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?