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Jun 26 / King Kaufman

What every good writer needs: A checklist by Joel Achenbach

Joel Achenbach usually writes about politics and science for the Washington Post, but this week, “feeling oracular again,” he shared his thoughts about “What a good writer needs most” on his blog.

It’s a good checklist. Achenbach writes that a good writer must revere language, be honest, have reporting skills and be able to think:

A good writer has to be able to think. But the best writers, you’ll notice, have read a lot, and thought a lot, and if you were to catch them at their work, you might actually see them staring into space. Stories that don’t quite work often have problems in conception.

That last bit of wisdom is something I’ve caught on to fairly recently: If you’re having trouble with a story, back up a step. If you can’t nail down a good lede, maybe you haven’t finished figuring out what your story is about. If you haven’t figured out what your story is about, you might need to do more research and reporting. If your reporting isn’t getting you any closer to figuring out what you want to say, your initial idea might need work.

I have a quibble with Achenbach’s conclusion, in which he writes, “But the paramount job requirement if you want to be a good writer is to have a big heart. Verbal dexterity can’t make up for a crabbed spirit.”

My counterargument would be two of my favorite writers, Ambrose Bierce, who wrote “The Devil’s Dictionary” and eventually vanished while hanging out with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution, and Bay Area sportswriter and radio personality Ray Ratto, a friend of mine, who I’m sure has been invited to vanish more than once.

I tweeted this sentiment Wednesday and another friend, Laura Miller of Salon, offered this reminder:

That’s a reference to Greene’s autobiography, “A Sort of Life,” in which he describes being in a hospital ward as a boy. When a fellow patient dies, the other patients do everything they can to avoid hearing the lamentations of the family. “There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer,” Greene writes. “I watched and listened. There was something which one day I might need.”

Maybe it’s not such a contradiction. A writer needs heart, but also that ice, a sense of detachment, the better to observe and analyze. Or, to let Ratto have the last word: