What Makes A Good Writer?

It’s easy to write.

It’s tough to write well.

That I’ve realized over the years especially over dinner conversations with friends and business clients.

Especially when they realize I started out as a copywriter.

I started out working with a small advertising firm by a stroke of genuine luck – you could call it being at the right place at the right time. This was in 1998 when everyone in my graduating class was worried about the recession and how lucky one were if one had a guaranteed job before the official graduation ceremony.

One of my coursemates got a job, the first among our batch of 120 odd Communications graduates and we were positively green with envy.

“Wah! Ai Leen got a job! Already!”

We felt a bit sorry for ourselves. Everyone scrambled to email out their resumes (email in those days meant Hotmail and we only had access if we lined up to use the campus computers! Imagine!).

Everyone except me. Bleh!

I was then still working part-time as a cub reporter for my lecturer. I’d been doing so for 2 years then and I enjoyed attending gender seminars/conferences, reporting and creating layouts using Quark Xpress, a graphic layout software. Together with a senior and another coursemate, we three girls reported, wrote and produced the newsletter for the gender studies unit of our university.

When I officially left the USM campus in March 1998, I didn’t have an idea of what job I liked. I knew I wanted to do something with words and the very senior whom I’d worked with (the same one who had graduated a year before) offered me a part-time job as a copywriter. I was going to be under her wing. This was a very small company – in fact, besides me, it was just my senior and our boss, a jolly fellow. We didn’t have any office politics – how could we when it was just the 3 of us?

From the part-timer role, I was absorbed into the company as a full-timer. A junior copywriter.

And I had never been interviewed formally by this boss of mine. He took me in upon recommendation of my senior, Rebecca. (Actually I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never underwent any formal interviews in my other jobs… my writing skill preceded me.)

Besides being extremely lucky, I believe that at any point in life, we should learn to recognize mentors. I had mine when I was 23, fresh and gullible from university. Rebecca is Rebecca and that’s her real name. Until today, I am so grateful for her guidance and help when I was a bit lost, a bit unsure and still searching. Rebecca pointed me in the right direction and allowed me to grow with what I had.

Do What You Love, Honestly

It helped tremendously that I love writing. I still do.

I bugged my family to buy me a typewriter at a time when other girls wanted Barbies. My Godmother got me one when I turned 11. I composed angst-filled poetry about Tiananmen Square and corny teen love stories on that typewriter.

24 years on, those writing skills have found me good work. 24 years on, I still use my writing skills to feed me. You know that thing about singing for your supper?

Well, I write for my supper.

Many people I meet tell me they like reading what I write (either when I blog or when I produce website copy for them). My writing is clear and most of all it communicates simply, directly. The best praise is that customers tell me their customers understand what’s written.

So what makes me a better writer? Am I smarter?

Always Be Reading, Always Be Writing, Kaizen Onwards

Much as I would love to think I am smarter, I believe that I am a better writer because I am always learning to write better. I read and I read everything – from soup cans to flyers and leaflets stuffed into my mailbox.

And after reading, I think: can this be written better? How I can make my meaning clearer? Am I confusing my readers?

(I also subscribe to ezines about writing and I still read books on how to improve the written word. Constant improvement or Kaizen as the Japanese say.)

Edit Like No Tomorrow

And edit. Edit like the devil. Edit like words cost you money. Invest in good online tools like dictionary and spell-checker. Nitpick your own writing.

90% Research and Planning, 10% Writing

And before I write, much of my time is spent on planning and research. I research so much that sometimes I have a mountain of information of which I will only use a tiny portion. Even if you think you know that topic or subject so well, you will still find something new you didn’t know.

Ask Stupid Questions, The Stupider The Better

I go into each writing project with a child’s naivete and curiosity. I ask stupid questions.

(Singapore, our sophisticated neighbour is smart enough to market this as a creativity process. If you want to learn how to ask stupid questions, go ask my friend, Prabhjit Singh, one of the key facilitators at Singapore’s National Library Board. Asking stupid questions is their product offering. Wait. It’s a movement.)

Until and unless you are very clear on what you are writing about, you cannot start writing.

And if you don’t know what you’re writing about, you’re going to write crap. And worse, your readers will also know it’s crap. If you want to be a damn good writer, be clear first with yourself. And never forget your 5W 1H (who, what, when, why, where, how). After putting down the facts only can you start embellishing. If you don’t have facts or something substantial, you bloody well cannot embellish OK? Without facts, you just have air. And that, my friend, is called in unpolite circles ‘to goreng something’. You’ll probably goreng air!

A good writer is a good communicator. Your writing should send a message. You’re not here to embellish pages with meaningless words. That is why I despise those airy-fairy words in corporate websites. Can anyone truly tell me something I don’t know? Not another ‘we aim to be the best to serve our customers better’.

Go Grow Yourself Some Style

Finally, style. A good writer has his or her own style, much like a signature. You can’t force style on anyone because it takes time to develop your own particular way of writing. But there’s nothing constant practice won’t cure.

Style isn’t about copying others; it’s about putting YOU in between in the words you write. You need to know who you are before you can do it. And you have to be honest about yourself. Style is what comes out when you’re at your most vulnerable during moments of writing.

I write mostly business-related copy these days besides blogging which is a true pastime. As a writer, I go ape-wild with pleasure whenever I read good writers. They inspire me to write better. I’m humbled because I know I’ve got lots to learn and yes, write!

I would love to know how YOU write. What do you think makes a good writer? What tips can you share if you’re a writer?

2 thoughts on “What Makes A Good Writer?”

  1. This post made me smile. I almost thought I was reading my own story in parts…especially the part when you said you asked for a typewriter when other girls were asking for Barbies. Me too! I used to dream of having an “electric” typewriter when they first came out. Can you imagine my delight when computer’s satisfied my fondest dreams of writing?

    I’m not sure about fiction, since I write non-fiction, usually business related – but what helps me are two things:

    1. Always learning how to be a better writing. I have some favorite sources that I learn from on a regular basis.
    2. I use templates to help me create kind of a road map for getting the thoughts out of my heart & head on to the computer. I used to work with out templates and it seemed like I always got stuck with editing before the information ever got out of my head. Somehow a template helps to remove blocks for me.

    Storytelling is an important part of making your point relevant to your readers. I really enjoyed your story telling in this post.


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