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9 Crucial Skills for Professional Writers

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

The world has no shortage of people who would love to build a full-time career as professional writers. In reality, desire is only one of many required traits of a pro writer. Whether you seek to write novels, novellas, short stories, theatre scripts, screenplays, teleplays, poetry, newspaper articles, magazine articles, speeches, persuasive essays, op-eds, business documents, or academic papers, you’ll need to call upon a wide array of professional writing skills.



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The 9 Most Important Professional Writing Skills

Different types of writing require different skills. The most vital business writing skills are not necessarily the most vital creative writing skills. But whether you’re drafting novels, research papers, or business documents, all good writing has certain commonalities. Here are nine skills that many of the best writers possess:

  1. A unique voice: The best writers tend to be instantly recognizable within a few sentences. From the terse, economical prose of Ernest Hemingway to the wit of George Bernard Shaw to the lofty dramatics of Walt Whitman, the most unique literary voices leap off the page.
  2. Strong influences: A major secret of writing well is reading well. Seek out the best authors from various eras, from William Shakespeare to Edith Wharton to Joyce Carol Oates, and consume as much of their material as you can. Likewise, avoid poor writing, or at the very least consume it with caution. If you want to read tabloids from the supermarket, that’s fine, but don’t let their pulpy clichéd language permeate your own writing.
  3. A knack for word choice: Writing celebrates the rich lexicon of the English language, and good writers make full use of it. Some authors will write a first draft with somewhat imprecise language but will aim for more precise and expansive vocabulary with each subsequent stage of the writing process.
  4. Careful attention to detail: From the first moment you start writing to the final proofreading pass, attention to detail pays great dividends. Any piece of writing, from a reported news story to a business communication memo to an epic sci-fi novel, will only improve as its details become increasingly accurate and precise. Even when you’re scanning for common mistakes or running a spell check, keep your focus on every last detail.
  5. A working knowledge of grammar and syntax: You don’t have to be a university English professor to be a writer, but you should have a firm working knowledge of grammar and syntax. From punctuation to sentence structure to citing sources, there are a lot of rules to abide by. The best way to build up this skill is to read. If you try to memorize every grammar rule by rote, you may not fully appreciate how to apply these rules in the context of actual writing. That’s why reading—and absorbing what you read—will make you a better writer. Meanwhile, certain online resources like Grammarly can help even a professional writer brush up on grammar skills. Some sites even offer free writing lessons, and you can find ground rules from a reputable style guide like the one published by the Modern Language Association (MLA) or The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Look into these websites and style guides, especially if it’s been a long time since you took a college or high school writing course.
  6. Focus: Know your main idea and focus on it. If you’ve ever sent or received business emails, you understand this intrinsically: Good business emails establish important points as succinctly as possible and then quickly conclude. That same know-how applies to creative writing as well. Respect your audience and give them the information they’re looking for. Sure, you can do so artfully or even obliquely, but never lose fact of the main information you’re trying to communicate.
  7. Efficiency: It’s surprisingly tricky to convey a lot of information using very few words. Being able to do so is one of the most valuable communication skills—either written or spoken—that a person can acquire. Lots of paid content writing, including newspaper reporting, copywriting, and paid blogging, involves strict word counts. Some academic writing does as well, particularly if you are looking to get your work published in a journal. Authors who can say a lot in very few words tend to thrive in the cutthroat world of professional writing.
  8. Strong communication skills: Succeeding in the world of paid publishing goes beyond good writing skills. You also need to be a collaborator and a communicator. In news organizations, articles are created by teams of co-workers. It’s not just the credited author who shapes a story—editors, researchers, co-authors, and even the publisher themselves contribute to the writing process. To thrive in the field of writing today, you’ll need to clearly and politely express yourself in spoken conversation (like during a staff meeting) and in written communication (like in email writing or when writing a cover letter or staff memoranda).
  9. Ambition and persistence: One of the best writing tips is to aim high and never stop trying. Good writing skills won’t do much for you if you aren’t constantly pitching ideas to magazine editors, book publishers, and movie studios. The most successful writers don’t think of an idea and say: “Someone should write about that.” Instead, they say: “I should write about that,” and shortly thereafter, they actually start writing. Don’t stand back and let someone else be the next great writer. Decide it’s time for you to be the next great writer and put in whatever effort it takes to make that happen.

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