It occurred to me this morning on the way to the office (out of bed, detour to the kitchen for some Chai Tea, across the living room in kitty rush-hour traffic) that there is no real and true way to define what makes a "good" writer, other than the words written on paper.
When we read a good book, rarely do we find ourselves lost in thought over what the author's motivation was for writing it. We don't wonder when we read an interesting news article if the writer was passionate about the topic, or if they were just trying to make their next car payment. We don't search the words to try to discover if their creator was steady and dependable, writing each day from 6am to 4pm without fail; or if they were steeped in a fury of sudden inspiration and spent 5 days eating little and sleeping less with only the keyboard and furious fingers for company.
From the reader's perspective, what makes a good writer has nothing to do with the company the author keeps, the color of their skin, the religion they follow, the rigid structure or lack thereof that guides their daily lives. For the reader, all that matters is the story and the words chosen to tell it.
As a writer, we often get caught up in the "How To" of writing. When someone we know or aspire to be like meets success, we jump up and ask how they did it. We writers suddenly begin to wonder, "How many hours a day do you write? What is your schedule? How do you know just the right phrase to use? Do you use a Thesaurus? What version of Dictionary are you using? How many copies did you sell, and how much were your royalties?"
As I have asked those questions, read the memoirs of famous authors and happened to meet one or two not-so-famous but perfectly wonderful writers who are a joy to read, I have discovered that the answers to all those questions are different for everyone. Writing does not guarantee an audience of readers, and especially doesn't guarantee an abundance of royalty payments. The hours can be many, or they can be few. A person could write a novel in a month, or a decade. They may choose to write because they aspire to be read by millions; or they may just be writing for themselves, tucking their treasures away under mattresses and in drawers to not be discovered until they have passed on from this life.
As readers, it is important for us to not take the words we read for granted. Chances are the person who wrote those words were not rich or famous, suffered the ridicule of friends and family who couldn't see them ever "making it" as a writer, and scribbled their thoughts in the dead of night when no one was awake to look over their shoulders.
As writers, the same things are important. Very rarely is any writer an instant success, and many of the authors we read are writing their next book or article between shifts at a crappy job, during a child's nap-time, or in the dim light at 3a.m. because something they dreamed was too good to not be put on paper.
Writing is not a science, and there is no magic formula to make it all work. The best that we can do as writers is to put our ideas down on paper in a way that makes them interesting (even if they're only interesting to us) and hope for the best; because you never know if the next sentence you write is the beginning of something great.