Talent or skill?

By PD Martin

For today’s Wildcard Tuesday, I wanted to talk about something that seems to come up a lot for writers and aspiring authors. What makes a good writer? Is it talent (creativity) or skill?

Like many authors, I teach writing. Often the first PowerPoint slide I pop up is one with two bullet points:

  • Creativity (talent)
  • Skill

And then I ask my students, what mix they think it takes to be a ‘good’ writer. The answers vary dramatically. Most say 50/50, and I also get the two extremes of 80/20 creativity to talent AND 20/80 creativity to talent. My personal take, when putting numbers on something like this, is it’s about 20% talent and 80% skill (and maybe closer to 10/90). After all, why would I teach writing if there wasn’t something, a skill, to teach? And why would there be so many books written on the subject? And why do most authors take one, two, or maybe three or more books until they produce work that’s good enough to be snapped up by a publisher? Because they’re refining their craft. 

Of course, the biggest factor is something that doesn’t start off on my bullet point list. Perseverance. And if you put that in the mix it’s probably about 10% talent, 30% skill and 60% perseverance. But perseverance and skill are also inter-related. If you persevere, keep writing day-in, day-out, your skill levels will increase.

In terms of talent/creativity, I do think there are some people who have a more natural gift for things like: 

  • knowing when to start and end a scene on the page (i.e. what NOT to show the reader);
  • capturing a character fairly effortlessly, often in a few lines; 
  • the story telling arc; and
  • translating the voice in their head to a strong voice on the page.

However, these skills can be learned and improved with some theoretical knowledge and lots of practice…IMHO. But what do others think? To get a good cross-section of thoughts on this topic, I asked the other Murderati folk for their input.

I think the technical aspects of writing can be taught, and taught well. The majority of people, if they put time and effort into it, can acquire the skill to become a pretty decent writer. I believe the ability to be a good storyteller―with good structure and story arc and character development―is something else that can be learned, honed and polished. After all, what we do is largely a craft rather than an art.

To my mind, the vast majority of published writers are published because of their persistence rather than their outright talent. Having talent alone is not enough without the technical skills to translate imagination and a flair with words into a finished book.

Creativity can be cultivated in a person who has the spark to begin with, but I’m not sure it can be instilled in everyone regardless. The ability to notice the small details that pull a story out of the ordinary, that takes something special―something extra. As is the ability to describe those nuances of emotion and character using words that are fresh and clear.

Everybody looks, but not everybody sees.

I think that talent isn’t really the issue; it’s having a distinctive voice that most of us equate with “talent.” As to skill, it does take quite a bit of time and effort to be able to translate that voice into something others will want to read . . . and can understand. Too many people don’t have the skill to write what they really mean to say. Even if they do, readers will bring their own experiences and interpretations to any work. 

Note: Stephen was fighting time this week, but said:

Bottom line ― it’s always bothered me when people have said, “Oh, writing is easy for you because you were born with such talent.”  Everyone has it in them to be good.  Some better than others.  But it takes a lot of work, sometimes a life-time of work, to reach the point where our “born talent” is revealed.  Nothing comes easy.

I’ll second what Pari said: The key is a unique voice, but that’s just the beginning. No student is harder to teach than the one who thinks he’s talented. It takes humility and a passion to write well to achieve the kind of quality that makes your writing worth reading. That passion comes from being inspired by the writers who you want to emulate, who’ve created in you a desire not just to read but to create. 

Fiction is much harder than people think, because they only see the end result. But craft alone can’t provide the ineffable magical wonderful rush that truly great prose or poetry creates. That quality can’t be taught, it can only be nurtured―or squandered, or destroyed.  

The great joy as a teacher is to read a student’s work and see something special there, and to try as best you can to help that student take the next step toward excellence. The great heartbreak is to have a gifted student who thinks your pointing out where his work falls short is just evidence you don’t recognize his talent.

Talent―that’s a weird one when it comes to writing. I used to sing a LOT, not just in bars, believe it or not, but also in some pretty intense classical/madrigal groups, so I ended up singing with a fair number of opera singers. Now THAT’S talent. You are born with that kind of voice or you are not (I was not!).  It’s like whatever God is, singing through you. There is no arguing it.  There is no room for doubt.  You have it or you don’t.

You don’t see that in writing very often―there are genius writers to be sure (again, I am not one of them!), but it’s a less pure talent than musical talent, I think.  Consequently yes, writing skill can be developed.  People can become serviceable writers and be published without ever being much good, and I think that’s a lot because we ALL (except actual illiterates) know how to write, sort of―it’s our second language. And we’re all studying storytelling all the time, without actually knowing it, because we’re reading and watching movies and TV all the time and assimiliating the rhythms of story.

But I do think good writers (and that I will admit to being) are born with a certain programming―an ear, a voice, that not everyone is born with. You can hone storytelling skills, but if you’re not born with that ear and voice, you’re never really able to create that seamless dream that is key to a really good book.

And I completely agree with you, P and Z, about persistence―only I’d call it WILL, and bottom line, it’s more effective than skill or talent in becoming a professional writer.  God knows I’ve seen that often enough in Hollywood―but in publishing, too.  It’s not pretty, but it’s true. If you have the will, you can make it without talent OR skill.

If the question is “What makes a good writer?”, I would quantify the talent/skill equation this way: 

25% talent/75% skill

But if you were to ask me what makes for a “great” writer, I think the numbers change to something more like this:

40% talent/60% skill

This is because the things an author does to create great work―as opposed to work that is merely competent―cannot be taught.  All the components of what we writers like to call “voice”―use of language, dialogue, pacing, character, etc.―are products of instinct, not learned behavior.  Can anyone become a great artist simply by learning all there is to know about the use of paints and brushes?  Do all skilled draftsmen have what it takes to become great architects?

The mechanics of the craft are important, and no author can reach his greatest potential without learning them.  But writing only bears so much resemblance to cabinet making.  If the objective is great work, the tools are not enough.  Vision is also required, in no small measure, and vision is God-given.

So you’ve heard what we think. What do you think? 

17 thoughts on “Talent or skill?

  1. Nancy Gardner

    Two book I've read recently, Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, both go into research that shows clearly that it takes years of hard work AND working on what you're NOT good at, to master an art or science or sport. I recommend them.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I love hearing what everyone has to say on this. David, this is golden: "It takes humility and a passion to write well to achieve the kind of quality that makes your writing worth reading."

    No kidding.

  3. Alaina

    Alex's comments about singing hit home for me. My choir teacher once took me aside and gently told me that I don't have a 'solo voice'. Ouch. But, I was strongly independent, could hit the right notes, was good at rhythms, and often lead others. If I wanted to make it as a singer, if I was willing to work that hard on singing, and technique, and all that other stuff, could I make it? Probably. But I would be in the chorus, not the lead, and no amount of practice could fix that.

    It's the same with writing. I think I have enough talent to get somewhere– if I'm willing to work hard enough, to build enough skill. Since I'm getting partial requests, someone must agree. But there's a difference between authors who do and don't earn out their advance, or authors who get published and ridiculed for their writing skills, and so forth.

  4. David Corbett

    Alaina and Alex raise an interesting point: What if you don't have a solo voice but a chorus voice? What does that mean in writing?

    I don't have an answer, but I like the analogy so much I'm willing to ponder it a bit.

    I wonder if genre writing isn't precisely an excellent avenue for those who possess a "chorus voice." Now there are lead singers, to be sure, but in genre the submersion of the individual voice to the conventions of the genre, the commitment to story above all, permits those without a distinctive voice to gain a place in the performance.

    But there's still that quicksilver thing Zoe talks about so nicely, creativity and the instinct of attentiveness and the perhaps God-given ability to translate one's perceptions into language that's clear and inventive. I think, if that's learned, it's learned quite young. It can be developed, but not created in one's adult years.

    But it can also be stifled. I try never to forget this chestnut from Annie Dillard: be careful what you read, for it will become what you write.

  5. Eve Kotyk

    The talent to acquired skills ratio thing has always worried me. I've known since I was a little kid that I had a drawing talent. Did I make better drawings as a three year old than other three year olds? No, I don't think so, but I did by the time I was five. My small motor skills got better as I grew older. I learned how to use tool to their best effect. But the ability to see — was that learned or was it a talent? I didn't start writing until I was in my 50s. Does that mean I have no talent for it? Can I still get to art with enough practice and persistence? Maybe. There is one talent that I think is absolutely necessary for all delayed gratification endeavours and creative work, and that is intrinsic motivation, that something inside of you that keeps you working no matter the slim external rewards.

  6. Lisa Alber

    I'll always remember something Elizabeth George said in a writing workshop. She said that you need three things need to succeed: 1. passion, 2. talent, 3. discipline. Discipline is the number one thing, and I think she included skill-building within discipline. We can be published with 2 and 3, or 1 and 3, but not 1 and 2 only. Would perseverance fall under passion, do you think, or discipline?

    I've met plenty of people with 1 and 2, but they don't get anywhere with their writing over the long run. They talk about getting inspired–they're in la-la land most of the time. Try to pin them down on aspects of craft, and they retreat into what I call an "artiste" mentality. As in, artistes don't worry about all that kind of thing…

    I also think personality plays a factor. I have the personality to be a writer because I like working alone, I don't need a lot of external stimulation, and so on. I have a friend who is a more naturally talented writer than I am, but she doesn't have the personality for it. She's a dabbler.

  7. Allison Davis

    I wrestle with this one…once you get past the persistence (the litmus test) and then the skill (hopefully the product of the persistence), the talent separates out the great from the good, but that doesn't mean the good aren't good enough. But it has to start with hard work. If you start from a "talent" perspective, you get the student that David described where you want to box their ears. Forgetaboutit until you acquire the skill that allows the talent to work, to shine, to manifest. There are no short cuts and that's the what the talented sometimes seek, and why they sometimes don't persist.

    I've written and published all my life (but no novels, yet) and it's always about persistence, deadlines, hard work, honing, focusing, and you hope the talent helps guide you through that, but I don't hang my hat on anything but the work itself. Sometimes, i get lucky and the work turns out good. Many times I hear people say, oh, I don't have that "talent" and what they are really saying is I don't have the will to be that persistent, to do the work. I know good writers who don't want to do it.

    So my take is persistence, skill, then talent. In descending order.

  8. David Corbett

    Irony of ironies, or call it serendipity, posted today on a website dedicated to correspondence of literary merit http://www.lettersofnote.com is a blistering and yet supportive letter from Jack London to an aspiring writer: "You must deliver marketable goods." London notes it takes 5 years to apprentice as a blacksmith — should a weiter think he needs any less time to learn his craft?


  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, you're right about personality, that's a good point.

    I am having trouble with this word, "perserverence," though. If you ask me it's just not anywhere near strong enough for what we're talking about. A better word is ruthlessness. You say I can't make a living at writing? Fuck you, I will so. You say the statistics are against women making it as screenwriters? Fuck you, just watch me. The studio drops my script? Fuck you, I'll write a novel.

    "Fuck you" has gotten me through a lot of rough patches.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    You picked a great subject for discussion here, PD!

    What it boils down to is that you if you want to be a writer you WILL get criticism. Lots of it. Somebody told me that writers have to take more criticism in a year than most people take in a lifetime. Most of it will sting like crazy. Some of it will reduce you to private tears.

    How you respond to that criticism will define you and your career.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    BTW, I like your analogy of genre writing being perfect for the "chorus voice", David. There are tons and tons of mediocre writers out there who know how to hit the notes to get published – in romance, mystery, horror, thrillers – any genre, really.

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I second Z, PD – great topic! And that's interesting about criticism. Here's a bright spot, though – I don't think it's ANYWHERE near as bad to be criticized as a writer as it is to get the criticism and rejection that actors get. It's not our bodies and beings being rejected, after all.

  13. Lisa Alber

    I like the "fuck you" attitude, Alex, and I wish I were more ruthless. I've got to work on it. Though, that said, since I'm still here and haven't given up, I suppose in my mellow way I am saying "fuck you."

  14. Sarah W

    Anyone remember that old story about the young violin student who begs a famous virtuoso for an audition, so that the older man might judge his performance.

    The young student plays his heart out, but the virtuoso shakes his head and says, "I'm sorry. You don't have the fire."

    Crushed, the student goes home, puts his violin away, and studies business. He becomes a successful businessman with a loving family and a generous supporter of the arts. One evening, he attends a benefit and sees the old virtuoso at the bar.

    "Sir!" he said. "You don't remember me, I'm sure, but I played for you once, when i was a boy. You told me I didn't have the necessary genius, so I went into business instead. I've done well for myself, but I always wonder what my life would have been like if you had judged me worthy."

    The virtuoso sampled his wine, shrugged, and said, "Oh, I tell all the young musicians that they lack the fire. To be honest, I barely listen to them."

    "But–but–I might have made a fine musician after all!" said the businessman. "I might have become a virtuoso myself, if I hadn't listened to you and quit music altogether!"

    "If you had what it took to be a master musician," said the virtuoso, smiling over his wineglass, "you wouldn't have quit playing no matter what I said."

  15. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Lisa, mellow is a good disguise for a woman – it's not always the smartest thing to let the ruthlessness show. My sister's nickname for me is "Casual Hardcore".

    And Eve – believe me: all of your art training and talent was your apprenticeship for your second career as a writer. I couldn't write a page if I hadn't been an actor and dancer first. The 50's are the GREATEST time to be an author, now. You know everything there is to know and e publishing has eliminated age discrimination.

    Here's one of my favorite quotes:

    We have two lives. The one we learn with – and the life we live after that.
    – Bernard Malamud

  16. PD Martin

    Hi all,
    Glad everyone's enjoying this discussion! Some great comments too – good books, great quotes and I love the violin story.

    For some bizarre reason if I'm feeling I need a bit of extra perseverance/ruthlessness, I hear Winston Churchill's voice in my head saying "Never give up" and "Never surrender". Sometimes I think trying to get published (and stay published!) is like a war!


  17. Marina Sofia

    I've really enjoyed this debate and the comments. It is a tricky question, but I have seen too much talent wasted through lack of discipline or the tendency to think that they know it all and don't need to acquire skill. (Yes, I'm talking indirectly to my children here…)

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