What makes a good writer

This week’s guest writer and Blogger in the spotlight (BITS) is a lovely lady who is as wise as she is kind. She is the managing editor of The Malaysian Insider but we just know her as Joan, the crazy, fun-loving foodie who has a vivacious laugh and always sees the funny side of things in life. Here she is with her views on “what makes a good writer”.


When you have been working with words for as long as I have, you inevitably get asked, “What makes a good writer?” And the people who ask the question are… well… inevitably aspiring writers. They want to know if they have what it takes, I guess. My answer — and it’s not a totally facetious one, although I admit to being half serious only — is nearly always: “Heck if I know.”


photo from vcia.illinois.edu

If you want to be a writer, then write. If you are lucky to get an audience and people tell you they like what you do with words… then well, that makes you a good writer. To some people. Remember, there will always be people who hate your writing. Knowing that early on in your writing career will save you a lot of angst later. It won’t stop from hurting when people diss you later… but well, yeah… For me, what makes a good writer is simple. Someone who can tell a story. Mind you, this does not apply just to short story writers or novelists. I am including journalism here.

what makes a good writer is simple. Someone who can tell a story..

After all, the best kind of news stories and features are those that tell a story. Pieces that explain to us, lucidly and sometimes entertainingly, what the story or issue is about. At The Malaysian Insider where I work, we insist on this. We tell our writers every day: tell us a story. Pedestrian reports that bore us editors get thrown back to writers for a rewrite. Good writing can be found in news stories, opinion pieces, columns, books and of course, blogs. Oh yes, advertisements too. (I think Apple’s ads have a lot to do with their products’ desirability!)

When you think about it, all the wonderful pieces of writing you love tell a story don’t they? In recent years, I have discovered good writers in people who don’t even write for a living (how dare they?!) and they have inspired as well as humbled me. Very often when I interview for writers, I ask them this question: who do you like reading? The ones who stumble and fumble for a name leave me thinking, “If you don’t even read, how can you write?” My favourites are those who read everything from comics to Shakespeare to the backs of cereal boxes. Writers read. Good writers read, live and of course… write. All the time.

But wait, I think one of my favourite poets said it best when he wrote this poem about writing:


So You Want To Be A Writer
if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.
if you're doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don't do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don't do it.
if it's hard work just thinking about doing it,
don't do it.
if you're trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you're not ready.
don't be like so many writers,
don't be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don't be dull and boring and
pretentious, don't be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don't add to that.
don't do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don't do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don't do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was. 

Charles Bukowski



About this week’s guestwriter:

Whether it was as a reporter, editor, columnist or copywriter, Joan Lau has worked with words her whole life.

It’s the only thing she knows how to do.

When not writing or editing, she lives between the covers of books. She is currently the managing editor of The Malaysian Insider.


  • Pureglutton says:

    Such wise words, Joan! Love that poem – so terribly apt!

  • Ah-hah! Finally the Secret is revealed.

    (Lovely post Joan! Thanks…)

  • Brother B says:

    What do u think about writers who care more for bombastic prose and style rather than substance i.e Salman Rushdie (That very over-rated S Verses) and the impossible to read MAN Prize winner Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado?
    As much as I love Ian McEwan – he tend to base his books on research (i.e Enduring love, Saturday) rather than written from the heart.
    I had a quick glimpse of the local READINGS – sorry – too much “wanking” in some of the poems and i am not (even) prejudiced against local writers

  • Brother B says:

    And for a drunken tortured guy like Charles Bukowski, he did write well – and scored with women at the same time. LOL

  • Apple says:

    So true – good advice.

  • Nigel says:

    Another writer friend, Tunku Halim, had this to say in a similar vein;

    1. Write!
    2. Rewrite
    3. Edit
    4. Write!

    I feel there is a huge truth out there in what Joan and Halim says. But I do believe there is a way to improve writing as well. Lee Kuan Yew’s Eulogy to his wife puts it very sweetly and yet very well,

    “Choo, who was at home on maternity leave, pencilled through my draft statements, making them simple and clear.

    Over the years, she influenced my writing style. Now I write in short sentences, in the active voice.”

    If you look at another good writer closer to home, you’d have our ex PM Tun Mahathir. Read his blog. Love him or loathe him, he makes his point simply and clearly.

    I guess the greatest advice I’ve seen for good writing is from George Orwell summarised here;

    1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
    2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
    3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
    5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
    6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

    Here’s the link to the full article and all 6 rules explained further 😉


  • What a good poem to demonstrate what so many people miss out on. There are so many travel blogs and related sites out there that don’t get this. So it’s easy to tune out.

    Likewise in books. If you’ve ever read a dull book, chances are they skipped over a lot of this.

    That said, there is a thing call too much editing. Sometimes you just gotta hit publish 🙂

  • iamthewitch says:

    I love the poem! Not many people can be a truly good writer indeed!

  • babe_kl says:

    Loved Joan’s piece. Actually I’ve been reading her columns in NST many years ago :p

  • eiling says:

    very inspiring and I aspire to be one whom can tell a good story, everyday.. oh well, at least 3 times a week!

  • I love Joan. She’s inspired me so much over the years.

  • Marcky says:


    I might be going into freelance writing if the things in my pipeline go through.

    I hope the pressure and demands don’t steal away from my innate desire to write.

  • Jake says:

    I don’t think writing should just flow right out of someone. It should take time to mingle in their minds. The writer should take effort to polish it and squeeze it out of them.

  • Jake says:

    I don’t think writing should flow right out of someone. It should take time to mingle in their minds. The writer should take effort to polish it and squeeze it out of them.

  • Wilson Ng says:

    A very good written post.

  • Great post! True, you have to have a passion for writing to keep at it. PS- Ciki, LOVE the new layout! It’s so easy to navigate and it looks tres professional 🙂

  • Steph says:

    Wow, I never read that Bukowski piece before. Thanks for sharing. Writing is truly something that must come busting out with passion or not at all. x

  • This is the cool thing about blogs. You don’t have to be a great writer to be a good blogger. You can compensate with cool videos and photographs if the writing is not spectacular.

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