter how discouraged I felt, I couldn’t quit, because telling stories is a part of me. A good writer may take a detour for a week or two, but ultimately she returns to the path and continues moving forward.
Good Writers Give Their All
One of the most obvious, and important, characteristics of a good writer is diligence, because it will transform a good writer into a great one. The passion and dedication of the rare people who go the extra mile often gets noticed.
What does this exertion look like? A frenzied attack on your keyboard? A marketing snowball you throw in people’s faces? Nope. You need to rewrite your story. Then rewrite the story you rewrote. And rewrite the twice rewritten story. You get the idea.
Colossians 3:23 beautifully illustrates this principle: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” A good writer (especially a Christian writer) creates a plot fit for a King. She pours effort into every facet of her story, from the small details like grammar to the bigger components like structure. This lengthens the writing process, but a good writer is willing to spend extensive amounts of time on her story so it will gleam like a star on a clear winter night.
Good Writers Treat Their Work Seriously
Unlike the previous attributes, this one isn’t a definite indication of a good writer. Many people write as a hobby or side job yet are no less sincere. However, professionalism is always an earmark of a great writer.
Firstly, a good writer is disciplined. She incorporates writing into her schedule and only interrupts these sessions if she has a heart attack, writer’s block, or a craving for chocolate. Though she may not write daily (even people with regular jobs get the weekend off), she devotes as much time to it as possible, even if she has to shut off social media. The rigorous training of an ice skater competing in the Olympics is reminiscent of how a conscientious writer works.
Secondly, she doesn’t sacrifice professionalism for the sake of creativity. She knows when to be a kooky superhero and when to remove the mask and don the suit. She studies and abides by the rules and recommended techniques. Before submitting a manuscript, she reads the guidelines thoroughly and notes the type of content the publication accepts. Following the guidelines to the letter will not guarantee acceptance, but it sets her apart. Even if her piece is rejected, the editor or agent will see that she isn’t taking the task lightly, and that will pave the way for future acceptance.
Thirdly, a good writer realizes that advancing her skills requires monetary investment. Some writers decide to spend thousands on a college degree (don’t worry, you can be a good writer without moving into the poorhouse) while others opt for the more affordable (and often better) route of purchasing writing craft books, enrolling in writing courses, attending writer’s conferences, and/or paying for a tutor. Moreover, a good writer is willing to invest in her books by enlisting the best (not the cheapest) editors, cover designers, and formatters.
Good Writers Impact Others
All writers write for themselves. We write because we love it. We write because we long to become known. We write to torture ourselves. Writing is a career, so wanting to receive the fruits of our labor is not a sinful desire. Even occupations that focus on serving others, such as pastoring, doctoring, and firefighting, offer some form of compensation. However, the people who save the most lives (physically and spiritually) aren’t motivated purely by money. And the writers who pen the most meaningful stories don’t write solely for themselves.
A good writer desires to influence, educate, inspire, and/or entertain readers. No matter the story, a good writer cannot divorce her need to write for other people’s benefit. I occasionally write short stories that are illogical, random, and some might call them downright stupid. I write these stories because they help me to relax and break writer’s block. But even then I find myself using the humor to bring a smile to someone’s face.
Also, a good Christian writer focuses on glorifying God. The themes she chooses to address and how she handles them point to Him either explicitly or implicitly. Through the godly or ungodly behavior of her characters, she encourages other Christians to magnify God in their lives. Her stories provide a hearth to cold, dead hearts (without scorching them in a blaze of preachiness) and nudge them toward the One who can give them eternal life.
Although personal motives won’t necessarily affect what kind of writers we are, the wrong ones can inhibit us from reaching our full potential. Stories crafted with self-centered motives will often be shallower and less compelling. We’re supposed to do everything for God’s glory, and that includes writing (1 Cor. 10:31). Edifying others may not be our primary goal with every project, but as Christians, I believe we should aim for that result, even if indirectly. Writing for pleasure, for instance, usually sharpens our skills, which in turn helps us produce stronger stories that will have a larger impact on others.
Misconceptions about Being a Good Writer
We’ve all developed a picture in our minds of what we think a “good writer” looks like. But several parts of that image are false, because a good writer isn’t:
Someone who never needs their manuscript edited or critiqued. Every writer needs editing, regardless of their experience level. Even editors who are also authors hire other professionals to nitpick their manuscripts. Why? Because our books are like our children, and we overlook their faults because we love them. But those faults must be dealt with for the child’s (or our story’s) sake.
Someone who rarely receives rejections. Many writers have the mistaken notion that their books will be accepted on the first attempt, but that is as likely as opening a can with a toothpick. You are neither the first nor the last to be rejected. Dr. Seuss was rejected twenty-seven times and C. S. Lewis eight hundred times.
Someone who is traditionally published. If you’ve landed a book contract, you’re probably a good writer. The market is overflowing, and publishers typically choose only the best. However, many good writers are not traditionally published. Some prefer self-publishing because they want more control over their books and/or a larger percentage of the sales. Others may be seeking publication but haven’t hit the right agent or publisher yet. Remember, every good writer was once unpublished.
Someone who never struggles with writing. First of all, ha, ha, ha. “Every writer I know has trouble writing” says Joseph Heller. This includes me. This includes you. This even includes the entire team at Story Embers. In fact, the writers who never struggle are usually the bad ones, because nobody ever has difficulty not thinking (which is what bad writers do when they start typing).
What You’re Really Asking
When you question whether you’re a good writer, that’s actually not what you’re asking. Rather, you’re asking, Am I a perfect writer?
Well, you’re not. And if you keep asking yourself that, you’ll avalanche a pile of unproductiveness. Yes, your story has flaws. But those are symptoms of your humanity, not determiners of your talent.
The true test is whether you let your mistakes hold you back.
Mariposa Aristeo is a writer of quirky characters and fantastical adventures filled with heart, humor, hope, and, very often, dinosaurs. If you can’t find her in one of her own imaginary worlds, try combing the pages of a great middle-grade fantasy novel.
At Story Embers, igniting (and sometimes imploding) ideas is her favorite pastime, so she often uses her creativity to make graphics for articles and writing quotes, as well as implement new strategies for SE’s social media channels. Explosions aside, she loves getting to know each and every writer here at SE by running the popular #embersgram hashtag on Instagram and responding to your questions and emails.
Besides being a co-owner of Story Embers, Mariposa is an ACFW First Impressions contest finalist, a children’s book illustrator, and the host of the IGTV series #middlegrademagicwithmari. You can check out her book recommendations (and shenanigans) on her Instagram page or her character sketches on her art account.