How to identify a really, truly, actually great writer

How to identify a really, truly, actually great writer

It all begins with staring at a blank page. Or so you’d think. But with the best writers, the actual writing process starts long before they open a new document. Good writing stems from a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter—it has a crystal clear intent and it delivers on its goals one sentence at a time. 

When we’re sourcing writers, we’re looking for a few key qualities that, without fail, are evident from the very first draft. Excellent writers are few and far between, and when we find a keeper, you better believe we hang onto them for dear life. So what actually makes a great writer? Fine, if you insist, we’ll reveal our secrets.

6 Essential qualities of great writers

Every writer has their own method, idiosyncrasies, and personal flair. Yet there are a few qualities that cut across all great writers, no matter their specialty.

1. Curiosity

Any writer we work with would never read an odd fact and merely think, huh, well that’s interesting. They immediately have more questions. When good writers sit down to study a topic, they’re driven to understand the concept completely before articulating it in their own words. They also look for unexplored angles—questions that no one has thought to ask. 

Their writing then reverse engineers this process: Assuming that an astute reader will approach the text the same way, they structure their work so that each sentence answers any questions sparked by the prior sentence. The result is writing that’s thoroughly informative and satisfies the reader’s own curiosity. When you read an article by a great writer, you never leave with more questions than you started with; instead, you close out of the piece with a thorough familiarity with the subject.

The best writers’ interest in and engagement with their topic is clear from the start. For example, if a writer is cataloging winning PR strategies, they might begin by asking: How did these strategies develop? They might then provide some background on the history of public relations and the lasting impact of early pioneers like Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays. Instead of merely presenting a snapshot of the industry right now, they provide background information that informs how the reader engages with the rest of the article. 

2. Rigor

A good writer doesn’t take anything at face value. Because when you’re trying to understand a topic by reading about it on the internet, you’re immediately cast into a sea of rehashed stats, unattributable quotes, and unverifiable blanket claims—a sort of endless recycling of the same ideas, often impossible to trace back to an original source. Good writers avoid this trap. They have a rigorous process for ensuring the accuracy, relevance, and verifiability of their material. 

Here’s what we look for as indicators of a rigorous process: 

  • Linking to primary sources. Do they link to the originator of research or statistics—Pew Research or the NIH, for example? Or do they link to a blog that cites a blog that cites a Wikipedia article flagged “citation needed”? 
  • Fact-checking themselves. Do they do the legwork to fact-check their information? For example, if they include quotes, do they verify its authenticity? (Oscar Wilde never actually said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”)
  • Up-to-date information. Do they ensure that the data they use to support their claims is relevant? Are their stats pulled from studies conducted within the last few years? Old stats are a big red flag. 
When good writers sit down to study a topic, they’re driven to understand the concept completely before articulating it in their own words.

3. Logic

When a writer structures an article, they lay out a clear progression of ideas. Each paragraph puts forward a single idea, and as you read the article, the information presented is cumulative: What you read in the introduction sets you up to understand the first paragraph, and so on. Instead of meandering, the argument of the draft follows a consistent pattern: It makes a claim, provides an explanation or supports the claim with evidence, and then moves on to the next idea.

Of course, there are many ways to construct the logical flow of an article. In journalism, for example, the classic approach is the "inverted pyramid" structure, where the most important information is summarized first, followed by supporting details, followed by broad background information and context. Another approach is practical and instructional: a short explanation of something (say, “What is hügelkultur?”) followed by step-by-step instructions for how to do that thing (“How to make a hügelkultur garden bed”). It’s always clear how one idea leads directly to the next.

4. Novelty

You’d think anything that could possibly be said has already been said ad nauseam by now (“nothing new under the sun” and all that). Yet somehow, 15 percent of all Google searches are unique. The potential for novelty is seemingly infinite, and when it comes to writing, even discussion of the most over-discussed subjects can bring something new to the table. With the vast majority of quote-unquote “content” out there vanishing into a sea of sameness, writing that goes beyond mere repetition catches readers’ eyes. Good writers synthesize information into insights that shed new light on a subject, differentiating their work from the competition in striking ways.

With the vast majority of quote-unquote “content” out there vanishing into a sea of sameness, writing that goes beyond mere repetition catches readers’ eyes.

This means that, while their writing draws heavily on existing research, they use that research to highlight insights you haven’t heard before. They avoid paraphrasing from published content. Instead, they go beyond what’s easily accessible on the internet, providing practical insights that solve problems in ways that other articles don’t. Great writers also bring a novel POV to their work, and they surprise you with unexpected connections between ideas—for example, one of our writers thought to describe a design portfolio as a portal into another realm. 

5. Empathy

Interest in empathy may have peaked in 2020 to the point of it becoming a cliche, but we still have to acknowledge that it underpins the entire writing process. Great writers know what readers need. When a subject has the potential to be boring, they entertain. When a reader needs a quick question answered, they get right to the point. When a concept is confusing, they use concrete examples to make it easier to grasp. Writers do the hard work now to make the reader’s work easier later (which is only fair since the writers are the ones getting paid).

Again, empathy begins before a writer types a single word. They take a moment to assess their audience—who is it that needs this article most? From there, they see their own writing through the eyes of their ideal reader, always speaking to their audience in the language they understand. 

6. Humor

Listen, we’re not saying that every written work has to be funny. Some topics aren’t appropriate for humor, and some brands make the conscious choice to avoid it. But when there’s an opportunity to bring levity to a topic that might otherwise feel dry or drab, we like to see our writers take it. With restraint, of course. We’re not going to ask a writer to, like, go full John Oliver on an article explaining small business bookkeeping. Although… maybe we should? 

In all seriousness—it’s harder to be clever than you think. When a writer deploys humor successfully, it’s a key indicator that they’re a cut above the rest.

Beyond making prose itself a delight to read, humor makes the collaborative writing process a breeze. Every one of our writers works with multiple editors—and, at times the revision process involves considerable back and forth. A writer with a good sense of humor takes critique in stride, has fun with the process, and is always here for a little banter in the Google Docs comments. It’s a way they show they’re engaged with the process and—even if we’re all on the clock—here to have a good time. The end result is writing that isn’t a chore to read, simply because it wasn’t a chore to write.

Our network of writers and editors hail from media brands including Bloomberg, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and Inc. Reach out to learn how we can pair you with the best talent for your project.

Thomas Harlander is Moonlight Editorial’s Senior Managing Editor. He got his start in traditional media at Los Angeles magazine before expanding into content marketing and SEO at MasterClass. The pivot gave him the toolset to get articles seen—tailoring content to the exact needs of the audience. He works with writers and editors to communicate compelling ideas effectively, crafting articles that quickly climb the ranks of Google search results.


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