Monthly Archives: December 2012

How much of being a great writer is natural talent?

A writer on Reddit asked the following question:

How much of being a great writer is natural talent?

I just finished reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” and I’m having second thoughts on pursuing anything related to writing. Although the book was inspiring, I found it to be somewhat depressing, especially King’s thoughts on improving as a writer. He mentions the possibility of becoming a better writer, but rejects the notion that anyone can become a good writer, even with lots of practice.

What do you guys think about this? Does it really come down to natural talent?

I’ll answer the question with a “no”, but I’ll add the caveat that I think that there’s a problem with the word “talent”, as well as with the word “great”.

What is a great writer? Where’s the bar? It’s kind of a meaningless distinction. If by “great” we mean a huge seller like King or Rowling, eternal popular success like Tolkien, or eternal literary respect like Shakespeare, it’s probably not even worth having the conversation; these writers’ careers are all combinations of ability and luck that don’t really translate into success for the rest of us.

But if by “great” we mean successful, then it’s really all about goals, isn’t it? It might be worth spending more time considering what our goals are–and revisiting the question from time to time as well, because your goals might change over time–than it is considering what “great” might mean.

As for “talent”, I hate to bring up the old cliche, but it’s funny how the more you practice, the more talented you get.

Talent is such an indistinct concept, and so many things feed into it: the stuff you read, the stuff you write, the things that happen to you in your life, the things you do in your life, the people around you, the way you think about things… all of these affect your writing. Are they, taken as a whole, “talent”? What do we mean by “talent”, and if it exists, is it more important than all those other things?

It’s probably a lot more useful to take the time we would spend discussing and thinking about the things we lack as writers, and use it to read, or write, or do anything that will actually help us improve as writers.

We don’t want to find excuses for why we can’t write well enough; let’s use our energy to write better instead.