9187824_sHemingway. Austen. Dickens. Woolf. Carver. We know these names well, these masters of their craft. Were they born with an elusive writing gene the rest of us just don’t have?

We not-yet-famous writers sometimes ask ourselves, “Do I have talent?”—the implication being that talent is what makes one a real writer. We want some sort of assurance that—like “the greats”—we were born to write, or else we might just be fooling ourselves.

But, coming to the conclusion that we either do or do not “have it” can lead to some unhelpful assumptions. For example, I’ve always been good at writing, so writing a book will be easy (very probably not true). Or, My novel was rejected, so I guess I’m just not meant to be a writer (not necessarily true).

I’m not arguing that talent and aptitude don’t exist, but we sometimes take the concept of talent to the point of fatalism, and that limits us in a number of ways.

Are Our Abilities Innate and Unchangeable?

Psychology Today article I once read, called “The Trouble with Bright Girls,” rocked my world. The piece makes this claim:

“[B]right girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.”

In my case, that was true—although I’d never realized it. I tended to view my abilities, and even interests, in a somewhat static state. I was good at some things, okay at some things, and terrible at others, and there was little I could do about it.

Years ago I told a friend, “I can write, but I could never be an editor. I just don’t have that level of attention to detail.” What did that even mean? Sure, I didn’t have the technical skills to be an editor—I hadn’t studied editing. But I suppose I thought editors were born with an inherent ability that I just didn’t have. Whenever the thought of editing as a career popped into my head, I quickly quashed it with the belief that I wasn’t naturally detail-oriented enough.

But not everyone thinks like that. My father—despite never having any apparent aptitude for photography—recently bought himself an expensive camera and enrolled in a professional photography course. He’s undaunted by his lack of knowledge and experience, because he really enjoys photography and recognizes it’s an art he can learn.

If you believe your writing is an “innate and unchangeable” talent, you may be less driven to practice your craft and less likely to seek (and graciously receive) constructive criticism. When you experience failure (all writers do), you might think you’ve only been kidding yourself that you have talent. Or, because you think you’re a natural, you might feel the need to overwork to live up to that standard.

On the other hand, if you enjoy writing but don’t see yourself as having natural talent, you may never even give yourself a chance.

The Real Question We Should Be Asking

What if we agreed to stop wondering “Do I have talent?” in favour of another question: “How can I improve my writing?”

See the difference? 

The question “Do I have writing talent?” can’t tell you whether a particular piece works for its intended audience, or whether you have the patience to endure criticism, or how determined you are. It also tempts you to measure yourself again other writers: I’ll never write as well as that prize-winning author, or I’m so glad I’m better than the rest of my writing group.

The latter question is more constructive. You can answer it with strategies that fit your personality, strengths, desires, and goals. Implementing these strategies to any degree results in improvement, and the more you work at them, the more you grow. Here, the focus is on measuring your growth and success against yourself rather than others.

To improve your writing, you can

  • read critically in a variety of genres;
  • take a writing course—anything from an informal self-study program to an MFA;
  • practise writing regularly;
  • make a point of finishing what you start, whenever possible;
  • join a supportive and challenging writers’ group;
  • buy or borrow books on the craft of writing;
  • work toward getting a short story or poem published in a magazine;
  • study self-editing techniques;
  • listen more closely/observe the world around you more carefully;
  • subscribe to podcasts about writing; and
  • learn how to use social media to market yourself and your work.

I’m so thankful that I now have a more healthy understanding of who I am and what I can do—or learn to do. Given the right perspective, tools, guidance, and experience, I’m capable of a lot more than I ever imagined.

Remember how I once said I could never be an editor?

Well, I didn’t exactly sit up one day and decide to become one—I just realized I was already editing contributors’ articles on my group blog. In fact, I’d been doing it for years.

That small revelation spurred me toward editing for other blogs. I took an interest in learning more about copyediting, in particular. I studied hard and continue to study, and I’m working my way up from small projects to larger ones. I now edit for a number of websites and businesses (in fact, I have a big freelance copyediting assignment due on Monday).

I might not be ready to edit for The New Yorker, but as my portfolio expands so does my confidence. And that’s the most important part, because it’s confidence in what I can learnnot my degree of talent—that gives me the freedom to do more of what I love.

Photo courtesy of 123rf.com

About Suzannah Windsor Freeman

Suzannah Windsor Freeman is a Canadian freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Writer, Sou'wester, Grist, Saw Palm, Anderbo, The Best of the Sand Hill Review, and others. She is the managing editor of Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing and Writeitsideways.com. She lives in Ontario with her husband and four children.