The #1 difference between good vs. bad writers

April 9th, 2014 by Bob Bly

I was thinking about it the other day, and I reached the
conclusion that the #1 difference between good writers and
amateurs is as follows….

Many writers who are amateur, mediocre, bad, or just not worth
reading write mostly about their personal opinions, thoughts,
stream of consciousness, and feelings – in other words, whatever
bubbles into their minds.

This is why so many blogs are utter crap: Bloggers can write
whatever they want. There is no publisher or editor to say,
“Hey, this isn’t good – don’t publish this!” Indeed, they can
and often do publish everything that pops into their head.
Exceptions? Of course.

Good writers – those worth reading – have something unique,
valuable, or useful to say. And what they say is not just
whatever they think. It is a distillation of wisdom produced by
experience, observation, study, and activity.

In other words, good writers are good because they know
something and can offer value by sharing it with their readers.

Average or bad writers don’t really know anything, and so their
writing is vacuous, without valuable or hard-won ideas, wisdom,
or knowledge.

“Write what you know” is old advice. The problem is a lot of
people who write don’t know anything – or at least do not know
anything that other people also want to know. And so they have
nothing to write about.

Therefore it follows that if you want to be a good writer
instead of an average or bad writer, you must gain knowledge,
wisdom, or experience – so you have something of value and
interest to write about other than your feelings and thoughts.

Here are some suggestions for acquiring the base of knowledge
that can transform your writing from low value to high value:

1-Read widely and constantly. As insurance billionaire Arthur
Williams once observed, most of humankind’s knowledge can be
found in books.

2-At work or in your personal life, take on a difficult task or
project that no one else wants to do. If you succeed, you can
write your own ticket selling your expertise to others both in
your writings and as a consulting service.

Example: My old college friend EG led his company in an early
SAP (software) implementation and then made a handsome living as
a SAP expert.

3-Have more experiences. Instead of watching TV, be on the board
of a nonprofit like my colleague BK, or buy and run a bar like
my writer friend CF. Or be like my friend DY who built a shack
in the middle of the woods, lived there for a year, and then
wrote a novel about it. The more you do, the more you have to
write about.

4-Associate with successful people. Soak up their knowledge and
experience. Ask questions to find out what they know that others
don’t. Then distill what you learn and pass it on to your

5-Take or teach a course.

For instance, in my early days in NYC, I took some Learning
Annex courses on various career options such as music and
business. I then wrote about what I learned in my John Wiley &
Sons book “Dream Jobs: a Guide to Tomorrow’s Top Careers.”

I had been a technical writer at Westinghouse in Baltimore, and
when I moved to NYC, I taught a technical writing course at New
York University. The course became the basis for my McGraw-Hill
book “The Elements of Technical Writing,” which I wrote in 1981
and is still in print today.

Nicholas Baker: “If you think your writing furthers life or
truth in some way, then you keep writing. But if that feeling
stops, you have to find something else to do.”


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14 responses about “The #1 difference between good vs. bad writers”

  1. Shah said:

    As an aspiring writer, feeling glad to know the truth as you experienced.

    Thanks Bob for your pieces of heavy-truth for the writers.

  2. Curtis W. White said:

    Hi Bob,

    I like to think of guys like George Orwell, or Hemingway. They based their works on personal experience.

    They drew from the real content of their lives to write.

    But that content was expertly distilled.

    It went through a creative process until it was turned into something like pure insight.

    These guys didn’t just type out how they felt.

    They went deep into their own experiences, and pulled out raw bits of material they could refine.

    They hammered at it until it was as hard and sharp as steel.

    It’s great that there are still writers out there who do that. Cormac McCarthy is one of them.

  3. Bob Bly said:

    CWW: Agree about McCarthy. Love The Road.

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