Let’s be straight, a good author needs to write. Then write some more and then keep writing. Writing is the primary skill that all authors need, so we’ll return to that in a little while. But there are five skills that a good author has and they can all be developed. These skills of a good author are what publishers look for, or at least love to see. I was a publisher for many years and when I saw these abilities in an author, I knew that working with them would be a good experience.
A good author knows their subject
A good author makes a great dinner party guest. They know their subject and enthuse about it. The nerdier the better. All those seemingly insubstantial facts and figures are gold dust. And the ability to tell a tale is all the better with background knowledge.
In other words, you need to know what you are writing about. Creating worlds and situations without all the necessary facts is like making a chocolate cake without the chocolate. The more a reader believes what you are writing because of what you know, the better the story or non-fiction.
A good author knows how to connect with their reader
Knowing stuff is all very good. You can give yourself a gold star and go to the top of the class. But even the brainiest kid in the class is not the teacher. A teacher is able to explain things and impart knowledge to the class. Like a good teacher can connect to the students, a good author can connect to their readers.
Your subject knowledge from the first skill is not just an academic knowledge. You need to be able to explain complex ideas. Your reader needs to follow and understand what you are describing. You will have your own style, but you need to speak in a language your reader knows and understands. This is especially appropriate when writing for age (learning) specific audiences.
A good author can write well
The good author communicates. They are able to pass on the ‘story’ to the reader. This means they need to write well. Communication is the successful imparting of information from one to another. The sender (author) and receiver (reader) need to be on the same page and understand each other.
This does not mean that an author needs to have a perfect knowledge of the language they are writing in, or produce perfect prose. All published work goes through an editorial process, to check and correct and sometimes reshape your writing before it reaches the intended reader. Of course, the more an author understands language the clearer they will write, but writing well is different to perfect writing.
A good author is a marketing tool
We live in a celebrity-obsessed culture. Being a published author is still a symbol of status1. The publisher wants to use you, the author, as a marketing tool. From author photo and blurb to social media engagement to book signings and/or readings, a publisher will have a long list of opportunities for an author to promote their writing.
Neil Gaiman and John Scalzi are great examples. Their blogs are well read and they often engage with reader questions. They are both well-known authors and, initially, you’ll not have quite the same following. However, if you have the skill to connect online and in person, with your readers, the marketing department will love you.
A good author contains their anxiety
Anxiety over deadlines, confidence in ability and writing blocks are just three things that haunt writers. Writing and being an author is by nature a lonely job. Many authors, myself included, are quiet and introverted. We live inside our heads as we develop stories and craft our words. Anxiety over what we write, or don’t write, is a very real threat.
Overcoming these anxieties is a skill of a good writer. The proof that they can contain these anxieties is that they write. Here, we return to the point made at the very beginning. When it all comes down, that is the primary, main skill of a good author. A good author writes.
All the skills above can be developed. If you are writing, then you’ll have these skills to varying degrees. See if there are areas that you can improve. Work on being a marketing tool, on being a little obsessive with your subject matter, on communicating clearly. Of course, all these skills and semi-rules can be broken, apart from the writing one, but they are things publishers will love about you.
Above all else, write, but perhaps spare a thought for these other skills.
1With the advent of self-publishing, this might eventually change. However, if you are self-publishing, self-promotion becomes even more important. You become the primary marketing tool.