Sunday, April 26, 2015

Talent vs. Training: Which is responsible for good writing?

"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."



M.

19 comments:

  1. Talent will not get you far without hard work and an eye for marketing, it's true. But however hard you work at any artistic craft, your efforts will only be 'quite good' 'not bad', 'a fair showing', unless you have the talent to back it up. Yes, a person with a minimal gift but excellent marketing skills will probably sell more books than one with talent who doesn't work hard. But the book itself will not necessarily be better. It depends on how you define 'success'. If you define it in monetary terms, yes, I am sure you're right. If you define 'success' as writing something excellent, I'd go for talent every time :)

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    1. The research on the issue completely contradicts that opinion. Hard work trumps in every case, on every measure, including quality. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, of course, and I'm a big believer in agreeing to disagree; I just hate it when messages are sent inadvertently to potentially excellent writers that lead them to give up. :)

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    2. Terry, I agree. In this current market someone with a talent and innate gift for marketing and connecting can take a poor or mediocre book much farther than someone with poor social skills and superior writing skills (innate or learned). Hard work doesn't guarantee success, it does guarantee that you feel great about the passion and love you have put into your work.

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  2. Thanks so much for posting this! I am still a bit bitter that, early in life, I was told very often that I was very smart and very talented, but hard work never seemed to come into the picture. It took YEARS of failures later in life before I started to figure out that hard work gets you WAY farther than talent.

    Secondly, talent NEEDS to be encouraged and developed. I might be INCREDIBLY gifted in the culinary arts, but if I'm never in the kitchen I'll never know, and my work will never be as good as someone who has spent years honing that talent.

    I see it this way: Talent is an abundance of raw material. If it isn't worked upon, crafted, smoothed out around the edges, it stays a large lump of random raw materials. Someone who doesn't HAVE that raw material will have a lot more trouble finding anything to work with, but, with hard work, they'll still wind up with more finished pieces at the end of the day. Writing is the same way. There are plenty of talented writers out there who will never write anything worth reading, simply because they never put pen to paper. A 4-star book written by someone with mediocre talent beats a book never written by an incredibly talented person at all.

    The TL;DR version: Talent will get you only so far. Hard work gets you the rest of the way.

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    1. Absolutely! Very well said. And so many writers out there who quit because they had someone tell them they didn't have the 'talent', when really they just needed to work more. Such a shame.

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  3. Totally agree! Even if you were born with "talent", you still need to finesse your craft. After all, talent isn't knowledge. Talent is the ability to learn. Knowledge is what you've learned.

    Whoa, deep thoughts. ;)

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  4. I think the word talent is a catch-all for a number of separate abilities. For example, a person with a high aptitude for inductive reasoning can easily begin to understand how to write based on reading other people's writing. However someone without that ability will need to be explicitly taught the elements of the craft. Another example is the ability to generate ideas. People who are low in this aptitude are often not attracted to the idea of being a writer. There are certainly other elements on writing talent that I haven't listed here. I believe that knowing where your strengths and weaknesses are will help a writer to know where to concentrate self educational efforts.

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    1. Yes, absolutely! People who attempt to measure 'intelligence' talk about 'multiple intelligences'--but even within each of these different areas of 'intelligence', there are many, many different abilities that figure into each area. And many that fit into each of those abilities. The notion of some blanket 'talent' in writing is monstruously oversimplified, I completely agree. :)

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  5. Great article – I think I'm agreeing with everyone here! Perhaps we need to drop the word talent and replace it with something like "propensity" – there needs to be a germ of interest in the skill in order to put in the necessary hard work to learn how to do it well. (As one of your commenters said, I've no real interest in being a culinary wizard.)
    I've also studied the psychology of how our beliefs have an enormous impact on our behaviour – often in counterintuitive ways. I wonder if it has to be set up as talent versus hard work. Could it be that a belief we have some talent will get us to our desks in the first place, but the belief we need to work at it will stop us from stumbling at the first hurdle?
    I've heard from some writing teachers that they've taught people who turned out to be "talented" writers, but they'd never have known it from their early attempts in the class.
    The choice seems to be whether you are prepared to put in the hard work and no shame in choosing not to (like me in the kitchen).

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    1. Love all the points you raise. I completely agree that 'talent vs. hard work' isn't necessarily the best way to think about this, and think it's a really important point how much all of these variables--like interest and enjoyment--play a role. And that no matter what gives us the impetus, the hard work is crucial.

      Your point about the teachers reminded me about the research done with teachers and IQ tests--if you tell teachers that child X got a high score on their IQ test and child Y got a very low score, by the end of the year child X will be excelling and child Y will be doing poorly--even if you assigned those two children to their 'scores' at random (i.e., you lied about their scores). So teacher expectations about what a child can do matter so much, as well! And this is one (among many) of the reasons I'm deeply opposed to the IQ concept and IQ testing.

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  6. Bravo. This is a much subtler argument than you tend to read in the press which is usually on the side of hard work is everything and ignores innate talent (or the reverse). It's absolutely true that talent needs to be nurtured. So people with a good ear need musical training or language training, they can't just "be" good at languages or an instrument. And training can mean different things, not necessarily book or classroom learning--for languages, total immersion (moving to a foreign country) would qualify.

    And then there's the missing link of who encourages us/teaches us, from parents, teachers, friends, community, etc. And what kind of rewards (inner and outer) do we get from the artistic endeavor we're engaged in? Add to that things like personality. A lot of writing is stubbornness--persisting despite failures and disappointments. Some people are crushed more easily than others when things go south.

    But I don't think talent should be replaced by the word propensity because those are too different things entirely. A propensity is an inclination. That's much fuzzier and softer.

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    1. Yes yes yes!! So many things matter. I'll never forget the high school teacher who took me aside and told me I should be a writer. Or the little town paper that published one of my stories when I was a child. And I think anybody who goes into writing and isn't prepared to persist through an awful lot of rejection and negative criticism isn't long for this life, lol. :)

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  7. What a wonderfully insightful article, thanks, Michelle and your commenters! I've always tended towards the "I'll never be like Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkein, etc. or, indeed, any good writers" camp, but there's clearly much more to it than that. I was born with the "propensity" to be good at English, but at no time during my education was that identified, encouraged and nurtured. I strongly believe the education system (in Oz, at least) has let me and many others down due to a regimented and blanket approach where all students in a class are seen only collectively and not as individuals. What exactly is it about those who rise above that restriction and succeed regardless? Where does their passion to learn come from? Are these traits an innate part of their personality that others lack?

    Having talent (I dislike this word; it often seems to be a subjective - and selective - value judgement IMO) is a double-edged sword I think, in that naturally gifted people may have a head start on the rest of us, but while they may achieve great success (and fame), the rest of us are tacitly judged (i.e. dismissed/ignored) by the media and prevailing societal values. The focus is most often on the minority, and we're conditioned to compare ourselves with them. Good luck to them for sure, but it is frustrating that some authors achieve mega success and fame for reasons *other* than good writing! Having a knack for marketing and the "gift of the gab" are essential, sadly.

    I'd be very interested to hear points of view regarding "imagination", too. Is that a natural gift or can it be learned?

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  8. You raise so many good points! Your experience with the education system really resonates. I went to a very poor school in a poor district, and have a friend from England who had such a bad experience with school growing up that it took her until she was over 40 to consider going to college (she eventually got a Ph.D in English and is now a professor!). I know here in the US we have such big issues with funding education and teachers the way we should, and with keeping up with the research on most effective teaching techniques, and so many kids fall through the cracks.

    Research on imagination/creativity suggests it's very much something that can be learned. My favorite finding about it is it's highly correlated with parenting style! The exact finding varies according to cultural background, but for the most part, very 'authoritarian' parenting leads to less imaginative/creative children than parents who are more 'authoritative' or 'permissive'; the crucial dimensions are the 'demandingness' and 'responsiveness' of the parent (the more demanding and less responsive they are, the more likely to see less creativity in the children). This is work started by Diana Baumrind in the 1960s and studied extensively since then if you want to google more about it. Fascinating stuff, at least I think so!

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    1. Ah, stymied at the starting block! I can certainly relate to the role parenting plays. I was always so envious of my childhood next door neighbour whose parents were completely different to mine. I have her to thank for introducing me to the pleasure and treasure of reading, particularly children's fantasy (which led to so much more). It's a very interesting finding, thanks Michelle. Off to go googling :-).

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    2. LOL! I know exactly how you feel. Also had the authoritarian parenting, and used reading for an escape. That's another thing I think is so vital to writers--an early love of reading. The best thing you can do for a child on so many levels is encourage them to fall in love with books. :)

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  9. Speaking as someone who was denied a coveted position on the school newspaper back in high school because, and I quote, "You're very talented, but I'll take someone with no talent who can hand things in on time over you any day," the talent vs persistence argument always stings. Fortunately, I learned about honoring deadlines as soon as the words came out of that teacher's mouth, but the idea that I have to work to make something of what comes easily, let alone to keep up with the persistent who don't have that "it" thing that greases the slide into success, makes my inner baby want to cry and whine and throw things. Isn't talent supposed to be a "gift?" And aren't gifts supposed to be things you don't have to work for? <>
    Seriously, there is nothing more rewarding, to me, than working on my craft. Being labeled "talented" by others (who may or may not have been spouting a crock) spurred my passion in the right direction when I was young, but it has been the teachers, the editors, the mentors, the difficult clients, and the chirping crickets over the years that have inspired my work and informed my heart and soul.

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    1. Transform the meaning of 'talent' a little bit to mean that you're skilled in a given area--does it matter if that 'talent' comes from something you're born with, or from hard work? Either way, it's something you can do well, something that defines you. And if it's some 'gift' that you don't have to work for, what happens when you encounter rejection? That would mean you just aren't good enough and might as well quit. No, the it-can-be-developed-and-improved model is much more hopeful! <3

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