How Much Does Talent Matter?

When it comes to the debate among writers about whether talent or hard work is more important, most people will say at first that there’s no substitute for work ethic. But after that initial comment, you’ll hear some conflicting views. Deep down, many of us are still biased toward the idea that raw talent — something you’re born with — is really what matters. Talent, the innate ability or proclivity toward doing something well, has a powerful draw for us as artists. We want to feel that we’re special, that we have some birthright that makes us naturally entitled to be artists. That’s why writers are often the people who end up defending the idea of talent the most.

But how much does talent matter? Are we writers born and not made? We hear stories about people like Keats composing some of the greatest works in the English language in his early twenties, and we begin to wonder if we can learn to be great, or if it can only be encoded in our genes. We can certainly improve our writing through hard work and thought, but is there a glass ceiling, an innate limit to how high we can go?

After the jump: my take on talent.

Talent is overrated. But dedication isn’t.

In my opinion, we do over-emphasize talent because we like the idea of great writers being destined for the pen. When it comes to our own futures, however, we prefer to imagine ourselves not bound to a certain path, but free to choose where we’ll go and what we’ll make of ourselves. We have to be fair to others when we imagine talent — they struggled as much as we did to improve, even if it seemed easy.

I do believe that we might have early interests and tendencies, things that we’re inclined to do well at and that we’d be best suited developing. That potential will make the difference between a kid who reads insatiably and a kid who can’t leave his or her telescope alone. But there’s a whole world of possibility about what we’ll do with those interests. We might exploit them to their fullest potential, or we might not. Talent, ultimately, is a nice leg up — but it simply won’t end up mattering that much after the first ride on the horse. There’s simply too much to learn, too much discipline that is needed, whether you’re talented or not.

So where does that leave the people who never felt innately good at writing who want to be writers now? There are plenty of acclaimed writers out there who stumbled into the profession late in life, and no one can really tell the difference between the early bloomers and the late bloomers. What really matters is dedication; talented or not, you’re just not going to get anywhere without it. So we worry and fret about whether we’re meant to be writers — but we really should be worrying about how we can take the stories and words we have and make them the best they can be.


19 comments

  1. mary brady says:

    I think you are correct, BLH. Talent helps, but it is those who learn their craft that seem to remain popular writers. Also,
    I’ve seen plenty of book cover blurbs declaring an author: “A Major New Talent!” After reading 10 pages, I’ve disagreed, having detected no sign of talent whatsoever.

    Thus, ‘talent’ is subjective. One person’s ‘talent’ is another person’s ‘bore.’

    On the other hand, someone like Stephen King seemed to learn a method that, until recently, kept him cranking out very readable books.

    Mostly, though, I find that the authors I like started writing when they were 6 to 10: little stories for themselves & their friends. The people who gravitated to writing because it was fun seem to go on to reap the highest rewards in their writing careers.

    And yet, still, I find that Thomas Mann quote comforting:
    “Writers are people for whom writing is more difficult than it is for normal people.” I won’t write a grocery list unless I can do it reasonably well. I don’t care HOW long it takes.

    L&K, MaryB

    • Your comment about Stephen King is on point but for the wrong reason, I believe. His skill and talent as a writer is the same as it ever was, but he has gotten so “big” that nobody seems to have the balls to edit him any more, and he definitely needs it.

      • mary brady says:

        Not sure I understand/ agree, Peter. I wrote that King turned out a lot of readable books “until recently” as a result of knowing his craft.

        Do you think “Cell” or “The Dome” just needed better editing? Their premises were dullsville. Do editors tell writers their story idea just doesn’t make it? If so, you are correct. Better editing may have saved the books.

        And an editor SURELY would have told any author, “Hey. You forgot to write an ending!” King forgot to write one for “Cell.”
        King even had to put a banner on his website Homepage about it:”You may assume that the father in “Cell” saved his son from the disease spread by the cell phones, & that together they saved everyone else.”

        How embarrassing must THAT have been?

        Since he completed the Dark Tower series, King’s ideas for stories aren’t as engaging as they once were. He still uses good grammar & his style seems the same. I think he may have exhausted his store of weird plots. Of course, ‘The Corpse’ was a great story as was ‘The Man In Black’ & they were not especially ‘weird.’

        I have a theory that his wife wrote “Lisey’s Story”–she is an awful writer. Maybe she is responsible for other King stinkers…

        Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment on my comment, on which I now am commenting. On. For.

        L&K, MaryB

  2. Edward Raso says:

    ” We are told that talent creates its own opportunities. But it sometimes seems that intense desire creates not only its own opportunities, but its own talents.”  
    – Eric Hoffer

  3. I’m a writing teacher so I’m biased, but my bias is based not just on my own experience of learning to write better, but on teaching many others to do the same.
    The latest science on the question suggests that the nature/nurture ratio for most things is a boring 50/50 approximately. The good news is that most of us can learn new skills, if we have first learned to learn.
    I consider myself a professional learner and while, yes, my early proclivities leaned literary (and otherwise arty and creative) the writing skill that appears to come (or feels as if it comes) “naturally” is probably more a factor of my voracious life-long reading and writing (practice!) and less one of inherent “genius.” I have also watched myself write badly when I try something new–a new genre or format of writing, for example–then improve with experience.
    There’s nothing magic about creative pursuits or what people often call “art.” Art belongs to everyone, everywhere, not just people born with some talent for it. Art is human. We can all learn to do it if we want to and if no one tells us we can’t until we believe them.

  4. Talent is essential–but it’s commonplace. Out of every 100 people you pass walking down the street, at least five or ten of them have the necessary writing talent. But very few have the dedication, the focus, the persistence and the good luck to succeed as writers.

  5. Dani Sell says:

    There is NO amount of persistence, dedication or hutzpah in the world that could ever make me feel the way I did when I read ‘Gone with the Wind’ or ‘Jane Eyre’ or ‘ I know why the Caged Bird Sings.’ They were surreal, life-changing experiences that ripped my heart from my chest, and then gave it back in pieces – thank you very much. Only incredible talent can do that. If you think otherwise, you’re not being honest.

  6. You have a great point: there’s no use being a good writer if you don’t write. But there are many people who call themselves writers who are terrible writers. Some of them are prolific. Some of them are bloggers. Fortunately, I think writing can be taught to a certain degree. But good writers who write–that’s where talent comes out ahead.

  7. I believe everybody has an innate ability to write. Writing is a skill like driving a car, it needs practice. There are some people who don’t need much training, but others need to be taught the skill of writing.

  8. Laer Carroll says:

    Liver or heart, which is the more important? Air or water, which is the more important?

    This question is just as ridiculous.

    Those who are impressed by artists who create terrific stuff young likely are not themselves artists in any media, even the commonplace ones of cooking, housekeeping, or keeping a beloved but ancient car running and looking well. They don’t realize that artists are learning and practicing our art from the first moment we draw breath.

    Watching cartoons pre-school teaches many tiny skills the obtuse don’t realize is important – creating a coherent story line, delivering surprises at crucial moments to confound expectations, creating dialog. The talented will soak this up as if by osmosis and some day transform the everyday into magic. And the obtuse will throw up their hands in surprise that this magic SUDDENLY and MAGICALLY appeared.
    When the magician was slowly and secretly growing into their power.

  9. Ashlynn says:

    I agree with you in that dedication is what counts most; talents are no use if you don’t apply them to a task.

    But hard work doesn’t equal success. Some people are ineffective workers and learners. If you can’t learn from your experiences, constantly improve, and push yourself harder and higher, there’s nothing that will perfect your God-given talents.

    I think skill is what sets the great writers apart–the magic combination of an inherent talent (through a love of words), and finely honed craft through effective practice.

  10. Ray says:

    When I started writing seriously 4 years ago I thought I had the makings of something…a natural gift, if you will. I really liked what I wrote at the time.
    To increase my odds, I got back into reading voraciously and began working on craft…some instructional books, of course, but mostly just paying close attention to what works and what does not…and hours, days of analysis.
    Recently when I got wimpy and began to doubt my abilities, I went back and re-read some of my earlier “good stuff”. It was so bad I couldn’t believe it came from my hand. Turns out I have learned. A lot. And when I began comparing my latest stuff to the “best sellers” and a lot of other wordcraft that is condsidered top of the line, I realized I can not only hold my own, but actually generate some quality, satisfying prose.
    I still believe I have been presented with a gift, but I am buoyed now by the honest belief that hard work, attention to detail, and dedication will carry me on. And my work gets better every day.

  11. mary brady says:

    WHERE have all you folks come from? And WHY don’t you comment more often?

    It really would be nice to read a greater number of comments like this on a reasonably regular basis.

    And let’s fight, too! Like the guy who said ‘fret’ & ‘worry’ meant the same thing just so he could show off, & then that girl slammed him on it?

    THAT was pretty meaty stuff for this site! More! More!

    L&K, MB

  12. Tracey says:

    Great blog. It’s true that we think that a lot of writers were perhaps born with talent…but a lot of successful authors like Dean Koontz, etc…took rejection and just kept going. So I think dedication is more important than talent. Talent can be developed and grow. If you are not passionate about writing…chances are, you’ll give up at the first negative comment you hear.

  13. mary brady says:

    Hey. We’ve moved on, everyone. Go to the current day’s blog & comment on that. Come on, come on, go…move…nothing to see here, plenty to see up ahead. That’s it. Towards the light… keep moving TOWARDS the light. Good.

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