Do You Have to Be Talented to be a Good Writer?
Good writing is a talent. This idea has always frustrated me because it is indiscriminate and takes no heed of the hours of hard work a writer puts in to improve their craft.
Reading Mathew Syed’s non-fiction book, ‘Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice,’ changed the way I thought about talent. Like reading all great non-fiction writing, it was like a software upgrade for the brain. Syed’s book expands on the ideas Malcolm Gladwell expressed in his book, ‘Outliers,’ that first expounded the now popular idea that it takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to master a given pursuit.
Reading Syed’s book, I see now, was a major factor in me starting to write seriously. I began writing consistently four years ago, a week after my thirty ninth birthday. Maybe because I was not a good or successful student at school, and because I was not a reader until my early twenties, I felt the chances of me being a talented writer was out of the question. Reading Syed's book changed all this for me.
What is Deliberate Practice?
Mathew Syed was a successful table tennis player, and much of his book is focussed on sports. However, when reading it, I always had writing in mind. The book focusses on how practice is the main reason people succeed. I liked this idea because talent was something I could nothing about, but practice, I definitely could. What Syed, and many others have now realised, is there is a distinction between mindless repetition and deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice means taking apart a pursuit and focussing on its individual constituent parts. Take tennis for example. A tennis player, with their coach, might look at the serve, forehand, backhand, lob, drop shot, etc., one at a time. These might be broken down further, but you get the idea. So, over one morning, the tennis player might practise their serve. What is important, is the analysis of the outcome. How fast does the ball travel? Where does it fall? How much spin is generated? This feedback is essential. Small changes can be made and the outcomes assessed. The tennis player, instead of repeating the serve mindlessly, will make small gains through experimenting with small adjustments. Whatever works is repeated again and again until the action becomes part of their routine, something they perform without consciously thinking.
How Does Deliberate Practice Apply to Writing?
The problem with writing, is that it is done alone. Writers do not have a coach with them, assessing what they’re doing in real-time. There is no feedback loop. Much of the feedback a writer receives is rejection, with little in the way of reasons why. An acceptance is feedback too, but even here, the reasons for why it has been accepted might be vague and imprecise. What is needed is more constructive feedback, aimed at confirming whether the practice a writer has been doing has been worthwhile.
What Does Deliberate Practice For a Writer Look Like?
This is something I am still working on. But what I do know, is that setting up a feedback loop has helped improve my craft considerably. I now have several writer friends I trust to read my stories and give honest, constructive feedback. For me, the honesty element is the most important; everyone likes to hear how much someone likes your story, but it is not as useful as a short, focussed list of things to work on.
Below, is the process I apply to writing short fiction:
1. Read stories, thinking about what makes them work or not work.
2. Write a story.
3. Revise the story.
4. Get someone I trust to critique the story.
5. Listen to the feedback. REALLY listen, and make a list of things to work on.
6. Read some more stories and revise my story.
7. Leave the story alone for at least two weeks.
8. Revise the story again and submit.
9. If it’s accepted, celebrate and think critically about why the story works. Then go back to number one.
10. If it’s rejected, be brave and go back to number three.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned and have addressed in my writing because of this feedback loop:
1. I use ‘that,’ way too often and need to cut most of them.
2. ‘Mom,’ is the US spelling of ‘mum.’
3. I list way too many ‘ing,’ words too close together.
4. I have a habit of using the tags: ‘he thinks,’ or ‘she thought,’ which can bring the reader out of the story.
5. I use the phrase, ‘he looks,’ or ‘she looked,’ too often.
6. My characters are always checking their watch.
There are many more such issues I now look for in my writing. Would I have learned these myself, over time? Probably, maybe, eventually… But purposeful practice and a feedback loop definitely speeds up the process.
So, is the Talented Writer a Myth
There are probably many characteristics that help a writer. For example, a writer will most likely enjoy time alone. A good writer is probably also a good listener. A good writer is most likely empathetic. Maybe above all, a good writer will have the contradictory combination of self belief to send a story out into the world, paired with the humility to accept advice and rejection. If this is what people mean by ‘talent,’ then so be it. But for me, the larger part of being a good writer is all about craft. And with purposeful practice, thankfully, this is something I and other writers can do something about.
If you have enjoyed this blog post, please consider signing up to my mailing list. In my newsletter are links to new blog posts, news on short fiction, and links to my own published stories.
Sign up to my mailing list: here.