4 Essential Qualities for Writers

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In this post and in this one, I shared several tips for submitting flawless copy. What we do as writers is obviously crucial. We must write with excellence, meet our deadlines, and keep learning. There are countless practical tips and guides for writers and most of them are fairly easy to understand and implement. Continue to hone your craft and never skimp on this.

However, it’s possible to do all the right things and to write perfectly but still not succeed as a writer. That’s because, unless it’s only a hobby, writing is more than a craft. Unlike diamond cutting or brain surgery or atom splitting, a writing career goes beyond sheer skill and requires the ability to communicate and connect with others. With very few exceptions—if any—writers cannot succeed on their own. We rely on editors, publishers, teachers, and our audience. And whenever a pursuit involves other people, it also involves our character, our personality, our attitudes, and even our approach to life in general. Building lasting relationships with editors is invaluable and, over the past 25 years of freelancing, I’ve pinpointed four qualities in particular that will make a writer a winner.

#1 – BE PROFESSIONAL

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing for six decades, six years, or six hours. You can still present yourself as a professional, the first step to being taken seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a suit or carrying an expensive briefcase. You’ll probably mostly deal with publishers and editors by phone and email and not see them face to face. But your phone calls and emails should be handled with courtesy. Your emails should be written as perfectly as your manuscript. Follow the publisher’s lead in terms of how informal you are in your emails.

If you’re going to print business cards, make them good quality. If you’re not good at graphic design, err on the side of making your cards simple. This applies to your website, blog, Facebook page, and so on. Invest in learning—not only about writing, but also about marketing and social media, about finances, and about time management!

Be organized. Be reliable. When you have an assignment or project to work on, organize your time and stick to your writing schedule. Keep your work area tidy. Run a tight ship if you need to submit invoices and keep track of everything.

#2 – BE CREATIVE

Creativity has less to do with artistry or reinventing the wheel, and more to do with looking at things from different angles, solving problems, and presenting familiar concepts in fresh ways. Always follow your editor’s instructions, but don’t be afraid to ask, “What do you think about this idea I had? What if we approached it this way?” Even if your idea isn’t used, your editor will appreciate your initiative and creativity and will know that you care about the assignment beyond simply making a quick delivery and getting paid. Wow your editor by going beyond the assignment when you can. But don’t change the assignment—that’s not creative, it’s annoying.

Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you. Look for it all around you. Listen to people when they share stories. Read a lot. Observe nature. Write things down in a notebook or keep a file for ideas you don’t yet know what do with.

Don’t be afraid to diversify and to work on multiple projects, especially if you want to make a living writing. Not only does this ensure you have something to work on when one project finishes, but the creativity you apply to one project will help the other, and you will stretch yourself and grow as a writer. You may also discover a stream of work you hadn’t considered before. Be willing to try new things and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is rarely fatal.

#3 – BE HUMBLE

First of all, be YOU when you write. Embrace your quirks and weaknesses and work with your strengths. This kind of honesty and vulnerability is appreciated by editors and readers. You may be the only person who can write what you’re writing the way you’re writing it. Don’t cross the line of oversharing inappropriately but don’t hide yourself either as that will stifle your creativity and make your work dry and less believable. If your editor can’t stomach your writing, your readers may never get the chance to.

Don’t patronize. Don’t preach. Don’t whine. And be willing to work hard. Remember WHY you are writing: to serve your readers and not to sell books or become famous. (Unless, of course, those are your motives, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

This ties in with being professional but it starts with the quality of humility: Be upfront about what you can or can’t do and notify your editor about any setbacks or possible delays immediately. Most editors are understanding and reasonable when they know you are doing your best.

Be teachable and open to feedback and correction. Even if you are sure your editor is wrong, discuss the problem with civility and graciousness. Don’t be stubborn because, truly, editors usually know better. If you don’t understand an assignment or correction, just ask. Guessing about it may end up wasting a lot of time—yours and the editor’s—if you guess wrong.

#4 – BE IRRESISTABLE

The first three qualities will already put you ahead of the game. But it never hurts to add a pretty bow to a gift or delicious frosting to a cake. Here are a few suggestions of how to do that as a writer:

  1. Underpromise and overdeliver–not the other way around.
  2. Get better and better with each assignment. Don’t slack off just because you’ve developed a good rapport with an editor. You can perhaps be more casual but NEVER less professional.
  3. Treat your editor like a human being. Be gracious and caring, recognizing that he or she may be under a lot of pressure and you’re not the only writer in the pipeline. Editors get tired and sick and have families and lives, too.
  4. Be joyful in your work. Put your heart into it and love what you’re doing. . .otherwise maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
  5. Build community. Writers are known to be introverts. It’s fine if you want to work in solitude or if you’re not very social. But, as we said before, writers must serve their readers, and that means you must be prepared for a certain level of engagement with them. The more you do this, the more likely it is the reach of your writing will grow, especially if your readers learn they can trust you.

To recap, every writer should be professional yet creative, humble yet irresistible. If you focus on developing these qualities as you also work on improving your craft, there is no reason you shouldn’t do well as a writer. Have fun!

Look Around and Imagine

Creativity is often a matter of seeing things from a new perspective. Look around your home/workspace and imagine you’re an explorer hiking over that mountain of folders on your kitchen table, or imagine what that fly is thinking as it ambles across your keyboard. Take a microscopic view of your surroundings and see what interesting things come to mind.

Randy Petersen, The Joy of Working at Home

The Best Way to Be Creative (it involves coffee)

by Anita K. Palmer

As writers we’re diligent not to plagiarize. It’s a clear no-no. But what about ideas? When is it okay to copy an idea and “adapt” it for our own purpose? Is it a compliment, stealing, or a smart move?

I regularly listen to the NPR show/podcast TED Radio Hour. Host Guy Raz, who is leaving after seven wonderful years, is airing his favorite shows as he says goodbye. In today’s broadcast, “What Is Original?” from 2014, Raz interviewed thinkers who have given TED talks on the subject of invention and creativity. Their answers were fascinating. (Listen for yourself at https://bit.ly/30WXNdR.)

Raz’s premise is that every invention, song, piece of art, or idea is built on something that came before. So that pretty much answers the initial question. “Nope. Nothing is original.” He didn’t bring up Ecclesiastes but he could have:

“Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new” (1:9-10 NLT).

Stealing from a Samurai

One guest, Kirby Ferguson, had given a TED Talk called “Everything Is a Remix.” In it he played songs that Bob Dylan, one of the most influential singer-songwriters of our time, knowingly appropriated for his own melodies. According to Ferguson, Dylan was doing what folk musicians had always done. What people had always done.

“I think human beings aren’t really capable of coming up with something from nowhere,” Ferguson said. “Like, I think we just do not do that. We build out of materials. We use tools to make things. That’s what we do.”

Ferguson went on to show how George Lucas stole from a filmmaker of samurai films in the 1950s and 60s he admired named Akira Kurosawa. Think of how the Jedi dress; consider the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet. There’s even dialogue in the Star Wars films lifted from the Japanese movies.

That led Raz to ask, where’s the line? What’s copying and what’s building on something that came before? Ferguson replied that the line is between how much you “borrow” and what you do with it.

“So if you take a large chunk of it, to me that is where you’re being derivative. You’re being unoriginal,” said Ferguson. “I think you need to be transforming the things that you copy. You need to be recontextualizing them. . . . You need to be, you know, transforming and combining those elements in exciting ways.”

No Solitary Geniuses

Ferguson next talked about Steve Jobs—ever heard of him?—who announced in 2007 a new technology called multi-touch. Then he ran a tape of a guy named Jeff Han—ever heard of him?—speaking in 2006 about the same technology and saying it wasn’t new: people had been playing with it since the 1980s.

But here’s the thing: The multi-touch patents that Apple filed were for the small parts they had arranged in their own way. And then they went on remixing elements—touchscreen technology, GPS, the internet. And while there were at it, they they changed the world.

This isn’t the story of one genius inventing one amazing thing all by himself, is it? The individualistic narrative is easier to understand and repeat than the incredibly complex process over time involving multiple dreamers and inventors and leaders, culminating in a brilliant new thing.

Where Innovation Happens

What’s this got to do with freelance writers?

Raz interviewed another thinker, Steven Johnson. His TED Talk was called “Where Good Ideas Come From,” which is also the title of a book he published.

Johnson told the story of an 18th century British fellow named Joseph Priestley. He was friends with American founders like Benjamin Franklin. Priestley made huge breakthroughs in science, especially chemistry (for example, he was the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen). Then he would share them with his friends. They’d talk together for hours, mashing up ideas, challenging one another.

From this, Johnson moved into a final thought, and it’s going to lead to my point, I promise. It has to do with something we’re all familiar with: the coffeehouse.

Did you know that coffee had a big role in the birth of the Enlightenment? Up to this point, water wasn’t safe to drink. So all day long, people drank ale and wine. You basically had a civilization of drunks. Think about that for a moment.

That is, until the rise of the coffeehouse.

“And then you switched from a depressant to a stimulant,” said Johnson. “You would have better ideas. It’s not an accident that a great flowering of innovation happened as England switched to tea and coffee.”

But Johnson wants us to note where this was happening. The coffeehouse. A public gathering spot. “It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise. And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.”

As writers we tend to work in isolation. An original idea, though, most often does not come in a lightbulb moment. No “eureka!” Good ideas need a community.

“More often than not,” said Johnson, “[ideas are] cobbled together from whatever parts happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffeeshop. And we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new. That’s really where innovation happens.”

So, there you have it. There is nothing truly original in this world, just like the writer of Ecclesiastes said. But we get to “borrow” and remix all the melodies and dialogues and discoveries and images of our culture and come up with our own creations.

But not alone. So turn off your laptop. Get out of your office. Grab a fellow writer or four and go have coffee. Set up a regular gathering with other creative folks. Together, let’s change the world.

Continue reading “The Best Way to Be Creative (it involves coffee)”