On Talent


A writing discussion that often comes up across various groups and mediums is whether good writers are naturally talented or accumulate skills from hard work. Now I don’t have a definitive answer on the matter but I do have a few thoughts, and I think it’s an important discussion because what we believe about a subject influences how we approach it. For example if people do buy into the idea that good writers are born, not made then they may be at risk of looking at writing in two dysfunctional ways, either delusionally defensive about anything that suggests they aren’t talented, or as not being worth their time because they will never be ‘talented.’

Anyhow without further ado, here are my thoughts in no particular order or theme:

Sometimes talent just means skills without awareness of learning

I used to play a lot of music, I grew up learning cello classically and then picked up the bass guitar in my last year of high-school. Now I’m not humble-bragging or fishing or anything, but I was not a brilliant musician, although passable enough to associate with those that were. Something I noticed about these very talented individuals both in classical circles and the local band scene is that they worked bloody hard through practice and performance. I also noticed that good musicians tended to start early, not advocating for brain-washing children or whatever, however many talented musicians I met had been learning since a young age.

My point is that often when a person is seen as ‘naturally talented’ there is typically (as per the iceberg pic) a tonne of things going on behind the scenes. This isn’t to say that there is no such thing as natural aptitude, rather just to caution against assuming a persons skill is all ‘natural’,

Which leads nicely onto another point:

We all have to learn to read and write

Scientifically speaking all skills and abilities have a mixture of biological inheritance, and learned aptitude. Sometimes this is very straightforward, such as seeing the obvious contribution of a person’s physique when it comes to pursuing the sports of long distance running, weight-lifting, or basketball.

When it comes to the above example of music, or writing however things get very murky. After all no-one is born with the ability to read and write, although an argument could be made for general IQ perhaps. Nonetheless the vast majority of aspiring writers have the very basics down and the debate is really about the next level of achievement – i.e. being a ‘good’ or ‘talented’ writer.

Another point here is that it gets hard to make a natural talent argument for the skill that has so many layers underneath it, that’s like seeing a massive house of cards and saying:


‘Bah they are just so naturally talented’

On the counterpoint however

Talent might mean lucky flukes

Ok this point is going to take a bit of explaining, and require you to think in a different way than our typical individualistic society teaches us!

(also this isn’t a diss of current published authors)

When it comes to an artistic process like writing, there will always be people who stumble across more marketable/entertaining products first, and those that don’t and have to adjust. For example when it came to my first attempt at a novel I thought that cool characters with massive amounts of backstory would make a book. Honestly I had the biographies of all the characters planned out, I was trying to combine the historic feel of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles with Laurell K Hamilton’s badass Anita Blake series (pre the overdose in sexy times with mythical creatures).

Anyway this isn’t a confessional, what I’m trying to say is with a massive population of hopeful authors wanting publication there will be a certain proportion who happen to produce marketable material, in the same way that I thought backstory was key, there will be people whose first goto plot is the traditional MC with a goal, and the rising tension forthwith as they pursue it.

This isn’t so much natural talent as fluking the right answer in the first instance. This might seem hard to believe, but we are talking about hundreds, maybe thousands of drafts drifting by publishers, it’s very likely that some people are what some pundits would call ‘unconsciously competent’ or rather that they produce good work unintentionally. That’s not to say such sleep-walk through their whole careers, but suggesting that natural talent is less a level of skill, and a measure of luck in applying skill.

In summary, and in my humble opinion, talent doesn’t count for much in writing. Yes there are numerous skills involved, most of which have to be learned, and some which people will pickup faster or earlier than others.

Overall though writing isn’t really about being a good writer it’s about producing good writing and I firmly believe that anyone who can pen a word is capable of the latter, and what it comes down to is hard work and persistence.

What are your thoughts on writing talent, is it a learnt skill, or a natural ability?

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