To be a writer – to earn a living from writing – requires different skills.
While it’s not exactly a ‘skill’, you cannot even think of being a writer unless you are a reader. A big reader. Writers need a broad overview of other writers to know what kinds of things work.
The vast majority of writers can spell at least commonly used words, if not the more complex ones. Having said this, writers tend to be happy to grab a dictionary every now and then, just to check the precise definition of certain words. Ditto grammar: a good grounding is needed, so you know the difference between an adjective and an adverb; but you do sometimes have to check more unusual terms, like anaphoric and cataphoric references.
But none of this really explains how to earn a crust from writing
An old colleague of mine (I don’t mean she was old: I mean she’s no longer my colleague. Blimey, wordsmithing is a slippery business) said that writing was the ability to structure thoughts. This is a useful starting point, as writers do indeed clearly explain thinking. But this does not fully explain what a writer does or does not do.
What writers tend not to do is write too much!
We could add that writers also need to use the right amount of words for the task in hand. This tends to mean that they provide enough to convey their meaning, with little or no superfluous detail. One of the most perverse ‘errors’ that non-writers make is waffling! In effect, this means that many of the people who say they don’t like writing, or haven’t got time to write, actually write more than is necessary. Go figure!
It doesn’t mean a thing, if it hasn’t got the zing!
But while structuring the right amount of the right words in the right order may work very well for, say, the instructions to assemble a flat-pack writing bureau, it’s often the case that clients want something a little more… zingy! They want copy that stands out from the crowd. Because the crowd is very, erm, crowded. Writers clearly need a really good grasp of the kind of literary devices used by the world’s best writers – writers who are read hundreds of years after they wrote (told you writers need to read a lot).
What are these literary devices of which you speak?
Literary devices are those little tricks writers employ to keep their writing fresh and interesting for their readers. Things like alliteration, antithesis, onomatopoeia, similes and metaphors, synecdoche, hyperbole, litotes and puns… this, believe it or not, is to name but a few. You are unlikely to use all these devices in any one piece of writing (please don’t try). But knowing what they are, and how to use them (and when not to use them), is all part and parcel (spot the alliteration there?) of the writer’s skillset.
Hello – is anyone there?
Writers also keep their audience at the front of their mind. Why? Because, without an audience, writing is kind of pointless. Writers need to adapt their tone of voice to suit who they are writing for. Think of the different concerns of, say, a teenage single mum and a senior politician. As soon as the writer loses sight of the reader, the reader swipes the writer’s ‘carefully crafted’ writing to one side and gets on with something that really appeals to them.
This is precisely why writers – at least those who work in communications agencies – need to interrogate the brief. They really, really need to know the purpose of whatever it is they are asked to express in word form. To do this, they need the ability and tenacity to ask all the right questions. This enables the writer – if they’re any good at their job – to clearly convey the messages that fulfil that purpose.
And of course, humour is important. Writers need humour like bees need nectar. They need to know when and where to inject it, and when and where to keep it well away from the page. Very, very few corporations’ annual reports are filled with funnies. The reasons for this are explained above: few corporations want to convey frivolity in their formal documentation, and few readers of such documents expect it. As mentioned, knowing when to avoid certain devices is as important as knowing when to slide them into place.