After writing professionally for two decades in a variety of media and roles, several key attributes clearly distinguish a great writer. Some of these are ideals that others are better at, some of them are personal strengths. Here’s a look at my top five:
1) Transcending Medium
Great bloggers, strong journalists and fantastic authors impress us with their words. But the writer who transcends medium, style, tone and even first, second and third person narrative just amazes me. The ability to easily work with varying media and styles demonstrates a master wordsmith’s skill.
In college as a literature major, Thomas Hardy was my idol. He wrote fantastic important novels, then became one of England’s most influential poets. He even wrote a play.
2) Tight Active Style
Growing up, my father was managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. I learned from him that Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style was a writer’s bible. “Cut the fat (editing out unnecessary phrases)!” “Punch up the verb tense, make it active!” These were the constant reminders my Dad imparted on me. Impactful sentences deliver great thoughts with as few words as possible.
Because of Strunk & White, I fell in love with Hemingway and Turgenev’s works in college. To this day, I still appreciate good crisp copy.
3) Headlines Make or Break a Story
Stories, book titles and blog posts all rely on headlines to captivate a reader. Another great lesson from my Dad, who wrote epic headlines like “The King Is Dead” when Elvis passed, and “We Win!” when the Phillies won their first World Series in 1980, 97 years after the franchise was founded.
If you want to see great headline writing, read the ads in top magazines. Advertising copy writers live and die by their headlines. There is much to learn from these master craftsmen.
4) Fun Keeps Them Coming Back
Great writers entertain us, regardless of the topic. That’s why so much of today’s boring business copy — regardless of medium — indicates a general focus on delivering messages in a safe manner instead of the reader. Too bad.
This one I learned from Mom, who has been one of the country’s preeminent syndicated astrologers for the past 30 years. Her big differentiator was the ability to make the stars fun and campy, something traditional astrologers were unaccustomed to in the late 70s and 80s. In the past 10 years, we have seen a similar shift with the rise of blogging and funner copy writing.
5) Grammatical Frameworks
Without grammar, writing loses its cornerstone. Many masters of the written word regard Twitter with horror because some updates undermine the very rules of “good English.” Without grammar words lose meaning and become bastardized shells of their former selves.
Grammar has always been my weakest point. Yet as my career progresses, my appreciation for the “Eats, Shoots and Leaves school” of grammar increases. Proper punctuation, tense and word use aren’t the death of writing. On the contrary, they indicate a truly great writer’s (or editor’s) touch.
What aspects of writing do you appreciate?