Talent vs. Skill
don’t like talking about talent most of the time because it’s
not something that you can do anything about, and also because most
people confuse talent with skill. Baking a perfect loaf of bread is a
skill. Making a crocheted afghan is a skill. Changing the oil in your
car is a skill. Skills are not talents and talents are not skills. In
writing, skills are the concrete ability to tell a story and to
communicate effectively. Everyone can learn skills, but people bandy
around the word “talent” a lot when they’re
frustrated because some skills take a long time to learn. Years.
tell beginning writers that the writing apprenticeship is generally
about five years. It takes five years of concerted writing and effort
to get published. Some people take less time. A lot more people take
more time, though this is often because they aren’t sending
things out widely enough or because they’re not writing enough.
Once you’re published, there’s another ten to fifteen
years before you get paid real, regular money, and even that isn’t
guaranteed. You can be dropped by a publisher in an instant, your
editor can leave, your publisher can go under. And often, that real
money isn’t enough to support a family, especially with the
cost of medical insurance.
there is such a thing as talent, it is inextricably connected to
luck, Zeitgeist, and probably education. We may never understand what
it is that makes some writers just good at writing about a certain
thing, the way that Stephen King knows how to scare us. But just
because you don’t have Stephen King’s talent doesn’t
mean you don’t have any talent. You may or may not have less
talent than he does. It’s awfully hard to tell.
there writers I’ve met who don’t seem very talented?
Occasionally, yes. But my subjective view of their talent rarely has
anything to do with their ability to get published if they’ve
gained the skills they need to be successful storytellers. I really
dislike the mystique that we have culturally thrown onto artists and
creators, largely because it erases the skills part of the equation.
Of course you’re not going to be a great storyteller if you
don’t gain the skills first. You have to put in the time. And
talking about great artists as if they were magical (or tragically
destined to die young in this terrible world of ours, which is just
as bad) isn’t helpful to anyone who is trying to become an
are some things that I think are related to talent:
The way your characters interact.
The kinds of romance you are interested in writing about.
The way you cross genre lines and remake things your own way.
Your understanding of what readers instinctively want.
Your facility with interesting ideas and putting them together in a pleasing way.
Your ear for dialog that is zippy and character-perfect.
Your capacity to write with pathos.
Your descriptions and how evocative they are.
Your natural ability to use symbolic and metaphoric language in your writing.
A facility for poetry.
I don’t think talent does is make writing easy. It doesn’t
mean that you don’t have to edit your work. It doesn’t
mean that you publish the first thing you write or that you publish
everything you write because it’s perfection.
isn’t all that readily identifiable. The writer you think is
brilliantly talented, another person thinks is fatally flawed, and
another has never even heard of and shrugs when they read. A talented
writer doesn’t necessarily have an inborn sense of what they
should write. They grow and develop and change. They get better at
certain things and hone other things, just like you will if you put
real time into your writing. It almost sounds like “talent”
is really just skills combined with who you are. That’s what I
talented by working hard at developing your skills. And then get
talented by feeling free enough to really let your unique voice stand
what about skills?
takes a long time to develop writing skills. And when I say “skills,”
I don’t mean just correcting typos and having proper grammar.
If you have those skills to begin with, that’s great, but
that’s doesn’t mean you’re going to be skipping a
lot of time over other people. Sorry. And while I think copy editors
are marvelous, imagining that you can just hire a copy editor to deal
with your lack of skills is a misunderstanding of what skills you
need to learn and also a misunderstanding of what copy editors do.
are some of the skills you need to learn as a writer:
How to introduce a character.
How to develop a character in a compelling way.
The rules of your genre (every genre has different rules—break them once you know them, but only for a good reason).
How to start a scene.
How to set up the proper expectations for your book in chapter one.
How to deliver on those expectations by the end of the book.
How to write a love scene.
How to create a series character that works.
How to do worldbuilding for fantasy.
How to explain science/magic in easily digestible bites.
could go on and on. There are a lot of writing skills. Skills are
things that you focus on and learn. They are NOT talents. They have
very little to do with talent. You realize you need to learn them,
you find other people who do them well, you practice, and then you
get good at them.
is no magic involved in learning skills. Some people learn certain
skills faster than others. This is normal. I often tell people to
read a lot because I think it helps with unconscious skill
acquisition and also provides a wider variety of defaults to use when
put to the test.
need skills before you start sending out manuscripts, but skills do
not guarantee you a publication. Lots of people have skills and don’t
get published. Lots of published writers are rejected even if they
have skills. Skills are the very basic building blocks for being a
you were a plumber, you’d need skills to get a plumbing job.
This is also true for writing, except there’s also luck and
taste involved in writing.
of the time, when writers talk to me about not having enough “talent”
to be a writer, what they’re talking about is that they haven’t
gained the skills they need. It can be frustrating not to understand
the difference. A lot of aspiring writers want to be Writer X. I
certainly had a handful of writers I wanted to be when I grew up.
That’s not going to happen. Learning skills isn’t going
to make you into Stephen King or Megan Whalen Turner. It’s
going to make you capable of writing your own stories. This is
sometimes a disappointment and I sometimes see writers quit who feel
like after all the time they put into writing, they never got what
they wanted out of it.
can only tell the stories you have to tell. Sometimes people don’t
want to buy them. That doesn’t mean that you’re not
talented or that you didn’t have the skills. It’s just
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