William Shakespeare
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Can you learn to be a great writer

Writing is one skill where many are led to believe you are either an genius or not. The question that keeps on coming up is can writing skills be taught?

The view that writers – and by that I mean novelists – are above us is common. Coupled with this is the idea that there is a distinction between novel and journalistic writing.

Novelists are supposed to be creative and imaginative magicians of the written word.

Journalists on the other hand are mundane and lacking creativity. They are tired old hacks incapable of imagination using words like hammers.

The idea great writing cannot be taught is fading away. Both creative writing and journalistic courses are abundant.

It is clear that both forms require some sort of system.


Sure, some writers are more naturally fluent than others that doesn’t mean that they will be damaged by doing a little systematic thinking about how they are communicating.

The other point, that literary writing is different to journalism is mostly belied by making a list of the highly regarded novelists who have worked as journalists.

Daniel Defoe, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Arnold Bennett, Samuel Johnson, George Orwell, Tom Stoppard, Tom Wolfe, to name but a few.

The question is is there a qualitative difference between high and low culture or is it just writing, some of which is different to other stuff?

Better writing does not have to be fictional or factual.

It could be a highly crafted feature based on extensive research and interviews.

One of the reasons that journalism will lose writing is looked down upon is that it is said to be formulaic and systematic.

Orwell himself had an interesting system, his six rules.

Yes, this is somewhat true. You can and probably should write a news story along certain paradigms. If everything has to be done quickly, under pressure then a formula is what is required no matter how good a writer you are.

Writing genius cannot be taught. But is there any such thing to begin with?

What we call genius is simple a writer writing and writing until they figure out their own style.

Yet for those people (and the rest of us) the same technical skills are learnt and used.

Besides writing, one of the best ways for anyone to improve what they write is to read as much as they can. Analyse how writers achieve certain successful effects what is wrong with the writing style.

Everyone has their own taste there is little point in recommending here particular authors. But there are some books about English language that are worth recommending because they are incredibly informative.

They would be English journalists by Wynford Hicks and central English journalists and editors of writers by Harold Evans. The latter especially covers grammar syntax punctuation but from the perspective of a journalist.

Here are some skills


Spelling is one technical aspect of writing that can’t be taught by somebody. But a writer who is to; usually approve it.

In fact it says so they can simply use spell check on the computer. But there will be times when you don’t have the deadlines is coming up fast.

Bad spelling is a good way to pick out a bad writer.


This is another technical skill that gives new writers trouble. Yes it can be taught and it frequently has to be. Apostrophes seem to cause particular problems.


This is always a tricky one it depends on your audience but generally you should try to avoid jargon. Your mission is to tell the story to everybody and if they don’t know that word you lost already.


The three most important characteristics of journalistic writing are clarity economy and simplicity. This came towards the end of the 19th century when most news was consumed in magazine form. This sort of longform journalism was for many difficult to read and more importantly time-consuming

It was decided that a new format was required which would put the story over in fewer words.

You could say that current web styles with short one or two sentence paragraphs are the true inheritor of this style.

Journalists and thus writers in general have to learn to be brutally selective in what they try to include in their stories. The company in everything they have discovered in the research what matters in journalism is that the story is told that it is told quickly.

If you remember that last point you should be fine.

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