Is effective writing borne of skill or talent?
There has always been a debate about whether artistic trades are a matter of learned skill or inherent talent.
On the one hand, there is the belief that some are born with active and imaginative right brains and are therefore better able to manifest creativity. On the other hand, some argue that creative skills can be learned and mastered.
When it comes to creative writing, I believe that skill and talent work together. In fact, I would argue that almost every writer whose work is worth reading has some combination of both acquired skill and natural talent. But is one of these more valuable than the other? If you had to choose, would you rather acquire writing skills or be born with a natural talent for writing?
Creative Writing: Developing Skills
Throughout our formative years, we are educated in reading, writing, and comprehension. We’re taught basic grammar and comprehensive writing in school, and each of us learns how to form coherent sentences and paragraphs by applying these teachings through a lot of practice. We must learn our letters, and there is no artistic talent required.
Some of us loved those classes. We were drawn to the written word, to novels and short stories, poetry, and thought-provoking articles and essays. We welcomed the opportunity to build better writing skills. We trudged over to the school library during recess and experienced glee when the Scholastic newsletters arrived. Books! Stories! We inhaled them, and they etched into our psyches until we too yearned to spin tales and dreamed of the day when our own names would appear under a featured story headline or on the spine of a best-selling — or dare I say — Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Yet there were those who balked at the thought of opening, let alone reading, an entire book. They preferred math or science, or perhaps art, or maybe they’d rather park themselves in front of a TV or video game console. Their reports and essays came back with low marks and someone said they lacked talent, something we aspiring writers had in droves. But was it talent, or was it something more simple — an interest in the material, perhaps?
When I graduated high school and was faced with the dilemma of what to study in college, I shunned the idea of majoring in English, because I was already a voracious reader and several teachers had called me a gifted writer. Why study something I already had a knack for?
But a few years later, when no other major felt quite right, I finally checked off the box for English with a concentration in creative writing. I had finally realized that the very reason I should study writing was because I was already good at it. By majoring in English, I could become an expert, a specialist.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. In the semesters that followed, I studied the classics and learned writing nuances from my instructors and peers, discovering subtleties that never would have come to my attention otherwise. I learned the value of editing and revising, and I learned the merits of voice and style. Thankfully, I was given opportunities to explore areas of writing I never would have touched on my own: proposals, screenplays, and chapbooks. I even learned how to master the creative writing process. Best of all, good writing habits became deeply engrained: I learned how to maintain my writing practice with regularity, and how to finish a project I’d started.
It’s Not Skill or Talent; It’s Skill and Talent
What happens when skill and talent meet?
You get craft.
That’s what creative writing is: craft.
There’s no way around learning writing skills. All the talent in the world won’t magically manifest an ability to read and write. And no matter how talented you are, there’s a lot to learn. Talent helps. It gives you an edge. But you know what helps more? Interest. Passion. Drive. Determination. I’ll bet on someone with self-discipline, commitment, and a solid work ethic over raw talent any day.
In fact, talent can be dangerous. I’ve seen incredibly talented people shirk study, avoid practice, and ignore discipline. And because they refused to build their skills, they fell behind. Someone who was overflowing with talent at eighteen is a third-rate writer (at best) by age forty if they haven’t honed their craft.
But let’s not pretend that talent doesn’t matter, because it does. Talent gets you there faster, and it can take you higher. When talent combines with hard work, great writing is sure to follow.
But is talent absolutely necessary? I don’t think so. Plenty of people succeed at writing despite starting out as average. Like I said, I’ve seen the talented fade into obscurity while writers who work hard rise to the top.
So what’s more important in creative writing — talent or skill? I say a healthy balance of both is ideal. What do you think?
As I’ve often said on my own blog, anyone can run – but not every runner will make it to the Olympics.
And all Olympic runners train to get there. Talent comes first, learned skills, techniques and strategies come second, but writing is definitely a combination of both.
What a wonderful post, Melissa! I think if a writer is talented and has a strong passion for writing it pulls the reader in and keeps their interest until the end even more than if a writer has the education but has the personality of a dead fish. 🙂
I’m so glad you were smart enough to check that box for English and hone your creative writing. I had that opportunity and didn’t take it. :'( Thank goodness there are a lot of opportunities to continue our education like Rebecca mentioned on her blog.
Keep writing. You definitely have both talent and skill!
Talent does play a large part in it all. You can have the basic, raw materials to get you started, but somewhere along the line you’re going to have to get the technical training to hone those skills. Anyone can learn to type, or learn how to use a graphics program. Knowing how to use those tools and use them well is a different story.
Since childhood, I had a talent for art and writing. I do both equally well, but when it came down to making a career choice, I went with art.
I think I’ve only taken one writing class in my life – a creative writing course in college. Math was my weak point and still is to this day.
One memory that sticks with me is from 7th grade where I was accused of plagiarism because my writing was so far ahead of the other kids. I think this is where I became very self-conscious about my writing because the teacher called me out in front of the whole class. Funny how one little incident could affect you for the rest of your life.
James, we are in agreement! The whole skill vs. talent debate is almost silly in my eyes, since quality writing is indeed an obvious combination of both.
Michele, I definitely try to continue my education and improve my writing every day. That’s exactly why I adopted style guides and subscribe to podcasts like Grammar Girl. These, and other things, keep me on my toes! Thank you so much!
Harrison, it is amazing what a great impact those pillar moments from adolescence can have on the rest of our lives! I had quite a few of those myself.
Now, I’m going to think about what talent is, exactly. Is it love for the craft, or just some inborn gift? Maybe another combination?
Too funny to read the comments and see who uses “art” when defining writing and who uses “craft”! The age-old dilemma…
I believe a talent is something inborn. If talent were learned, everyone would have it. Some things just come naturally to some people. Others have to work for it and even then, they never achieve the level of skill they might see in others.
@James: *sigh* Don’t get me started on that one. 😉
I think art implies inspiration, and craft implies perspiration, personally.
This post, and the first comment from James reminds me of the movie Ratatouille. How “anyone can cook” meant, in the end, that a great chef could come from any background or circumstance, but not everyone has the passion and persistence to achieve great things.
James, yes, art vs. craft is an interesting dilemma. I guess I tend to use craft because I feel writing is, as defined, “an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill.” Seems to cover all the bases.
Harry, yes, I definitely don’t think talent is learned, but it’s inborn. This conversation could get quite philosophical. Nature vs. nurture and all that…
Kat, I haven’t seen Ratatouille yet, but I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment!
I think talent is inborn as well. There are some people who are naturally gifted in certain areas but do not enjoy or encourage their gift. My son for example is a natural on his skates. From the instant he put them on his feet he did it all easily, but he doesn’t enjoy skating. My daughter on the other hand is clumsy and every new step is a struggle. She loves skating, she would skate every day if she could, but she doesn’t have the inborn talent her brother does.
Having said that, she doesn’t have to have exceptional talent to succeed. By learning the craft with dedication and passion she can acheive the accomplishments of talented skaters. She may never have the effortless elegance of a born skater but she could learn the skill, the craft, well enough to LOOK like she does. That’s what matters to the judges.
When it comes to writing I often feel like I’m one of those talentless writers with passion. I didn’t begin with any great ability but I DID begin with a passion and a love of writing. I study the craft, I learn the way words go together and I bury myself in my creativity. These days it comes off as ‘talent’, it’s actually just hard earned skill. A skill I am still working hard to hone, every single day.
Oh, and thanks for the plug Michele. *blushes*
Harlan Ellison said once that talent is the knife, and craft is how we sharpen it.
Some get a whacking big knife, but continue to use it as a blunt instrument. Some have only a penknife, but sharpen it to scalpel fineness.
So dedicating oneself to craft is probably the best way to pursue one’s writing, which requires so much dedication, anyway. Writing, unlike painting and music, creates nothing until someone reads it, it requires a certain engagement with the reader. So the chances of feedback is correspondingly lower.
It has to nourish of its own sake, at first.
As a writing instructor and writing coach, students and clients always ask me if I think they have enough “talent” to make it as a writer. I always tell them talent doesn’t matter as much as desire and determination.
If they love to write, and are always trying to get better and better at it, then they have what it takes to become a successful writer.
Happy writing and Happy New Year!
WereBear, that is a perfect analogy! Thank you for posting that quote! Many writers have referred to their work as offspring, which is another analogy that I find intriguing. The poems “The Author to Her Book” by Anne Bradstreet and “Spelling” by Margaret Atwood both come to mind.
Rebecca, I wonder what draws some to an activity such as skating, while others take little to no interest, regardless of talent. There is still so much mystery surrounding human nature — we could head into some deep philosophical waters pondering talent and attraction. I am a firm believer that when it comes to nature vs. nurture, there is a combination of the two at work with regard to human development and how we each end up with our own particular preferences.
Suzanne, I agree wholeheartedly. While it’s great to have talent, it is hard work and dedication that will ultimately result in success. Talent certainly helps though!
Quality writing definitely is a combination of both skill and ability. And for that reason, I disagree with @Suzanne Lieurance. IMHO, for aspiring writers, ability is the clincher. You can learn skill. You can’t learn ability. You either have the gift, or you don’t. You can learn all the rules and techniques you like, but if you don’t have the flow, it’ll never feel the same to readers. It’ll be as clear as the difference between a native speaker of a language and one with an accent.
Glenn, while I agree – there are lots of writers who possess skill but lack in talent who have carved out successful careers as journalists, novelists, and even bloggers. I think that ambition or passion might be able to steer a writer toward success regardless of talent. However, those writers who are dripping with talent definitely have an advantage.
Certainly a debatably subject that raises any different opinions. The article speaks straight to the point though and makes a notable indication in the importance of having both talent and mechanical writing skills in order to be a truly accomplished writer.
Whether talent is learned, inherent, innate or otherwise obtained is another issue. It certainly takes both though, to write of the most venerable pulchritude. No doubt in that.
Thanks for your feedback. The best results probably come from a good mixture of skill and talent.
Very interesting. The issue is what if the person with the right talent learns the wrong skills or fails to make a right choice. How do you make him a writer in the fastest possible time? I am one myself- a writer by spontaneous inclination who strayed in the corporate world. It is not easy to switch professions. I decided to do something by writing about it.
Most important thing is that skills should be imparted according to natural talent and passion like in your case. Unfortunately, too much stuffing of facts of different kinds can interfere with what you want to do- Choose your career not on the basis of what you know but who you are.
In Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, there is a chapter that talks about becoming a master. Natalie states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice in any skill, trade, or craft to become a true and absolute master. So the fastest way is to write as frequently as possible. If you wrote for three hours a day, it would take about 10 years to become a master. Now, you don’t have to become a master before you start getting published or producing high quality work. I would think that reading should make up a considerable number of those hours. In any case, writing requires skills that must be learned. As for writing as a career, I think it must be a passion first.
Your best or worst moment if put to use in a way that complements it to a certain purpose or inclination can give edge to your writing.
If it were just a matter of skill, then any one of us could do it with the right amount of hard work and dedication. I could have spent years in singing classes, even trained myself to somewhat carry a tune (maybe), but could I ever have belched ’em out like Michael Jackson, Dean Martin or even Rod Stewart? Nah!!! Skill is fine where only skill is required. Allow me to partially steal the words of another: You cannot impart creativity (talent); you either have it or you don’t. If ALL things were just a matter of hard work and dedication, then we wouldn’t have people such as myself who seriously lack the talent necessary for things like creative writing!
Hi Kenny. I think your view is a common one; but I actually disagree. There are plenty of artists who do not possess a natural talent but who succeed because they work hard and are driven by their passion. Singers like Bowie, Dylan, and Patti Smith don’t have the most beautiful voices, but they’ve honed their skills and built careers as singers anyway. I’ve heard of writers who claim they possess no talent but because they produce so much work, a certain percentage of it is pretty decent. The result? They succeed. On the other hand, there are people with loads of talent who never do anything with it. Plus, who gets to decide who has talent and who doesn’t? The critics? The consumers? I hate to see someone give up because they don’t think they have talent. There’s an audience for everyone. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
What I’ve learned is that neither counts unless a writer has the patience and perseverance to let the two surface. If you don’t write a lot, sit down everyday and pursue ideas, the skill vs. talent question is moot.
Well said, Tony!
A lot goes into the path a writer’s life takes in order for them to reach whatever level of public or personal success that they desire. There is always talk going around about the versatility or frustration which English majors and writing specialists often face after their studies, but it is the unique combination of learned basics, creative passion, ingenuity, dedication, and calling which carry writers through.
By the way, whereas you tried to avoid the English department by sheer stubbornness, I was actually told explicitly by my mentor professors to, at all costs, not major in English with a focus on creative writing. I knew myself well enough at that point to know not to listen to my intuition and trust it, especially in matters of where I could perhaps become great. It was one of the best decisions I made, too!
What a shame that leaders in education would discourage students from following their passions. But I’m glad you listened to your intuition!
Great aspects and article. I think someone can be the most talented person in the world at something. However, if they don’t acquire the necessary skills, they can never wield it to its full potential. Congrats on your English major and a decision well-made! 🙂
So true! Thanks.
This blog is quite true. I’ve experienced this myself. I too have been writing since quite some time and I can vouch for the fact that it takes a lot of effort to better yourself.
This is tough. Truth is, I think I can write when I don’t let my inner critic and perfectionism paralyze me. I’m not there yet, to call it a full-time career. That will take time. But I believe if I really want it, I’ll find some sort of success at it (though not famous).
I believe people can become a decent writer (or whatever their dream is). It is a matter of wanting it, just like any other skill. Time and effort are required for it like any other skill and art form.
The two become meshed and hard to differentiate from each other at some point.
Unless someone has a mind blowing talent, like a genius at a skill, you just don’t know what you are capable of until you put in the work and time.
I agree with much of what you said, Cindy. It takes time and patience. Sometimes people who work hard or smartly will succeed even more than those with raw talent!
I agree on a balance of both, as learning skill can help refine your talent. But personally, I’d prefer to have slightly more talent. Sometimes I just like to write for fun and don’t worry so much about the skill aspect – at least until later if what I write seems promising.
That’s a great answer, Jeanne. I like that you write for fun. It’s a wonderful hobby.
Yet there were those who balked at the thought of opening, let alone reading, an entire book. They preferred math or science, or perhaps art,
I always read books. My mother said no one could get anything out of me when I had my head in a book.
I also enjoyed creative writing, and even grammar in school.
Yet I ended up studying science, and teaching it, too. At college I did Science main and maths and English Literature as subsidiary. Maths because it was needed for science, and English Lit because I enjoyed it.
So I don’t think the two, or three, if you include art, are mutually exclusive.
But I do agree that both talent and learned skill are important. I’ve read books that had amazing plots that I couldn’t finish because of the lack of grammar skills by the author, causing confusion. Also, I’ve come across beautiful grammar, but no plot to speak of.
That’s fascinating, V.M. I agree that both are important, and I’ve had the same experience with books that I couldn’t finish.