The Talent Myth

There once lived a girl who wrote the best fantasy books in all the land. She was only twelve years old, having picked up a paper and pen to tell stories starting at age eight. She outsold all the big names in her genre, made millions of dollars, and never even went to college. She had been blessed with a unique ability to craft words into beautiful tales that spoke to the hearts of many. No other writer could ever aspire to achieve such great heights with their work because she was more talented than everyone.

So, with that I say, “Pack up your laptops, friends. If you don’t have talent then it’s over for you. Give up and go home.”

The end.

Um…no.

The Natural

Good old Google defines talent as “a natural aptitude or ability” at something. For the purposes of this article, the ‘something’ will be writing fiction. Talent is a word I hear thrown around a lot mostly outside of the writing community. There’s this permeating belief in folks that aren’t creative that, in order to succeed at writing and selling books, a writer needs to be talented. I am here to challenge this myth and encourage you, dear writer, to consider a new perspective: persistence and hard work.

So, what is natural? I believe every person born on this planet has a natural inclination towards a specific interest (or set of interests). For example, my husband loves computers. He builds them, writes code, and does all kinds of fancy things on computers that make no sense to me. He’s possessed this interest since he was young and is very skilled.

Writing, on the other hand, is my calling. I started writing stories in grade school and pretty much never stopped. It’s my passion and life’s work, if you will. I was born with a lean towards it; whereas other people are interested in painting, mechanical work, teaching kids, and so on. But to do these things or be successful at them talent is not necessary.

Getting Good

I have often heard other writers state that the reason why they don’t write more often (or believe that they can’t) is because they aren’t good at writing stories in the first place. But none of us are born being good at anything. The process of development happens the same in all humans: we are born, we grow, take an interest in certain subjects, and either pursue or drop those particular subjects as we age. There’s no real mystery to it.

In order to become good at something we have to practice.

The high school athlete who is a star on his or her team has most likely been practicing since grade school. The author you love who sells a lot of books has been writing for years. Getting good doesn’t just happen naturally or overnight. We all have to start somewhere, and all of us start at zero.

Consistent Practice

You, my fellow writer, don’t have to be a champ at writing fiction in order to finish a book and take it to the next level you desire. We all have taste, and often it’s our good taste that brings us to a stopping point in our writing. Reading a good book or another writer’s work you appreciate can have you saying, “I’ll never be good like  ___.” And we stop writing because our work doesn’t compare. But how do you think that author became good in the first place?

Practice is encouraged in every other field of study or creative endeavor. The same goes with writing. You, writer, will take longer to mature in your craft if you are not writing on a regular basis. And once a month just won’t do. Once a week…not that either. If you desire to be really good at writing fiction, enough to sell work someday, then writing must be a priority in your life after the obvious such as family and life responsibilities.

We become better by honing our skills and that can only be done by writing all the time. Daily. Maybe several sessions a week. Writing consistently will also help you determine your strengths and use them to your advantage. A regular writing habit will also allow you to pinpoint your weaknesses so you can improve in these areas.

You Don’t Need Talent

What you do need is to feel good about where you’re headed with your writing. Having a regular habit will make this possible. The way your favorite authors became good at writing stories was by writing constantly. I’m here to tell you that you can do this, you can become really good at writing stories by practicing and increasing in skill. Then, one day when someone picks up your book they will say you are talented, but what really went on behind the scenes was a whole bunch of hard work.

Teach Yourself

Study your favorite authors. Study the art of writing fiction. Read, read, read. Then write, write, write. Talent is a myth. Practice is what makes perfect.

Dear Writer, what are some doubts or negative beliefs holding you back from writing more? What about life or your schedule?

What do you think about talent vs. hard work and giving your skills time to mature?

What does talent mean to you?

Rose Andrews

Rose Andrews is a historical and fantasy romance author who writes about marriage, mountains, and adventure. She enjoys crafting stories about arranged marriages, marriages of convenience, and mail-order-brides in times of old and imagined worlds. Her sweetly toned, faith-inspired stories are about sassy heroines who wed good-humored heroes and live happily ever after. She resides in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and family, reading historical and fantasy romance novels to her heart's delight. Connecting with readers is her favorite part of publishing fiction.

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Greybeard
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Greybeard

I think that “talent,” as a concept, is highly overrated. I agree that some people have natural inclinations. However, for most of us lots of practice will make us good enough to be competent or even great.

ThehornedGoddess
Member
ThehornedGoddess

I have fallen into the talent trap before, especially hearing others throughout high school and even through adult education and it added unnecessary pressure to a practice, passion and profession that I dedicate to with consistency [ when I am consistent] I found my joy was in writing in whatever form it was, as often as I could and learning as I go as much from the writing itself as others.
I find the lessons in commitment and dedication are the bedrocks of what keeps writers growing. When I look at the manuscripts I wrote at 13 compared to the ones I have at 23, and onwards you can see where writing and never giving up is what built that skill set, and fed the passion. So rather than focus on when people want to speak to talent, I focus now on whether that story challenged them, changed them, excited them, moved them, inspired them, disgusted them – I seek to evoke emotive response and readership and community, because at the heart that is what our characters are searching for too.

Demesnedenoir
Member
Demesnedenoir

I would say talent exists. It’s when talent, hard work, and determination/toughness coexist that you move beyond success to a level of being a great author.

You can be a crap writer and succeed if you are a great story-teller. You can be a great writer and a crap story-teller and succeed. You might be okay at both and succeed. You might also be a great writer and great story-teller and fail because of a lack of determination/toughness. There might even be other factors in there… a talent for marketing or smoozing the right people, for instance, LOL.

I’ve been told I was a story-telling since I was five or six. My dad and uncle were both gifted story-tellers, but they never wrote a word of them down and they sure never really worked at it. Their writing would’ve been iffy at best, LOL, but they could spin a yarn if pressed to it. That was something innate, they didn’t read piles of books nor watch tv and movies hardly at all, they just had it. My mom would’ve been the natural writer, but not so much the story-teller.

If one is absolutely driven to be a writer, it’s likely they can work hard enough to find some success in this new world of self-pub. It’s very likely that anyone driven that hard to be a writer already has some modicum of talent that drives them in that direction. But, I suppose there could be a Florence Foster Jenkins of the world out there trying to write, LOL.

Malik
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Malik

Talent is nothing without toughness. It takes psychological toughness to put up with the unbelievable load of insufferable bullshit that you have to endure as an author and still have something worth saying when you sit down to the keyboard. It takes physical toughness to stay at the keyboard when you're exhausted and you've had a rotten day. It takes emotional toughness to read angry emails from readers who think the book "would of (sic) been so much better if only . . ." without turning to drugs or booze or porn or donuts or any of a hundred other destructive coping mechanisms. It takes spiritual toughness to swat away bad reviews, and rejections, and conversations with your agent that involve the word "frankly." Toughness keeps the wolves on the other side of the hill instead of at your door.

Toughness keeps your nose in your books when you're learning your mechanics, and toughness keeps you writing late into the night honing the craft. Toughness gets you standing up to that asshole professor who assures the class that fantasy and science fiction isn't "real writing." Toughness sits your ass in the writing chair when you want to be sitting on the couch drinking and mooncalfing about being a bestselling author someday. Toughness gets you through years of crap jobs and failed novels until you finally hit your stride and learn to actually write in your own voice. Toughness gets you out of the chair and doing pushups with your feet on your desk every couple of hours because Sweet Jesus, this gig is hell on your back.

Toughness without talent will get you a long way; it might even be enough. It might. Toughness will break the shell and let what talent you have come through, even if you think you have none. But talent, without heart, is just so much sad bullshit. Talent without toughness is the realm of also-rans, wannabes, and drunks who regale you with stories of That Time I Could Have.

The great part about this is that most people who undertake writing have a talent for it already. Most do, make no mistake. And while talent is never enough, toughness comes with practice. Marry talent to toughness, and watch the world tremble.

E.L. Skip Knox
Member
E.L. Skip Knox

Talent, or the putative lack of it, can be an easy dodge. If the real variables are hard work and persistence, then the fault clearly lies with me. If the real variable is talent, then the fault lies in our stars. Which would be a great book title: The Real Variable. <gdr>

X Equestris
Member
X Equestris
skip.knox

I wonder what is the writing equivalent of being tone deaf or having no sense of rhythm.

An inability to understand the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, perhaps? If people can't read it, it doesn't matter how good the story itself is. Or maybe a lack of imagination? Writing fiction is a fairly multifaceted venture, and all those facets have to come together. Being absolutely awful at one could be crippling.

Overall, though, I'd agree with the article. People often get hung up on talent when hard work and experience see to be what really makes the difference. I mean, I'm sure there's some amount of innate talent involved, but it's not going to effortlessly catapult someone to the top of the business.

Looking back at some of my early stuff, like the very first story I got published, it's pretty meh. Experience and persistently working at it (including critical reading) noticeably improved my writing.

Tyrean A Martinson
Guest
Tyrean A Martinson

I agree. I think our passion for certain skills helps us build those skills because putting time into them is kind of fun, even when we’re deep in the trenches of another revision process. I think what we called natural ability often boils down to a lifelong passion pursuing writing and storytelling.
I’ve met “talented” writers who take their current skill level for granted and who stop practicing. Those writers don’t usually make it to publication. Maybe their “talent” came from birth, but I would guess that somewhere along the way, they had a passion for writing and then lost it.
Persistence and a pursuit of improving writing skills creates good writers.

Carol Nicolas
Guest
Carol Nicolas

Good article! Yes, it’s definitely a lot of work to become a good writer. However, some people are born with the need/talent/love to tell stories. A pianist becomes good by practicing, but the love of music and the talent to play are already there, waiting to bloom. Writing is the same.

Kessie
Guest
Kessie

I forget who said it, maybe it was Stephen King in On Writing. Everybody has talent. What people don’t have is a work ethic. It’s why the less-talented authors who bust their butts day after day wind up with better books than the talented elite who produce one book every decade. When talent meets work ethic, then you have genius. But it’s not really that common. Talented people don’t have to work as hard as other people, so they get lazy. I learned this when I was teaching art to kids. The talented ones were so stinking lazy.

E.L. Skip Knox
Member
E.L. Skip Knox

I do believe there's such a thing as talent. It's readily apparent in music and in drawing, less so in writing (less apparent, not less present).

That said, I get and appreciate your point that too often the whole rhetoric around this word results in people believing they lack talent and therefore shouldn't even try. That's the unfortunate part–tragic, sometimes. Much can be accomplished through study and hard work and persistence, so there really is no excuse for not trying.

I wonder what is the writing equivalent of being tone deaf or having no sense of rhythm.

Yora
Member
Yora

I think what people call writing talent is merely an unconscious understanding of story structure. When you hear a lot of stories, you automatically start to see patterns. If you can apply these patterns because they come to you instinctively, you’re lucky. If not, you can conciously study the patterns of story structure and use them conciously.
“Talent” simply gives you a bit of a head start in learning how to apply story structure, but it’s an advantage that matters less and less the more you practice and learn.

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