Wednesday, May 12, 2010

WRITER'S WEDNESDAY: The Makings of a "Great" Writer

What does it mean to be a "good" writer?  (I'll get to the picture in a minute... but come on! You have to keep reading just to learn more about this irresistible treat!)
From our perspective, being a "good writer" doesn't mean you have the most flowery prose out there (for YA at least).  It means that we write something so engaging, that the writing itself is all but lost to the story.

A recent article published by Gotham Writer’s Workshop  said, “Some beginning writers operate under a false assumption: They assume that stories are about language. But language is merely the medium in which stories are created.”  The author continues: “With rare exceptions (Ulysses, Lolita), stories are never about language, or never exclusively about language. ... [G]ood writing doesn’t bring attention to us as creators; it directs the reader’s attention to a created world.”

Sure, that’s all well and good, you say.  NOW TELL ME HOW I CAN DO THAT!!
In running through articles and top ten lists on what it takes to be a great writer, there seem to be a few common refrains.  We've narrowed it down to a top 3.
#1. Read.  A Lot.
That’s right.  Rather than sitting down at your keyboard and prattling away, try curling up with some of the best-loved books of the genre in which you are trying to write.  While telling you to read books you love is sort of akin to asking you to eat a giant slice of chocolate cherry bomb cake (yep, we're talking about the picture now), I’m going to take a little of the fun away.  Consider it like knowing the calories in each bite.  As you read, pay attention to the writing.  How has the author used language?  What things about the writing bother you?  How was the pacing?  The world building?  If you pay attention to the parts you really do and don’t like, you’ll be better able to emulate or avoid those same things.

#2.  Get critiques.  
"The less competent the writer, the louder his protests over the editing. . . . Good writers lean on editors; they would not think of publishing something that no editor had read. Bad writers talk about the inviolable rhythm of their prose." ~ Gardner Botsford, A Life of Privilege, Mostly
There are probably as many different ways to get critiques as there are authors out there.  Find a critique partner online or through a local writer’s group.  If you aren’t already a member, places like SCBWI , #YALitChat  (this is where the 5 of us met up), and Verla Kay's Blueboards are good places to join.  While SCBWI has an annual fee, many of the local chapters will allow you to attend meetings without joining the national chapter.  Heck, I’ve found critique partners on Twitter by doing things like YALitChat and KidLitChat.
Another helpful resource is the teens who make up your target audience.  If you don’t have your own, borrow your friend’s kids.  Or your crit partner’s kids. Something I recommend is putting together a fun little “official critique package” so they feel extra special (i.e., are extra-motivated to help you).  Include a list of questions about specific things that concern you.  It could be anything as general as “are there any parts you would change” to “did you think scene x was too over-the-top?”  Include red and green sticky notes.  Red = B (bored), C (confused), or D (don’t believe it).*  If your Beta readers do nothing more than mark B, C, or D in specific places, you’ll be better off than you started. Green = whatever else you edit out, you must keep this part.  Hopefully you’ll get some of these back too.

* this tip from author Kathleen Duey  
#3.  Learn your craft.
Attend conferences.  Take courses (free or paid; online or in person).  Go listen to authors/agents/editors speak.  Read author/agent/editor’s blogs.  Follow agents on Twitter. If you don’t know that adverbs are out, that you have to show-don’t-tell, and that the only two tags editors don’t snarl at are “said” and “asked,” you haven’t been doing your homework.  (If you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, just don’t ever write a sentence along these lines: “I’m so confused,” he blurted loudly.)  There’s no substitute for paying close attention to the industry.  
What do you think?  Would you list something else on your top 3 list?


  1. Love the post, Jessie. Didn't know about Blueboards. Going to check it out. ";-)

  2. Very helpful post, thanks for the information!

  3. I don't know why, but I can't seem to fix the Verla Kay link. Sorry about that. It works when I'm "in" the post. Anyway, here's the web address:

  4. Great advice! I totally agree about reading a lot. I think it's one of the most important things you can do as a writer. I just heard Jhumpa Lahiri speak last night and she talked about how important it was to be a reader if you want to be a writer. Great blog, I stumbled across it today, and anything with a cake that looks that good keeps my attention! :)

  5. I read a lot, but I have to say that it's getting more and more difficult for me to actually enjoy a book without having a running list of edits or thoughts or critiques in my mind! There are very few books that I completely lose myself in anymore (although I could probably read 'Hunger Games' 100 times and enjoy it every time!)

  6. @Jessie Great post! Very true to writing in all genres.

    @Nikki I am with you there! It's to the point of picking one book out of five to read (did that last week...the clerks at Barnes and Noble looked at me and my teen reader, broadcasting "You *do* plan on putting those others back"... *_* ). And then usually alarms ring in my head. Maybe it's from being edited so much... For me, I could reread The Darkest Power series over and over.

  7. Great suggestions! I am with you on reading a lot. I keep track of my book thoughts in a journal. If I don't take notes on what I'm reading (author, title, plot synopsis, main characters, editor, agent, my critique), I'll forget I've read something because I read so much. If we want to show our commitment to our genre, we need to be able to talk books. Plus, the editor/agent info (often in the acknowledgments) will help me when I begin querying.

    @Nikki: yep, I never used to leave books half finished. I've started doing that, though. So little time, too many books, and no patience for stories that don't wow me.

    Happy Wednesday, all!


  8. Ooh @Nikki, @ AE. I have the hardest time to read like a reader now and not a writer. I drive myself nuts, sometimes, trying to figure out if something is simply poetic license or something I'm unaware of.

  9. @Lisa - love the idea of keeping a journal about the books we read. I tend to blow through them and then only generally remember whether it was thumbs up or thumbs down. (Although if I come across a new agent name I don't recognize, that does make me run to my list.)

  10. I completely agree with each point, Jessie! I think I would get self-confidence in that list somewhere. To me, it's the factor that decides whether an author has the chops to stay in the game.

    Warning! Shameless self promotion ahead!
    The latest article on my blogspot ( is very similar to this one. Rather than narrow the list to three, it focuses on eight aspects all aspiring authors should have.

  11. One thing would be to never give up or loose hope because someone tells you your writing's not good. I know alot of great writers who gave up after getting bad critism; writers who had some pretty amazing writing skills.

    I think another one, which goes along with my last bit of advise, is to develop thick skin. Don't listen to anyone who discourages you from writing.

    And the best advice to give writers is to just write. It's the only way to develop your craft.

    -Ezmirelda :)

  12. Absolutely brilliant advice!

    I think that ALL good writing comes from first of all, reading insatiably ...and then going to the drawing board and writing, writing....and more reading ....then writing again. However gifted a writer you may be, I believe good writing begins with a LARGE CONSUMPTION of books.

    Talking of consumption - what happened to the DELICIOUS looking cake in the picture?



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