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ATTRIBUTES OF THE SUCCESSFUL WRITER

A successful writer doesn't have to have all of these traits, but the more he possesses the more successful he will be.

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ATTRIBUTES OF THE SUCCESSFUL WRITER

What are the attributes that make up a successful writer? If you are a writer, and know the answer to this question, you can become a better writer. If you are not a writer and want to become one, knowing the answer will help you get there. If you are a producer, knowing the answer will help you can hire better writers.

A successful writer doesn't have to have all of these traits, but the more he possesses the more successful he will be.

There are three types of attributes: Innate, Acquired From Life and Acquired From Writing.

INNATE

CREATIVITY

There are three aspects of creativity. First is having it. Second is having the desire to use it. Third is knowing how to use it. I was lucky to be blessed with fair amount of native creativity. Of course, it didn’t hurt that my father was a successful artist-writer-producer-director and my grandfather was a famous comedian. But you certainly don’t need DNA to be inherently creative.

As an artist and writer I have always had the desire to be as creative as I can be. In fact, I try to be creative in everything I do, right down to tying my shoes. As a writer I strive to create stories and gags that are different. Just writing the same old gags is not creative, it’s derivative. It doesn’t give me the joy of having created something.

Knowing how to create really comes down to being free. We all have a certain amount of innate creativity. But many people make the mistake of comparing themselves to great artists and deciding that they, themselves, cannot really be very creative. What this points out is that the first thing you need to know about creativity is that it is as good as you let yourself believe it can be. Creativity is really just “new thought”. So if you think you’re not creative that “new thought” will quickly become true. Take all the restraints (thoughts) off your creative imagination and let it run wild. You can always rein it in when necessary—which hopefully isn’t often.

BELIEF IN ONE’S ABILITY

A writer must believe in the quality of her creative ideas and writing skills. We create with our thoughts. If you think you’re a mediocre writer then you are one. If you believe you’re a great writer you may not be one, but at least you won’t have the impediment of self doubt—the biggest killer of creativity. Belief in one’s art can greatly affect selling it. A writer who doesn’t have faith in his abilities will pitch without passion. You need to believe your idea will make a great movie or series in order to convince an exec to buy it. Some people call this ego. I call it confidence.

CERTAINTY

There are two types of certainty: innate and acquired. You either have innate certainty or you don’t. Like creativity it’s something you gain early in life. But if you don’t have innate certainty you can still acquire certainty. You do this by learning your craft and doing it well enough that people acknowledge the quality of your work. This gives one certainty in their ability. Being certain that you’re a good writer leads to success. Being uncertain leads to frustration. You might say certainty is a higher level of belief in oneself. It is very powerful stuff.

AESTHETIC EYE

I was lucky enough to have an artist for a father. And I was an artist before I was a writer. So I leaned at a young age to see the beauty, art, balance, rhythm, etc. all around me. Don’t get the idea that only artists need aesthetic eyes. It’s not true. A writer first creates his art in thought, and then translates it to words. The more aesthetic one's thoughts are the more aesthetic the writing.

SEE YOURSELF AS SUCCESSFUL

The ability to see yourself as a successful writer is vital. If you are one, you need to be able to acknowledge the fact and not cloud it up with negative thoughts or self doubts. If you’re not yet a successful writer you to be able to see yourself as one in the future. Just as a writer must first form a story in thought before putting it in writing, she needs to see herself as being a professional, successful writer in thought before making a reality.

PERSISTENCE

Like creativity and certainty, some people are born with the ability to persist at a goal. But also like creativity and certainty, it can be practiced and perfected. Any art is difficult to succeed at. Writing is no different. The competition is fierce. So you must be able to persist in order to succeed.

ACQUIRED FROM LIFE

KNOWLEDGE

The more a writer knows about life the more reality he can put into his writing and the more she’ll have to write about. When I went to UCLA I was an undeclared major for the first two years. I took courses in everything: history, physics, computers, psychology, music, photography, geology, logic—even meteorology. I certainly didn’t master any of them, but I came away with an invaluable breadth of information which I have used in my writing ever since. The more you know about the world the more you have to write about.

LEARNING

To be a successful writer you need a desire or willingness to learn. This is true on many levels, not just learning to write. You need to learn the business as well. Knowing about show biz—film, TV, contracts, studios, animation, etc., etc.—helps a writer understand and master the profession. I’ve known many writers with who think that their agents or lawyers need to understand the business end of the business, not them. Wrong! This puts a writer at a significant disadvantage. The more you know about anything the more you can successfully manage that area of your life.

CULTURE AND AUDIENCE

A writer has to know her audience to communicate to them. The best way to know an audience is to know the culture. Movies, TV, books, music, games, tech, history, religion, people, politics, commerce, etc.—these are the elements of culture. The more you know about them the more you can write accurately about them and the better you can communicate. This is especially true when writing humor. If you don’t know the culture it’s much harder to be funny.

INTELLIGENCE, LOGIC, REASON

For a writer, it really helps to know how the world works. To do this you not only need to know a bit about physics and mechanics, but how to think logically and reason well. A story is a set of problems for the hero and villain to solve. So a writer needs to know how to solve problems. You solve problems by understanding how people and things work. If you know how things really work you can think logically and thereby communicate better.

DECISION MAKING

This is one of the most important attributes of a successful writer. Writing is all about making decisions—deciding what to write, deciding when a story works and when it doesn’t, deciding when a scene or dialogue is good enough, deciding to throw out good scenes and dialogue that don’t further the plot or character. If a writer has trouble making decisions writing will take much longer and be much less fun. The primary reason I’ve been able to write so many scripts is that I decided a long time ago that I could. The secret to making decisions is not fearing that they’ll be wrong. Writing decisions are not life or death. So it’s doesn’t matter if your decisions are wrong. If they are you will find out sooner or later and can change them. If you are slow at making decisions you’ll waste a lot more time.

ORGANIZATION

Structuring a story is about organizing ideas. But if you can’t organize your life you’ll have trouble organizing your story beats. An organized environment is a sign of an organized mind—and vice versa. I once worked for an executive producer whose desk looked like a tornado ran over it. He’d literally search for minutes through piles of scripts and storyboards. His mind was as cluttered as his desk. A writer’s desk and workspace should be as organized as possible.

ACQUIRED FROM WRITING, OR THE STUDY OF

SCREENWRITING KNOWLEDGE

I took two screenwriting classes when I went to UCLA. They had us read a book, told us to go off and write a script, then critiqued it. I got A’s, but I learned practically nothing. Fortunately, a few years later I had the good fortune of getting a paid apprenticeship from my dad who was then a story editor at Hanna-Barbera. But he only gave me tips on the general elements of premises, outlines and scripts. The rest I figured out myself. I then became a successful writer without ever having really studied writing. Years later I read the basic screenwriting books with the intention of understanding the workable principles of screenwriting. I finally learned how to write. I might have been pretty good without the study, but I became far better afterward. Some people get lucky and write a script without any prior training and sell it. Don’t hold your breath. Study screenwriting!

WRITING EXPERIENCE

Hall of Fame golfer Gary Player was practicing his sand shots one day and holed one out. Another golfer told him it was a lucky shot. Gary smiled and said, “The more I practice the luckier I get.” It’s a great maxim. For a writer it would be, “The more I write the better I get.” The best way I’ve found to apply this as a writer is by writing as fast as I can. Some people think that quality takes time. Not true. Quality is quality. Time is arbitrary. By writing fast you gain more experience. Instead of writing one screenplay a year try to write four. You’ll be a much better writer at the end of the year.

LOVE OF THE CRAFT

If you don’t like cooking you’ll never be a successful chef. Ditto with writing. The more you love it the better you’ll be at it. But the converse is also true. The better you get at it the more you’ll love it. And remember, the more you write the better you get. Ergo, the more you write the more you’ll grow to love writing. If you’re not there yet, persist. Do everything above and you’ll get better and enjoy it more.

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The above list is probably not exhaustive. I’m sure I left something out. But these attributes, innate or acquired, are enough to make a successful writer. All of the above attributes can be purposely improved through study or practice. The innate attributes are the hardest to improve, but by working at the other attributes you can improve them. You can get more creative by exercising your "creative muscles", by learning creative techniques, and most importantly by believing that you can. You can increase belief in your ability by writing well and getting validated (or better yet, paid). You can increase your certainty of your ability the same way. If you want to improve these abilities the first thing I would suggest is that you focus on believing in your ability. Once you’ve improved that find the item on the list that you are most deficient in and focus on it. Then attack the next one. Don’t try to improve them all at once, you’ll just get overwhelmed. I guess this reveals an item I forget to put on the list: patience.

©Jeffrey Scott, All Rights Reserved

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