August 30, 2018
I have heard some people argue that good writing cannot be taught. It is innate or it simply doesn't exist. Sure, they will argue, most people can learn to communicate competently through writing, but then you hit a wall unless there's an innate talent. As with most absolute statements about writing, I tend to wrinkle my nose and shake my head. It would be pretty sad if I didn't think writing can be taught since I've spent quite a lot of my life teaching it. On the other hand, I do believe two things absolutely must be present if anyone is going to learn to write well. The thing is, talent is neither of the things. The two big things are drive and teachability.
You Really Have to Want to Improve
Over the years, I've met two kinds of writers: those who want to become the best writers they can be, and those who feel they are already good enough and want to know how to sell stuff. Overall, folks who fall in the first group really do tend to have the most success in this business. I rarely find published writers who aren't constantly working to improve through reading, accepting feedback, and taking risks. And most of those people will tell you that writing is something they are learning all the time. They aren’t just being modest, they’re sharing an important fact about writing. Now successful writers may have always loved writing and always wanted to be a published writer, but it's rare for me to run into a writer who truly feels he or she has arrived. I know folks like that exist in the published author world, but they're rare enough that I haven't bumped into them. Writing is a journey of learning and growing and improving, and published writers with long careers generally recognize that.
Also, there is nearly always a point where writers discover that the process of becoming publishable includes work. Now, this is where some people will bail out of the process, grumbling that writing is a closed system and only people who know someone can get published. They'll mutter that publishers are only interested in best sellers. They'll complain that no one wants new voices, not really. Sometimes this kind of talk grows out of frustration from writers who really are working hard to reach publishability in their work, but often it comes from people who don't have enough drive to push ahead when the going gets tough. Very few truly wonderful things are achieved without effort, challenge, and a good bit of pain. I'll be the first to admit that sometimes I grew very tired of the journey. Sometimes I muttered darkly about it. I've told people that I'd walk away from writing if I only knew how. But then I'd pick myself up and keep working. You see, walking away isn’t really an option for me, but frustration certainly happens. I just push through it, and you must also. Accept your need for drive, and cultivate it. Ignore the voices telling you to give up or offering excuses about publishing being at fault because those voices will derail you from the journey you’re on. Push through, there are good things on the other side. I’m sure of it.
Teachability and the Evil Ego
Many people are drawn to writing because of a love of story. Others feel the pull from having gotten lots of compliments for their written work. In high school and college, I received a lot of compliments on my writing (and a few sharp corrections as well, thankfully, but probably not nearly enough of those). When I got out of college, I had an unrealistically high opinion of my writing. This wasn't helped when the very first thing I ever submitted to a magazine not only sold, but sold for over a thousand dollars. I thought I was pretty impressive. I was, unfortunately, not nearly the bright light I thought. And when reality hit and I began to struggle, it was especially tough, because I thought I already knew so much. My ego got in the way over and over. Still, the reality of rejection letters couldn't be ignored so I had to mash down that sulky ego and start seeing myself as still learning. Once I was able to do that, I could become teachable, and I could grow.
All of us need to be teachable if we're going to improve. And teachability can be a hard trait to manifest if your writing has been lauded since you were a child. I know that was tough for me, but then I realized that being a good writer as a kid isn't the same as being a publishable writer as an adult. After all, there was a point in my life when my parents were impressed that I could reach my mouth with a spoon and use the toilet. The bar simply gets higher as we age. And the bar of publishablity is quite a bit higher than the bar for getting a star on your school paper. Reaching it is going to require learning, practice, and the ability to receive correction.
Almost every editor I know has at least one story of a writer who wanted to argue about a rejection letter. These days, some folks even turn to Twitter to complain about how editors just don't recognize good writing (namely their writing). Those are huge, waving red flags for unteachable writers. And without teachability, a writer cannot grow, cannot improve, and cannot succeed. Mashing down an ego built up by years of compliments is hard, but that ego is standing in the doorway you must pass through if you truly want to succeed, the doorway to growth and learning. You don’t have to accept every shred of criticism you receive. But if you’re dismissing all of them out of hand, then you’ve got a problem. And it’s hurting your success.
Talent Does Help Until it Hinders
In my experience, talent translates to ease. People in my family tend to have creative talents. That simply means we have more ease when acquiring basic skills in a lot of creative pursuits (well, not music or dance, alas). As a result, I can draw a bit, paint a bit, sculpt a little, and write. I reached the basic skills in these areas with little pain and considerable enjoyment. The early skill-building came so easily to me that it didn’t feel like effort (much as climbing trees came easily to my brother and math came easily to my best friend). But being able to do something easily means I can enjoy doing the thing at that level as a hobby and I certainly appreciate that about my drawing and painting and sculpture. But I wanted more than that for writing. I wanted to enjoy it as a paying career. That meant I had to go beyond talent and build skill.
Do you remember when I talked about how your ego can get in the way? Well talent is the thing that gets those egos puffed up. We tend to praise people a lot when we realize they have talents. The toddler who can pick out music on a piano with no training is talented and the child’s parents are sure to let you know all about it. But that child is then going to need to work hard to go from that toddler talent to a future job in a major orchestra. The child will grow up and learn to move from talent to career. My best friend can do fairly complex (to me) math in her head, but if she had wanted to make a career as a mathematician, she would have had to go beyond that talent and learn. This is also true of writing. The amount of talent you have is simply a reflection of how far you can go with ease, but there will always come a point where work is required. Often the further along you get easily, the harder it is to accept the hard work stage when you hit it. It's uncomfortable and it pinches. Still, you're going to have to keep moving forward, learning and working if you want to reach the point of successful and lucrative publication. Talent is a rock that many writers have crashed against, be sure you don't become one of them.
Jan Fields is a full-time, freelance author and an Institute of Children's Literature Instructor. Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Show us a sample of your work here.