What a good writer needs most

Feeling oracular again, I want to share a thought about good writing after first clearing my throat for a few paragraphs. (A good writer knows how to pad a blog item.)

Good writing requires a number of different skills.

A good writer needs to revere language, obviously, and knuckle down at the keyboard, cutting the clichés, like “knuckle down.” Good writing is revision. It’s true, as Roy Peter Clark teaches us, that a lot of this is just technique, but it’s technique that requires refinement and practice and labor and a fair bit of anguish. If it’s easy, it’s probably not “good writing.”

A good writer has to be honest. This means getting it right and being fair and being willing to change one’s mind when new information arises that contradicts the old. It means not holding back an idea or a fact simply because it fails to advance an agenda. The reader has to be able to trust the writer – to sense that this stuff hasn’t been heavily laundered or sanitized or distorted or somehow pressed through an ideological or theological filter.

In the journalistic world at least, the ability to report is the writing skill that’s most overlooked these days. Reporting is not a single talent but a suite of skills of which few people have total mastery. Some writers are adept at carrying out an interview but lack the patience to dig for material in the documentary record. Some writers can synthesize lots of information across an array of topics but are forever water-bugging through life and in search of the next great story (no one in particular comes to mind in this regard). No amount of dextrous writing can make up for thin material. If you have nothing to say it doesn’t matter how facile you are at the keyboard.

A good writer has to be able to think. The best writers, you’ll notice, have read a lot, and thought a lot, and if you were to catch them at their work, you might actually see them staring into space. Stories that don’t quite work often have problems in conception.

But the paramount job requirement if you want to be a good writer is to have a big heart. Verbal dexterity can’t make up for a crabbed spirit. Big-heartedness can mean a lot of things, including an appreciation of beauty, a capacity for joy, the ability to find the humor in life, a reflexive sense of compassion, and the ability to connect with other people and see in them what is good and laudable. Show me a piece of writing that really moves the readers, and it’ll typically have many or all of the previously mentioned virtues (technique, honesty, reporting, reflection, etc.), but most of all it will convey that the writer is someone with a capacity for caring.

To quote the unforgettable words of the great philosopher George H.W. Bush, “Message: I care.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | June 16