The T-Word (No, not that t-word, the other one, and shhh! Don’t say it!)

Caution: if you’re an aspiring writer, this post contains potentially disturbing content. (This post is NOT about torture.)


Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Have you ever seen one of those ads in a magazine that asks you to draw the bunny and send it to them so they can evaluate it (for free) to see whether you have artistic talent? And of course, if they say you you do, they’ll try to sell you art lessons to help you develop that talent.  I think we can all see what’s wrong with this picture. These folks make their money on the art lessons, right? So why would they care whether or not you actually have talent as long as they can get your money? Starry-eyed parents get sucked in by similar scammers telling them their kid has talent and could make big bucks in commercials or movies if they’ll just invest in…

We listen to these stories and shake our heads knowingly and say, “boy, how dumb can they get? They should have known better than to fall for that one.” These scams are obvious because we readily accept that artistic talent and acting talent are real things that are not uniformly distributed in the population. So it’s easy to be skeptical of people who have a vested interest in convincing gullible souls that they’re talented, when they’re not.

So why are there so many of us would-be writers shelling out dollars for courses, workshops, writing coaches, book doctors, and endless how-to tomes on every possible aspect of the writer’s craft – without seemingly ever wondering whether we are being led down the garden path? Think about it. How often, amid all the talk about hard work, persistence, dedication, and honing one’s craft, do we hear any mention of the t-word?

At least no one seems to be trying to convince us all that we have talent. Rather, there seems to be a kind of taboo against bringing up the subject. As if the question of talent is somehow irrelevant to the activity of writing. But seriously, do we really believe that hard work, persistence, dedication, and practice-practice-practice are enough? What’s our working hypothesis here? That a specific talent for writing does not exist? Or that it does, but everyone has it – in equal measure?

I don’t know about you, but when I pick up a well-written book, I know I am in the presence of talent. Hard work, dedication, and a certain amount of experience are probably in there too, but what really makes it shine is talent. Some people exhibit a kind of genius, a mastery of language, of expressiveness, of just plain old good storytelling, that falls outside of the common mold.

I’m afraid that, much as I might prefer not to, I do believe in the t-word.  In fact, I believe there is variation in people’s innate abilities with respect to pretty much every human activity – including things like walking and running. (There’s this thing called body mechanics.) And for things involving higher brain functions – like writing – well, how could anyone imagine that we are all equally endowed?

(Personally, I think it’s one of the great strengths of the human species that we are not all alike in our capabilities, combined with the fact that we are social animals who live and work in groups where we can combine our diverse strengths and shore-up each others’ weaknesses. But that’s a subject for another post.)

Okay, okay, I know I’m being unfair to imply that would-be writers are being systematically scammed by all the folks doing workshops and pushing books on writing. Most of those folks, I’m sure, are sincerely trying to help. And there are things that can be taught and learned on this subject. It’s just that some of the people trying to become writers probably just… shouldn’t… and no one wants to say it. (Actually, some people probably do say it. It’s just that someone else usually steps in and says, “Of course you can do it! Don’t listen to them.”)

And in a sense, it’s true that anyone can write a novel. Assuming that they’re literate and aren’t so physically or mentally disabled that they can’t hold a pen, or press keys – or can’t afford voice recognition software – pretty much anyone can theoretically put enough words together end-to-end to produce a novel-length story. All that takes is hard work, dedication, and persistence.

But does that story actually make sense? Is it worth reading? Is it something anyone would pay money for? That’s where the trouble starts.  Some people seem to believe that although the answers to all those questions may initially be “no,” all it will take to turn the “no” into a “yes” is more hard work, dedication, and persistence.  And while that may be true in some cases, it doesn’t follow that it’s true in all cases. Most of the time, I would say – and depending somewhat on your goal and on your audience – at least a modest amount of talent is going to be required.

By now I’m sure everybody hates me.

Topic for next time:  “How to tell whether you have at least a modest amount of talent”

(And don’t worry; I’m not selling anything.)

What do you think? Is talent over-rated? Is writing talent a myth? Is there something you think you have talent for? Why, or why not?

Leave a comment


  1. I think certainly talent is necessary to write a good book. A book may be structurally sound, be well-written, and have nice description, but what will take it to the next level of being really enjoyable is the author’s knack for storytelling. And to me, whether one prefers plot-driven or character-driven novels, there still has to be a strong story. Otherwise, why would we read?

    But I think there are obviously different levels of talent. I’m currently reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Talk about talent. Wow. On the other hand, I can turn around the next day and read a plot-driven crime thriller and be just as entertained. The author may not have as great a talent as Mitchell but has talent enough to entertain me.

    I think we’ve all read novels that seem well-written with all the necessary elements given the author’s hard work and dedication, but they just don’t “do” it for us. To me, that may be where the talent comes in.

    • Carrie, you make a very good point that fiction comes in multiple “flavors” that can all be enjoyed, but that involve different degrees (or different flavors?) of talent. Also, you make the point that storytelling is key – and I definitely agree with you there.

      The way I use the term “well written”, though, more or less implies talent. I don’t think a person who has no talent could produce something that is “well written” no matter how much effort they put into it. Not if we’re talking about something of any significant length that the person actually wrote – rather than it having been completely reworked by an editor. This may be a matter of semantics.

      I read “Midwives,” by the way, and I agree with you about Bohjalian’s writing. There is impressive talent there. I don’t believe I could ever match that level of writing no matter how long or hard I worked at it. I have to aim for a different level – or a different flavor.

  2. Oh, I think Carrie made a great point. The “best” writing in the world won’t save a lackluster tale. And the “best” tale can be ruined by poor writing. The talent in blending the two has to be there. Not all talents will appeal to all readers, of course. But I don’t think a writer will find a long-term audience without real talent. Of course, if someone “wins the lottery” with one best seller, they can laugh all the way to the bank, no matter if I’ve purchased the book or not!

    • You’re right, I think, that commercial success and quality of writing are not always in alignment. And you bring up audiences’ taste or expectations. Audiences definitely differ in what the they will accept in terms of writing quality. (I could be snide and snobbish and say that some of them are not very discriminating.)

      I think that the actual story – the plot – is more important to more people than the writing is. I like to think that good writing holds up better over time, as you say.

      (All of this is giving me more fodder for my brain…)

  3. I will put my vote in for “talent – with a dedication”. I believe I have talent. I have been told that I have talent. I have shown myself that I have talent. Am I a best-selling author? No. Why? Well part of that is … dedication. To be a best selling author you have to dedicate yourself to writing a lot. I mean the 50K in a month is a lot of writing, but even doing that you have to be dedicated enough to send it in for readings, criticisms, and rewrites.
    A lot of writing. I imagine, just imagine mind you that an 80, 000 word novel is written with about 150,000 words by the time the author is done. Plus the author has, probably, had to read / listen to hundreds of comments, criticisms, and suggestions (good and bad), sort them out, then put the good ones in place. This all happens, then, maybe the book will make it into print, then it might sell, … you get the idea.
    I read in an article somewhere that, in the publishing business (big ones) – about 30,000 books a year are sent in (?) of those only about 300 are selected, and about 5-6 are best sellers – this meant (according to the article) that Stephen King’s new novel supports the loss of about 50 other books that just don’t sell enough for a profit.
    My point? – Dedication. That is a lot of dedication, spread out over several years (at least, in the beginning) to, maybe, see your book in print.
    Talent? Yes…Dedication? Most certainly,

    • Being a successful writer definitely requires dedication – effort over time. And you’re certainly right that making it with a major publisher is a crap-shoot.

      Producing books is just not a very easy way to make money. I think anyone who sets out to write a novel with the idea that they’re going to make a lot of money has their head on backwards. It could happen, but the odds are stunningly against it – and that’s even with dedication, and with talent.

      Where I might differ with you is that I believe one of the effects of talent is that there are not going to be as many re-writes involved in getting to the same level of quality.

      • I don’t think we differ there much. I imagine that Stephen King now gets most of his stuff correct with little corrections. He has done it proliferately enough to know how it works and has the talent. But, I still imagine that in the beginning he had to do more than he cared to do. But, yes, probably less than us.

  4. I admire your bravery for tackling this subject head-on. Bravery? Yes, because we live in an age when nobody keeps score, all the kids on the team win a trophy, and then we wonder why mediocrity rules.

    Echoing what other commenters have said, I agree that talent is necessary but not sufficient, as are the other ingredients of becoming a successful writer (dedication and hard work). Perhaps we have a different view of writing than we do of other artistic pursuits because writing is something that most members of society do–at least at some level–while not everyone composes music or sculpts. Therefore, it seems that with just a little more effort, we should be able to turn the basic skill of writing into something more.

    On the other hand, at a certain level “writing talent” is as elusive and subjective as anything else. I was just reading about (not reading, reading ABOUT) James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” Was Joyce talented? Many believe so. Is “Finnegans Wake” comprehensible? Not to very many people.

    I look forward to your next post so I can evaluate whether I should go on writing 🙂

    • Considering that you have a book out there and I don’t, Audrey, I amazed you would look to me for this insight 😉

      I’m sure you’re right about why we think anybody can write a novel – writing is a common-place skill, at the most basic level. Also contributing, I think,is the fact that storytelling is – as I have argued elsewhere – a very basic human activity.

      You also make a very good point that what makes good or great writing is going to be to some extent a matter of opinion. There are no strictly objective criteria. And we’re all individuals. It brings back a phrase my art teachers in college used to roundly condemn: “I don’t know what’s art, but I know what I like.”

  5. Kourtney Heintz

     /  December 18, 2012

    I do agree that talent is something we don’t hear much about at writing conferences. We hear about craft, hard work, perseverance. But they never talk about talent. Maybe that’s what the critiques are for. Though I’ve never had anyone speak to my talent in that terminology.

    I do think there are some people that have a knack for writing and others that must labor to write well. But there are talented writers that get overlooked too. I think it’s one of the many factors to a successful writing career.

  6. G M Barlean

     /  January 22, 2013

    This post makes me think of athletes, artists and Mozart.
    Some people have natural athletic abilities. They just CAN run fast, not trip, catch the ball, turn fluidly. Without training, they just can. Others fall all over themselves, always sprain something, duck when a ball comes at them. Can either person be trained over time and with hard work to be a good athlete? I think so. Can either be a great athlete? My opinion is no. And in the end, the natural athlete doesn’t have to work as hard. It’s natural. Does this mean every natural athlete will be a great success. No. Because just being naturally able to do something doesn’t translate into drive, perseverance, dedication, etc.

    On artists, I recall a man in our community who painted pictures. He was just an old farmer. An eccentric farmer, but that had been his trade. He didn’t go to art school or have formal training, but that man loved to paint pictures. Every time I saw one of his paintings, they mesmerized me. Everyone has their own definition of what is good art…I won’t say if they were good or bad or great. BUT, it was obvious to me, he could not help himself at all. He HAD to paint these pictures. He was driven by some kind of passion for this way of expressing himself. The pictures just looked like he woke up in the morning thinking about painting. Like every time he saw a scene, he thought about how to paint it. I’m not sure that’s talent…or passion, or just a desperate need to create.

    Now, about Mozart. And I could be completely wrong here…it might have been Bach or Beethoven. Regardless, I was listening to audio tapes by Dr. Wayne Dyer. He tells some of the best stories that can explain and motivate. He was telling a story about…lets say Mozart. Someone asked Mozart how to write a symphony. His response was something to the effect of, “I can tell you, but keep in mind, no one had to tell me.” Point being, the basics are their for people who have some kind of deep need to do it. They, without even knowing, are learning how to do this thing they love doing, every moment of every day.

    My last thought: is is really talent we’re talking about…or passion? That would be my question.

    • I’m still working on my how-to-tell-if-you-have-talent post. Things coming easily is part of it – a large part. I see what you’re saying, and will think about it. I don’t think, off the top of my head, that passion and talent are the same. Nor do I think that passion can substitute for talent. Passion begets effort, or it can. It can also contribute to that effortless effort that talent allows. But there are some things that some people can do and others just can’t, regardless of effort, regardless of passion.

      I wish I could see that man’s paintings. I’m really curious to see what I would think of them. I’d like to think he had some talent, too… Just because I hate to think of someone putting that much time, and heart, and effort into something and having it be crappy. I would bet it wasn’t crap. You don’t have that much interest in creating visual art without being good at seeing things in the way an artist sees them. I mean, if he just liked the scene, he could have taken a photograph…

  7. G M Barlean

     /  January 22, 2013

    I loved his work very much. The scenes were so original and of such unique things. I think he was incredibly talented, but art is in the eye of the beholder. I also think Steinbeck’s writing is some of the best written, yet I went to a writer’s group tonight and the few there who had read him, didn’t like him. So there you have it. So what is talent? Is it like beauty? In the eye of the beholder?
    Don’t you love these quirky conversations?! I like to see what people think of my odd opining!

    • Yeah, I know. The whole issue of what is “good art” in the visual arts is a real can of worms. I wrestled with that quite a bit as an undergraduate art major. I think I wrote a paper at one point about what beauty was – what made things beautiful. I think it does ultimately come down to the viewer’s response to it. Beauty, or good art, moves us in some way. And there is some individuality, some subjectivity, in that response. But in my opinion, talented artists do something to their subject matter – something transformative – that makes it “speak” to people. Simply choosing what to portray is in itself transformative – it says, “I want you to look at this.” Really look at it, really see it. The way you describe the work of your artist/farmer strongly suggests to me that he had talent and that you were responding to the results of that talent.

      • G M Barlean

         /  January 25, 2013

        I agree. I would love for you to see his work. So interesting.

  8. I’ve found a similar thing to be true in the context of music — in order to write a song that I think is adequate, the melody for the song needs to randomly pop into my head. Trying to force it to emerge, no matter how long I spend forcing it, will lead to frustration. Of course, the arrangement, lyric writing, and so forth are the product of work, but hard work alone won’t produce that initial inspiration.

    • What you say is very true. Creativity is an important component of talent in many fields and it has nothing to do with effort. Where that creative inspiration comes from is a complete mystery (at least so far) and it is equally a mystery why some people get such inspirations and others don’t – or get them much less frequently.

      I think it’s also telling that you used the word “random.” I have a uniquely creative son who I used to say should have been named “Random.” Thanks for your comment.

  9. Interesting post! While I think talent is helpful (maybe necessary), I also think that hard work, determination, and perseverance are important. Oh and then, you have to be a little tough skinned too because there are always a few critics who think you should get rid of gerunds, avoid passive voice at all costs, and use short sentences. And you know what? Sometimes they’re right!

    • About that last part, the fact that you have a sense of when the critics are right and when they’re not is significant. If a person has innate writing ability (talent), the best advice is, d— the rules, just write! I mean, listen to what people are saying, but if you feel like you know what you’re doing, trust your instincts.


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