5 Marks of a Great Writer

Image by Alan Weir

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?


  • I have always loved writing, but because I developed that love while writing fictional short stories, I tend to struggle with number two on your list. It’s not that I write in a flowery style, I just get upset deleting a sentence that I wrote with a specific purpose – to me, all of my sentences have purpose!

    I too am impressed by a writer who can transcend all media. We obviously have access to far more tools than ever before. Effectively communicating through each medium requires a lot of time and experience. Using the right media mix is another challenge of its own! 
    Thanks for the post.

    • Using the right media mix is a huge challenge!  Selecting which tools is an often over looked part of strategy, but a critical one.  Great point. Thanks for coming by!

  • These are great tips to keep in mind no matter what your writing experience is– thanks for sharing them!  I especially like #4 because it’s true with what I’ve found with authors of various media– I keep reading and coming back if I find I am having fun.

  • I’m a sucker for passion. Your grammar can be less than perfect; your phrasing can be passable; your flow, stunted. All that and more can be overlooked if your passion is strong and unyielding to the point I know exactly how you feel, and feel that way too.

    • Passion goes a long way!  One of my favorite authors was Dostoyevsky, and God knows he was horrific from a grammar standpoint. So much substance and depth though.  Fantastic!

  • I love the Mark Twain line: “My apologies for writing a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

  • A good lede! that pulls you right into the story. Should be fascinating, inspiring, and make the reader very curious. 

  • Thanks, Geoff, for your enlightening entry.  I am a new author as well as a new blogger.  I hope to have included at least some of these important points in my own writing. If you would like to take a peek at my work and learn more about me, here is the link to my blog: http://www.triwithallmyheart.blogspot.com  You may find my story intriguing…

    • Hi, Linda. I check it out.  Is this a personal journal?  Tell me more about your goals, hopes and aspirations with this blog!

  • Pingback:A Little Birdy Told Me…Week of 11/28/11 « PR in Pink

    […] Five Marks of a Great Writer (by @geoffliving): […]

Comments are closed