"Write. Write a lot. Keep writing. Read a lot. Then write some more."
Every writer, writing instructor, writing class, and writing advice book I've ever read gives this advice. As far as I've seen in the writing community, it's a fairly accepted notion that if you want to be a good writer, you have to work at it. A lot.
But hey! What about talent?
Interesting question, that. I've heard it bandied about in lots of forms: "You can't teach good writing", "But I don't have the talent of a Tolkien, so...", "You're either born with it or you aren't", "Some people just seem to have IT." I've listened to friends debate the issue, and seen implicit and explicit assumptions made across all sorts of forums about the role of talent vs. hard work and learning. Some people even argue that training, advice and the study of other people's writing and methods will somehow inhibit our natural talent and make us less-than, that it will stifle our creativity.
And yet, the most successful writers continue to tell us that the secret to good writing is the same as the old joke about getting to Madison Square Garden: practice, practice, practice. No coincidence that it's called a craft, and that we talk about 'working on', 'perfecting' or 'mastering' that craft.
So who's right?
As a professor of developmental cognitive science, I studied and researched learning, so I have some thoughts (and knowledge) about this. The quick answer is this: in almost every possible area of life, 'talent' is a product of hard work, learning, and time. You may be born with some advantage and/or your environment may give you some advantage, but that won't replace training, effort, and practice. It may ease things for you somewhat, but without those other things, you won't be successful. And people without that advantage can still work hard and achieve success without it. Stacks of research support this; it's not an equivocal issue.
But let's put that aside for a second, and pretend we don't know that to be true. Because here's something really telling: People who believe training and hard work is the answer are more successful than people who believe that talent is the answer.
Yes, you read that right. People who believe you can improve your abilities (or talent) through training and practice have what's called an 'incremental' view of abilities/talents--they believe that these can be improved incrementally with training and work. People who believe such abilities/talents are fixed have an 'entity' view--they believe you're born with it, or you aren't.
And here's where it gets really cool. If you have an 'incremental' view, when things get difficult (like that plot twist you just can't seem to make work, darn it!), you believe that you can overcome those challenges by learning and working hard; this is called a 'mastery-oriented' perspective. So you write, you read what others have written, you take classes, read books on writing, you go to workshops and critique groups and learn from others--and you persist.
But, if you have an 'entity' view (if you believe you have to be born with the right 'talent') when the going gets tough, you're in trouble. You believe it's because you don't have what it takes, you don't have enough talent, and if you don't have the talent, no amount of training and practice and work is going to get you there. So you quit.
Guess which group of people are more likely to achieve their goal? If you guessed the mastery-oriented, you'd be correct. Whether they start with some inborn/environmental advantage or not.
There is over 30 years of research on this, primarily conducted by Carol Dweck, but replicated by many other scientists; you can find a good overview of the work by clicking here; you can also find her seminal book covering the research here, and her book on how mindset influences success here.
I believe the take-away message is this. When we throw the word 'talent' around in the writing community, let's use it in the right way. Not as something that you're either born with or not, but as something that is nurtured, developed, and built with time, training, and yes: practice, practice, practice. No author ever sat down at their desk one day and jotted down a fully-born masterpiece. We know this. So let's stop undermining our path to success by continually returning to an entity model of writing skill.
Let there be no shame in your game. Take that class, join that workshop, pick up that writing-advice book, write a hundred drafts of the same story if the first ninety-nine don't cut it. Do whatever it takes. But what you must never, ever do is look at what you write and think 'this is garbage--I must not have the innate talent to write.' No, no, no. NO.
I personally love the way Samuel Beckett said it:
"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."