Is good writing innate? Or is it learned?
And if it’s both, what’s the balance between the two? Which is more important?
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Michelle Pendergrass says
I think that for everyone, it’s a combination, but the combination isn’t the same for any two people.
I saw one commenter say that storytelling ability is innate, and writing ability is learned. For me I think maybe it’s the opposite. My ability to use language is innate. The rest (particularly storytelling) has been learned.
I’m inclined to agree with this. In a sense, writing or storytelling or whatever you want to call it is inborn into every single person in some way or another. It’s part of being human. We crave stories, our lives are built around them…. Even non-writers tell stories every day. We tell jokes, we tell each other about our dreams, we tell each other about the weird events or touching moments or scandalous secrets we encounter. Every human being on earth can tell a story, and is in fact driven to do so.
Some people have a way with words in that they are very persuasive. Some people have a way with words in that they know how to tell a joke just right. Some people are great storytellers. Some people hardly speak at all, and yet when they do speak, everyone listens. So I think that for those of us who choose to write, some of these abilities are stronger in us than others are. We build on those strengths and beef up on the things we’re weak in.
There’s more to being a writer or author than putting beautiful words onto a page with proper punctuation and impeccable grammar. THAT can be learned.
Writers and authors bring something more to the page… called it spark, passion, need… that part is born.
Every culture has a story about innate talent waiting to be discovered. Moses was cast among the bullrushes. Arthur wasn’t known until he produced Excalibur from the stone. Granted, writing isn’t the same talent needed to be King, but the principle is there.
Let’s say that writers are born, not made.
What happens to a culture that is unable to recognize them? What happens to all that talent that goes unidentified and undeveloped?
What happens to a publishing industry that lacks a mechanism for doing the same?
More interestingly, what happens to an agent who becomes the first to be able to recognize and develop talent, or helps to see the creation of such a thing?
As an astrologer, I suggest that good writers will share some astrological features – what I’ve found most prevalent is a good dose Mercury (the planet) and this often manifests with a good dose of Gemini in conjunction with Neptune/Mercury contacts. But I must agree with some of the other comments that while these are indicators of interest and talent – they may come to naught for a variety of reasons, as has already been so adequately pointed out!
There must be a mathematical formula for this somewhere, taking account of books read, words written, shoe size, wobbles of Mercurial orbit when sperm fused with egg and inability to pilot a helicopter, but I’ve yet to google anything more suitable than endless recipes for goulash.
Maris Bosquet says
After years of teaching students and cub reporters how to write a simple direct lede, I’m convinced that good writers are born. But talent is nothing if the writer doesn’t have the will to do better.
I agree w/ Nathan and many of the rest of you.
Talent is inherent, but the rest needed to capitalize on it (drive, ambition, technical skills, ability to accept constructive criticism, self-editing, etc etc ) is learned.
don’t think it’s possible to pigeonhole writers…same as you can’t pigeonhole an artist. This isn’t math–thank God. Oh wait, maybe it is like math, how many ways can you get 100? Um, LOTS. Darn it, they were right. Math is a part of my life.
I think a good deal of imagination is innate. Some children just can’t understand fantasy. Fairies aren’t real and that’s as far as they can go with that line of thought.
But good writing is learned. You can be an excellent story teller and a lousy writer. You can have a wonderful, vivid, well-thought out imaginary world and still have trouble conveying that world and it’s importance to other people.
Kimberly K. says
I would have to say born. I was adopted and have been writing for most of my life. About 8 years ago I found my birth family. As it turned out my birth mother’s side of the family was and is chock full of writers and philosophers. Both of my adoptive parents are “math people”.
Writing brings me such great peace – I have always believed it was in my soul, and perhaps by default in my genes.
Good writers? Merely born with the desire to learn!
I think it’s a mixture of the two. There’s gotta be some talent, but even talented people have to work hard at writing.
To rephrase Thomas Edison, when it comes to writing, success is 10 percent talent and 90 percent perspiration.
You must have at least some talent to be a good writer. But you will never become one unless you try and fail and learn from every mistake and write your every book as your best one. You need to know your craft and to get there you have to practice and learn, practice and learn.
Writing is a craft, and writers need to work at their craft to get “good,” whether that means reading a lot, taking classes, joining critique groups, etc. At the same time, I’ve had editors who can pick up just what’s wrong with my writing, but when they try to rewrite or add a sentence of their own, it’s clunky, like deadwood. They know all the rules of good writing, but don’t have that certain something that makes for a good writer.
Here, There, Elsewhere... and more says
I’m convinced it’s very much a learned skill which, like all skills, can be perfected – some people do have an advantage though; particularly people from homes where books were very much part of everyday life and it’s pleasures…
Love your blog BTW..:)
Tom Burchfield says
Both and I think it breaks down this way: someone can be born with an innate sense of language, structure and story-telling and if the environment is there for them, along with discipline and luck, then you have a great writer. On the other hand, as noted above, a dullard born into a houseful of books, will never become a Nabokov, but may find a successful career writing paperback entertainments because they at least have the discipline.
I think it might be very cool for folks here to list the best writing,critiquing, or editing workshops or conferences they have attended and why.
(workshops and conferences indicating they did not go back to school, but they did go somewhere concise to refine and develop specifically.)
Laurel Amberdine says
(Late on this, but it took a lot of consideration.)
Neither born nor taught — I think it’s developed through living.
I mean, there’s a certain amount of natural intelligence and verbal skill which is required. Any good writer would have to be born with “enough.”
And, yes, there’s a certain amount of study and training to be done. But that’s true of any field which requires technical ability.
The essence of writing (particularly fiction) is: saying something meaningful in a compelling way. (“Meaningful” and “compelling” being highly variable quantities, of course.)
Obviously, no one is born with that; experience is essential. It’s true of any art. Maybe the inborn talent determines whether a future artist is a writer, a painter, or a musician, but I think an artist is developed through reaction to experiences.
I think the ability to turn a phrase that strikes a chord with the masses is innate.
To develop that skill further, and to make a living at it certainly takes a lot of practice.
@ Dan: “everybody thinks their traits are above average. Given the definition of average, someone is wrong…”
You’ve got to be careful here Dan my man, because given the definition of average, it’s entirely possible (even PROBABLE) that they’re not wrong.
Most of the world’s population could, hypothetically, be above average writers. Just like most of us could have above average looks, musical skills, math skills etc.
This is a common mistake with the definition of average. It also leads to problems with extrapolating results from those Harvard studies. Everyone might think they’re above average simply because they are. By the way, as a statistics / finance corporate muckety muck, I see this mistake all the time by quants and traders so don’t feel bad.
Anyway, holding to the definition of average, it’s likely that 75% of the world is capable of “above average” writing, but how many of that 75% are truly “good” I think, depends more on innate ability rather than learned skills.
With good instruction and much practice, anyone can learn to write, draw or sing creditably. But using that tool brilliantly enough to grab others in a striking and memorable way is a gift.
I think the ability to turn a phrase that strikes a chord with the masses is innate.
Forgive me for harping on what may be a small part of your argument, but the word “masses” leaves me very cold.
The relationship between the writer and the reader is a very personal thing. After all, climbing into someone’s head is more intimate even than sex. I’ve never considered what the “masses” want, nor really cared at all – but I do care a lot about what an individual reader will experience by reading my stuff.
Difference of semantics? If I thought it was, I wouldn’t respond. I think that the author/reader relationship is the key to good writing.
I’m glad to see that a lot of people agree with me that experience, and how you respond to it, is what makes a good writer. To go back to the idea that you are born with the skills, however, it certainly helps to be born an outsider in your own culture.
This happens to many people for many reasons. You can be shy, gay, black, non-English speaking, or nothing more than naturally inquisitive. The way a writer responds to this what matters, just as the writer/reader relationship is what is key.
I don’t think this happens on a “mass” level. The experiences that allow an outsider in their own world to learn how to develop a cultural intimacy happen one at a time, as individuals. The result is most likely to be personal.
However, what matters most to me is how a fragmented society finds those voices from the near outside when there are very high barriers to entry and no encouragement. The writing world is as much about self-promotion as writing, if not more – and if I was a good promoter I’d make a lot more money in sales than this stuff.
But consider the population of writers for a moment. Think of how many people you’ve met at workshops and so on that weren’t rather pale and deeply immersed in the writerly world.
Now, think of all the people you haven’t met at any of these gatherings that have real talent and come from just beyond the mainstream culture. Think there’s anything that’s being missed?
I’m sure there is. I guarantee it. That’s not writing for the masses, thats writing by and for the people just on the edge of the crowd, peering over at it. Their reactions can only be personal and genuine.
That’s the good stuff, as far as I’m concerned.
The mechanics of writing can be taught, but great story tellers are born.
I think good writing is definitely something you learn. Some people automatically have a good sense of how to put words together in a way that flows and is easy to read; this is a good start. But there are so many more vital aspects to good writing. Over time and through practice and experience, writers must learn how to create better sentences, how to structure their plot just so, and how to create realistic and sympathetic characters. An innate ability to write well is not enough.
Oh, all right, I’ll join the fray with a few random thoughts.
Overall, I think it’s a combination of both. If I had to pin down a percentage, I’d say 80% taught/20% born.
Here are a few of the thoughts that keep nagging at me about this:
1) The concept of “good writers”–Does good = published? Critically praised? Bestselling?
2) When I think about who I’d categorize as a “good writer,” I KNOW my list would vary WILDLY from some of my friends and colleagues. Other people might consider the writers I admire most to be boring or pedantic or wordy. Some of my very favorite novels, I could never in my wildest dreams hope to equal in technique and breadth. And yet others would drop them after the first 5 pages.
3) But on the flip side, almost everyone I’ve ever met has at least a few stories within them, is definitely capable of putting words and paragraphs and pages together to form an interesting narrative. It might not be something that would get them published, but they’re definitely capable of writing a good story. Are they good writers?
I feel I have an innate sense of story. How that came to be, I am not sure. Was it affected by hearing stories, reading them? Of course!
Reading also honed my understanding of how a story is crafted. And still, I benefit enormously from my daily or weekly ongoing practice and learning of the craft of writing and its structures -even when I chose to break free of those.
You must learn “good” writing, but you must have something first on which to base your learning.
The “innate” talent exists as the foundation, but a foundation isn’t a structure in and of itself.
You build on that with learning and life experience. Then you *might* have something that will last.
Sally Ketchum says
Mostly born. The great ones must have inate talent, then read, read, read and write, write, write.
This inate ability fuels the drive the writer must have to improve, to write well. Sally Ketchum
Hum… well, I’m a science writer, and I know lots of writers who are technically and grammatically correct. Editors consider them “good writers.” But we write continuing medical education and research articles – scientists read us, not because they want to, but because they have to.
That being said, you’d want a different set of skills as a novelist, magazine writer, or copy writer. You have to be able to grab people’s attention and keep it to gain readership. And I’d argue that this is an skill that can’t be developed in just anyone, and it absolutely differentiates them from the rest of us.
Allrighty. I’m in the minority, I think, but: I think good writing is learned.
That said, I think “talent” is the ability to learn a lot from a very little, or to learn very quickly and effortlessly, or something like that. Someone with no talent, but a lot of dedication, time, and access can become a good writer, but will always have to work at it. Someone with talent can be a good writer much more easily. But they are both good writers.
Kimberly Lynn says
I do think there is a large population in the creative industry who inherited a portion of their talent, but many lack the necessary passion and ambition that it will take to become a success:
Mick Jagger stated once “I was always a singer. I always sang as a child. I was one of those kids who just LIKED to sing.”
Jagger’s parents were teachers – not musicians and singers.
Education, hard work, and determination is what will win in the end.
Brian Jay Jones says
Are good writers taught or born? Why, they’re torn of course.
Josephine Damian says
As usual, late to the party.
Vision is closer to the soul, writing is the learned skill that communicates the vision. In the end they are inseparable and indispensible to creating a truly memorable read. Good writers can be taught, great writers are born.
What it takes to write well, really well, is a good ear. And that, folks, is something people are either born with or they aren’t.
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.
— Ernest Hemingway
Some writers have an ear for language and you can tell it — it shows in their word choices, in the cadence of their sentences, in that indefinable thing called “voice.”
That’s inborn. It can be enhanced and refined, but not taught or faked.
The craft of writing — that’s learned, though some writers do that instinctively, simply by absorbing the structures and rhythms of stories, and others must do it more mechanically,through seminars and how-to books.
I do think it is both–one must have a driving force, however, to pursue it. In my family I am a published author, my brother is a published author. My aunt and two of my uncles were published authors. Another aunt was a very fine poet but died young(17). My daughters both have a keen sense of story structure and the one who is old enough to write starts every story with something happening. My father was also an author and very successful. His name was Louis L’Amour. So when you ask if they are born or made…In our family they are both!
Nathan Bransford says
What a coincidence — I met your brother a long time ago (actually before I was an agent). Thanks for commenting!
Magnus Thor says
Some people seem to have an innate knack for telling a story, regardless of their vocabulary or grammar. They know how to build it up, create suspense and anticipation and how to get the point across. That knack is both learned and inborn.
If those people were to learn the rules of the language they wish to write in they would be great writers. Vocabulary and grammar are just tools to tell a story in a way more people understand.
I think you can teach most people to become competent writers, but you can't teach them to be good storytellers. Just like you can teach most people to drive safely, but they won't be Michael Schumacher.
You need to have the urge to create and tell a story to become a good writer. That urge can't be taught, it can only be focused and sharpened.
Anyone can write a story, sure. Not everyone can learn to write a great story that is well crafted and publishable.
Locksmith Fort Mill Sc
It can go both ways. Some people might just be more creative than other people and use more of the right side of their brain than others, so they could jsut be like that personality wise. Other people can still be good writers though. James Scott Bell says that in his book on Plot and Structure. Writing can be learned, and there for you are able to be a good writer, even if you aren't born with the natural knack for it.
I think it's both. Some people can just write well and create interesting character possibly because they have a interesting life, while others have learned throughout life and can write about similar things.