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10 Skills Every Writer Needs to Succeed (w/ Career-Mapping Worksheet)

Use this 10-factor system to map your writing growth and career.
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There are a few “pro writer cliches.” The seasoned wordsmith at the Harvard Club surrounded by softly lit oak wainscotting. The grimy MFA student reading postmodern critical theory jotting indiscernible fragments of poetry. The sleuth-journalist with an authentic kangaroo-hide leather bag with his sleeves rolled up.

Throw ‘em all in the trash. That’s not you. That’s not me. Writing is the great leveler. Before the glowing, glorious, pale blue screen of his MacBook, each writer is equal. You either have something to say, and you know how to say it, or you don’t.

It takes more than eloquence to be a successful writer. In fact, most successful writers aren’t eloquent at all. If you want to be a good writer, you have to master a certain set of skills (yes, like Liam Neeson). Not just one skill. You must become a generalist. The more competent you can get in persuasion-oriented skills, the better you will be as a writer.

Video games teach us to think this way. Ever play a racing game in which you get to pick between multiple cars? How do you choose?

  • Traction: 8

  • Speed: 10

  • Handling: 3

  • Acceleration: 5

There are tradeoffs with each car. Different advantages for each strength. But some games enable you to earn cars with higher ratings. And, if you are able to earn enough wins in a game, sometimes you are able to unlock upgrades to your car—new tires, new engine—that eventually enable your car to have all 10s.

That’s your goal as a writer. Your weaknesses. Know your strengths. But more importantly—know what things are worth investing your time and money, and which aren’t. Don’t waste all your upgrades on a new paint job—some fancy new writing class. And don’t spend all your energy trying to turn a 9 into a 10 when your acceleration is a 2.

Here, we’re going to unpack 10 mission-critical qualities that Christian writers should seek to cultivate in order to build a successful writing platform in the Christian space.

1. A Conversion Mindset

Failure to learn conversion-oriented writing predicts an immanent flatline in all your meaningful analytics—traffic, list size, shares, purchases, and influence.

Never write just to write. Write for people. And don’t merely write for people—write to bring people from A to B. That’s the most powerful reason you can give someone to read you again. When you change someone’s mind, you establish yourself as an authority in that topic.

Do it again and again within your domain of expertise with a multitude of micro-topics, and your words will accumulate a gravitational quality that draws people past your first and second points, all the way through to your conclusion.

“If you can understand and articulate your audience’s emotional story, relative to your topic, better even than they can, then you have won them as a reader.”

Not only does the skill of writing with a conversion mindset (bringing your reader’s from A to B) yield more loyal readers, but it makes it possible for you to make more credible and attractive appeals that benefit you directly—such as giving you their email, buying your book, leaving a review, or even promoting your content to their social groups.

2. The Ability to Write When You Don’t Want To

Most of the time, you won’t want to write. Every writer knows this. The skill of sitting down and writing when you don’t feel like it will separate the amateurs from the professionals. The skill of writing when you don’t want to is the bedrock of writing consistency. And writing consistency is the foundation of publication volume. And publication volume (with the right strategy) is the foundation of influence, visibility, and audience building potential.

Treat writing more seriously than you treat your job. Treat it just as seriously as you should be treating your health. Set a schedule and stick to that schedule.

The best kind of writing schedule aims to produce content daily. This doesn’t mean  you have to publish content daily. Publication frequency depends on the genre, subject, and venue in which you’re interested in writing. But daily frequency makes the writing habit the stickiest, and it gags the inner psychological saboteur to your writing career that tempts you to “write later.”

Don’t write later. Write now.

3. Narrative Empathy

In your several attempts to write publicly, you may have gained some applause. Your mom. Your close friends. Perhaps even a professor. All of this applause feels good. But deep down you yearn for something more—the applause of strangers. Deep down, you remember the times you were influenced by a stranger’s writing—a public celebrity, a prolific author, a sermon, an appeal. In your heart, you know that this degree of wordsmithing is the vertex of achieving creative fulfillment and upscaling your professional potential.

Here is the skill of narrative empathy—if you can understand and articulate your audience’s emotional story, relative to your topic, better even than they can, then you have won them as a reader. Be the stranger who wins the ears of strangers.

If people feel like you don’t understand them, they will stop reading you immediately. A few persevering readers may stick with you, but they won’t become loyal readers, subscribers, or recommenders. If you want people to stick with you, you need to make this the aim of everything you write:

“That’s really helpful to me.”

If you’re writing about self-control, and your appeal neglects the inner psychological world of your intended reader, your advice for building self-control will fall flat, it will feel cliche, and you will have botched your opportunity to build your audience with another reader.

Learn to discover the inner scripts of your reader’s consciousness. What do they think that they don’t even know they think? How can I articulate their struggle better than them in order to both equip them with a deeper lexicon for their experience and to persuade them that my solution to their problem is as deep as their problem?

4. Branding Intuition

Everything you write should optimize your brand’s performance. Since many creatives become creatives because they prefer depth to superficiality, they don’t like the idea of brandcraft. I get it. I was resistant to it for a long time. For about 5 years, my writing career leaned full-tilt toward excellent, perfectly pure, articulate authenticity.

Then I realized—that’s an extremely selfish way of writing.

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“A brand is an experience. And people will return to your brand if they enjoy the experience you give them.”

What most “writers” don’t realize is that writing isn’t a solo endeavor. Writing is a relationship between a person and his readers. But more specifically—and more importantly—writing is a relationship between a particular person and other particular people. Does that mean a writer’s work should change depending on his audience? Absolutely it should.

Take J.R.R. Tolkein as an example. Some might argue that Tolkein was interested in creating art for its own sake—true beauty, “branding” be damned. This betrays a false understanding of both Tolkein and branding. Tolkein was only able to write his Lord of the Rings saga because he spent his entire life devoted to understanding the universal psychological composition of meaningful human experience, expressed as mythological narrative in Greek, Roman, Norweigian, and Old English stories.

Tolkein’s entire writing career was not concerned with creating art for its own sake, but rather with cultivating enchantment with the real world in the hearts of his readers based on a certain conception of human life deeply informed by his study of the social function of types of stories, as well as his Christian faith.

Your writing should aim to do something similar on a smaller scale. You’re not going to write the next Lord of the Rings. You’re just not. And neither am I.

What does any of this have to do with branding intuition? A brand, after all the superficial marketing speak, is simply a feeling. A brand is an experience. And people will return to your brand if they enjoy the experience you give them—if you are able to cultivate in them the thing they’re looking for: hope, strategy, meaning, explanation, discovery, analysis, perspective, or humor.

These are all ways of cultivating the same kind of enchantment in the hearts of your readers that Tolkein aimed to cultivate. And people will always keep coming back for enchantment.

That’s branding intuition. If your brand fluctuates too much, readers won’t stick with you for long. Know what kind of brand you’re trying to create, what voice centralizes that brand, and what kind of experience your audience is looking for, and aim to achieve that. If you don’t operate with branding intuition, your brand (and your analytics) will never scale beyond the level of a personal blog.

5. Political Savvy

The writing community itself is made up of people. In this sense, writing is not merely about the relationship between the writer and the reader, but also the relationships among writers. These writers will be able to give you constructive feedback, branding advice, and most importantly, cross-promotional opportunities.

Political savvy is the wisdom to navigate these relationships well. One of the most common mistakes among writers is hopping too frequently between different writing communities. I’ve certainly made this mistake. It fosters distrust among other writers, which will make them hesitant to partner with you—and even hesitant to give you feedback.

The best way to earn political capital among a community of writers is to offer value—often guest posts and cross-promotion opportunities for others—so that you have opportunities later. But remember: trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets. Every inch of reputation you’re able to gain among your fellow writers is lost as a yard with the wrong misstep.

This doesn’t mean you should always be pandering to other authors. Never do this. Focus on crafting your own high-quality brand, and make yourself generous with that quality. Don’t have a critical hair-trigger with others. If you disagree with someone in your circle, be conciliatory, don’t publicly criticize without privately talking first, and have a reputation for encouragement rather than criticism.

Your writing platform is not a public playground for your stream of consciousness (though many authors treat it this way, to their detriment). Your writing platform is an organism to itself—and that organism will live or die based on the social and political capital you are able to accumulate for it.

6. A Fake Smile

You can’t respond to critical comments on social media in kind until you have a brand that enables you to do so. I see this all the time. Writer writes a piece. Random internet person writes a screed on why the piece is bad. Writer gets pulled into an online debate with random internet person. The troll cannibalizes the writer’s platform for 5 minutes, and the writer comes off looking childish, defensive, insecure about their own ideas, and thin-skinned.

Whenever you sense a swell of anger rising up in your chest, replace it with humor. Always exchange anger for humor on a public platform. Save the anger for venting with friends. But you’ll find that as you make it your official protocol to respond to all criticism with humor—not jabbing humor, but light-hearted humor—you’ll feel the anger down-regulate as you realize that the random internet troll has no impact on your real life, and no impact on your audience’s perception of you.

Sure, learn from criticism. But that’s not the primary skill a writer needs in the public space. Learn to be lighthearted about criticism. People will forget the criticism faster. And you may even convert trolls into fans. Humor always makes criticism a win-win for yourself and your audience. Expressing anger, frustration, and lengthy debates on your platform—social media, blog comments, or wherever—only further entrenches the idea that you might have said something wrong in the eyes of your audience.

Fake smile. Put it on. You’ll have a lot more wins as a writer.

7. Research Speed

The research phase of writing can cripple a writer. One-hour articles are scraped into a 10-hour research phase, 9 of which were unnecessary. It happens to most writers. They find a book on a topic, they dig into it, they read the whole thing, they get dragged into some debate the book talks about, and before they know it, their original article concept has become 5x more complicated, and they are sapped of all their writing energy.

Don’t put yourself in this position. Separate your reading time from your writing time. If you sit down to write, and haven’t researched anything, just write. It’s okay to write an un-researched article. Draw conceptual profundity from your own mind—that’s what your mind is for. And any book you read will just be someone else drawing conceptual profundity from their own mind.

Write from your heart. What bothers you? What do you find yourself thinking about when you can’t sleep? What do you wish people understood? What response are you hoping to cultivate through persuasion in the hearts of your readers? Write about that. Your life is sufficient research for 1,000 helpful articles. Pick one and write it.

The time you spend reading should be simple. Open a book, and read it until it either sparks an idea or says something utterly ridiculous. Then, put the book down, and write. Don’t worry about consolidating quotes, statistics, and fancy jargon. Most readers don’t care about heady labels and buzzwords anyway. Most readers are looking for one idea to change their life. Make your mission simple—give them that one idea.

8. Cultural Awareness

What’s happening right now? That’s what your readers are pummeled with most of the day every day. Politics. TV. Movies. Music. Journalism. Op-ed pieces. Scandals. Movement. Change.

Draw on it. Comment on it. Make sense of it through a lens that only you can. Maybe you’re crafting a writing brand for which it doesn’t make sense to comment on these issues constantly. Perhaps you write more deeply, philosophically, humanistically about your target topics. The beauty of culture is that culture is always downstream of philosophy.

Whether your writing brand focuses exclusively on obtuse theological topics, or is some analogue of E! Magazine, there will always be news, and there will always be something to say about it from your unique and principled approach that attracts new readers.

You’re the one who knows your audience. What’s happening in their culture? Write on it as often as you can. Unless you are aiming to have a news-oriented brand, I caution against spending too much of your time writing on these issues. There is something to be said for creating “evergreen” content that is still shareable when cultural moments fade into the background. But every good recipe has a calculated mix of evergreen and op-ed writing.

9. Biblical Literacy

In Christian writing, and depending on your audience, you should appeal to Scripture often enough and well. Not only are many Christian readers suspicious of arguments that make no appeal (direct or indirect) to Scripture, but when you do make that appeal, they often have a nose for textual misuse.

This makes Christian writing harder than most other genres of writing.

Your audience compels you to appeal to source material that is sacred, often not straightforwardly related to your topic, and a hulking punch to your credibility if it’s lacking.

That’s okay. The beauty of the canon of Scripture is that its multitude of genres—narrative, wisdom, prophetic, epistolary, and law—all enable you to speak to different writing angles at different times. There is a verse in the book of Proverbs that is applicable to every single topic you could ever write on. Find a way to tie it in, and include it in your writing.

Achieving sufficient biblical fluency to weave Bible verses into your writing can be as simple as being mindful of your writing goals while you read the Bible for spiritual enrichment each day. However, a better strategy for achieving the kind of fluency that translates into writing is twofold—(1) engage in a Scripture memory program that focuses on your topic by Googling “Bible verses about…”, and (2) learn to use a digital Bible tool that allows you to quickly search themes, words, concepts, and cross-references.

These meta-skills will enable you to enrich the rest of your writing with the kind of source material that your audience will always be expecting.

10. Theological Fluency

Every month or so, I’ll see another Christian writer be excised from the writing community because he or she said something that bordered on Christian heresy. Oftentimes, it wasn’t intentional. They simply got carried away with their growing brand, increased fan base, and felt the confidence to experiment with a fresh idea that ended up being their brand’s personal apocalypse.

The easy guard against losing your audience’s trust through theological misstep is to know theology well. Whether you’re writing about Scripture, culture, theology, politics, film criticism, psychology, or any number of topics from a Christian perspective, you need to be able to ensure that the Christian angle you bring to your topic is principally orthodox.

The easiest way to go afoul of creedal orthodoxy—and the most common missteps I’ve seen—take place in speculation about the nature of God and how he relates to human beings.

The way we characterize the person of God tends to be highly malleable among Christian writers—artists paint God as creator, vets paint him as a soldier, counselors configure God as a loving parent, etc. etc. Every Christian writer brings an angle based on their particular writing brand’s intended unique user experience. But that angle can tend to cultivate an imbalanced doctrine of God in which one attribute takes priority of the others, and ends up steering their entire brand off the rails and leading them to say something like (hippy voice): “Love is love, maaannn…”

How the mighty fall. You don’t need to be a theology hawk to understand that being a Christian writer comes with certain guardrails that could cost you your audience’s trust in the course of a single piece of writing. Be judicious about how your Christian angle is tilted so that you don’t step on a landmine that explodes your credibility. This requires a degree of fluency with church history, systematic theology, and denominational boundary lines.

Conclusion

Master these 10 skills, and you will be better prepared than any of your peers to start writing in a way that achieves creative fulfillment and unlocks professional potential at the same time. Take inventory of yourself—what are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Where do you want to grow first? How can you capitalize on your strengths at the start of your writing career, and how can you document your growth in your weaknesses so that you can turn that documentation into more content?

These are your baseline metrics for writing skill health. Diligently pay attention to them, and you will set yourself up for long-term success as a Christian writer. Use the worksheet in the downloadable eBook below to complete a thorough self-analysis so that you can accommodate for you weaknesses, double down on your strength, and track your competence as you grow your Christian writing brand in real time.

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