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  1. Ovidiu Puscas wrote on

    I remember back in the early years of high school – from grade 8 ’till about 11, I thought the subject “English” was quite boring and a waste of time. By the time I had an “aha” moment and got stuck into it, I was in 12th grade. Unfortunately, by that stage there was more to wrap my head around, but gladly got there in the end. It was times like those when I wished I valued the subject more in earlier years. But I’m still no “natural” writer.

    I think you can learn how to write well. You can learn good grammar versus bad grammar. You can learn how to take a reader through a journey. Opening statement, and all that.

    However, I don’t think you can get into a real “natural” writer’s mindset – how you described you think in words, in writing, all the time.

    It’s like design versus development. There’s a ‘designer’s mindset’ and a ‘developer’s mindset’. They naturally think and perceive things very differently. But a designer can learn how to do some (basic) coding, and a developer can learn how to do some (basic) designing… however their natural mindset/type will flow through.

  2. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Yep, couldn’t agree more. Re the school thing, I have to say, although I was good at English, I always found it difficult to get the whole concept of ‘themes’. e.g. What’s the theme of this book? What’s the author trying to say? It wasn’t ’til I got to senior school that I was mature enough to figure it out. Sounds like that’s when it all came together for you too. :-)

  3. Sheryl Allen wrote on

    We may well be twinsies.
    I “THINK in writing” too. And I love how you articulated that concept. When I’m introduced to a new person or concept I (annoyingly) ask “How do you spell that?” just so I can “feel” the shape of the word or idea written in my mind’s eye. Otherwise I can’t get a handle on it. It’s not a choice; it’s who I am. And I can’t turn it on or off. With music, I’m distracted by the lyrics. With movies, I’m lost in the script. But when I’m writing, I’m right there, in the middle of it, in the moment.
    Thank you for this great post. I’m certain it will resonate with more of your writerly readers than you imagine.

  4. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    I do believe you’re right Sheryl. Twinsies! I love the way YOU articulated the concept. Group hug! ;-)

  5. Charles Cuninghame wrote on

    “You’re a writer or you’re not”

    Self-taught NY Times best-selling author Tim Ferriss would be a notable exception to that rule!

  6. Belinda Weaver wrote on

    I think I might dare to disagree Glenn. Not about the fact that you’re a writer. Clearly!

    I have never called myself a writer. I love reading but I have never really enjoyed writing for the sake of it. I loved English but I found writing essays a form of cruel torture.

    As a copywriter, now I write all day and I bloody love it!

    Now that I’ve completely contradicted myself I think I should explain. I am a marketer so I think of myself a communicator. I find particular joy in finding the combination of words that communicates exactly the message I’m hoping to, with tone and feel I was after.

    I don’t write poems or books or ditties. I do appreciate the majesty of language. As you said, it’s a rhythm and texture. As Shelley said, it’s a look and feel in your heart and mind. But I’m rubbish at finding a poetic turn of phrase and I envy creative writers (proper writers).

    That said, ask me to get customers excited about buying heat pumps to and I’m there. And that’s a writing skill I learned.

  7. Denise Mooney wrote on

    Hi Glenn,

    I recently read a quote from Stephen King on this very topic and it struck me that there was a lot of truth in it. He says it’s impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one. But he says it is possible, with lots of hard work and dedication to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

    Thoughts?

  8. Bill Harper wrote on

    I was lucky enough to hear Terry Pratchett at a presentation he gave once. He talked about a friend he went to school with who could look at a maths equation and give you the answer straight away. Just as people can look at the sky and know it’s blue, he could look at a maths problem and know the answer.

    (And the sad thing? He failed mathematics because he couldn’t show *how* he got the answers.)

    I think writing is like that sometimes. You write the way you do not from what you learned, but rather from who you are. And you’d have a hard time explaining it to anyone else because there’s nothing *to* explain. It’s just the way it’s done.

    I’m the same with my editing. I can spot a bad sentence a mile off, and fix it pretty easily. But can I explain why I rewrote it a particular way? Often I can’t. It’s just instinctive. It’s natural.

    But I also know I’ve learned a lot about the craft over the years, and I’m a much better writer now than I was back then. I only have to look at what I wrote years ago to see that. (And then restrain myself from hitting the ‘Delete’ key and sending it to oblivion.)

    So from my perspective you can become a better writer if you work hard at it. But you need that base writing instinct to begin with, or it’s going to be next to impossible.

  9. James Chartrand - Men with Pens wrote on

    I have to firmly disagree. There isn’t any scientific evidence that supports the myth that specific natural talent makes for great performers. World-class greatness comes from extensive and deliberate practice.

    Case in point: Beethoven. Muhammed Ali. And many others, across a vast variety of fields and performance requirements.

    Dan Coyle explores this in his book The Talent Code, as do several other people who’ve carried out extensive research on the topic. You can have a certain proclivity – genes that facilitate learning of specific activities – but the concept of innate talent that ‘gifts’ you from the get-go just doesn’t hold water under scientific study.

    I admit it’s a nice idea, of course. It’s cool to think we’re good at something because we were just born to it, and it might seem that way.

    But human physiology just doesn’t work like that. Everyone has the potential to achieve greatness in many different areas. And those of us who’ve become very good at what we do typically arrive there because we like the activity and practice it far more than we do other activities, with more deliberate intention of becoming great.

  10. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Great answers! I’ll reply to each, in turn…

    Charles: You’re wrong. ;-)

    Belinda: You’re wrong.

    Denise: You can come back.

    Bill: You can too.

    James: You’re sneaky. And wrong.

    I agree that practice makes anyone better. But from my studies, everything I’ve read, and my own personal observations, it’s 50% nature, 50% nurture. If you don’t have the nature, the nurture will get you only so far.

    Mind you, I see plenty of non-writers making a living as writers, so there is that.

  11. Belinda Weaver wrote on

    A question.

    By non-writer…. do you simply mean rubbish-writer? Someone who isn’t interested enough to improve their skills?

    I still believe that practise (as James said) and a genuine interest in improving can put anyone on the writers’ path. And labels are self-destructive.

  12. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Hold on, I’m confused. Didn’t I already say you were wrong? Thought that settled it?! ;-)

    By non-writer, I mean people who’d fool most clients, but who’d never fool a writer.

  13. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Haha! No seriously, I agree my argument has become a little circular. But I still think I’m right. ;-)

  14. Kate Toon wrote on

    I think that I personally illustrate the point backwards. Or something.

    I have written since I was a wee grub, I think of myself as having writing in my blood. I feel I was born with it or at least had it rubbed allover me in my early years by very literary parents.

    But it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I finally had the confidence to write full time for a living.

    And only a few years since I’ve confidently called myself a writer.

    So am I a non writer?
    A practicing writer?
    Or (eek) a rubbish writer?
    I’m so confused and probably ‘WRONG’.

    But as long as my clients are happy (they are) and my creative writing makes me feel warm and tingly I’m happy(ish)

  15. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Sounds like you knew you were a writer, you just didn’t call yourself one.

    For the record, my very first full-time job was as a technical writer, and I went on to do that for 9 years. But I wouldn’t say I made a bold decision to do it. I was nearing the end of my arts degree, and a friend of mine got a job as a techwriter. I thought, “I can do that”, so I contacted a few companies and they agreed to exploit me for $10/hr. I didn’t think, “Hey I might become a professional writer!”, I thought, “Hey I might actually get a job even though I have only an arts degree!!!”

  16. Melanie Jongsma wrote on

    Belinda, I think you ARE a writer! Poetry and novels and ditties are not “real” writing while everything else is “just copywriting” or “just marketing.” No, I think what you describe is the essence of writing—communicating in a way that connects with people. And if you are connecting in a way that inspires action, even better!

    Glenn, I appreciate the timing of this post. I recently finished judging the writing entries for a grade school Fine Arts Fair. I found it very difficult, mainly because I was given a rubric to fill out for each piece, and the rubric didn’t give me a place to express the intangibles of “good writing.” Apparently the kids had been taught the five points of a plot, and how to use dialogue, and the elements of setting—those were all the things I could “grade” on the rubric. But there were only a couple of entries where I sensed that the kid enjoyed writing and might become “a writer.” Anyway, the whole process made me wonder whether good writing can be taught. In a sense, if you are a born writer, you don’t “need” to be taught—you pick up skills and knowledge like a carpenter upgrades his tools. The tools make him a better, faster carpenter, but he would still build if all he had was a rock and a stick.

  17. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Thanks for your comment Melanie. You can come back too. Just be wary of all the clearly insane people who disagree with me. They’re weird. ;-)

  18. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Oh, and I agree with you, Melanie, re your comment to Belinda.

  19. Barbara Carson wrote on

    It’s true. Writers write. To paraphrase Shinichi Suzuki (violin teacher extraordinaire), I only write on the days I breathe. I can feel the grey matter in my fingers exulting as I race across the keyboard. And, at the end of a long day of copywriting, ghostwriting and editing, I journal. If you do what you’re called to do, it’s a good day. I’ll never think the writing is perfect, but it’s there. And tomorrow’s another day, right?

  20. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Hi Barbara. I like that. Even when you’re not technically ‘writing’, you’re still writing.

    And yep, never perfect, because it’s an evolution, so (practicality aside) it’s never truly finished. With some notable exceptions, of course! Like this:

    “For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.”

    One of my favourites.

  21. Belinda Thomson wrote on

    I want to disagree with this, because it sounds sort of mean to the non-writers. But I can’t tell if it’s true, because I am a writer myself. Always have been, always will be. I have never found it a chore to express myself in words, so I don’t understand how it feels to be someone who does.

    I have tried to teach others to write, and they can always improve – but I think in the end there is something innate about it. So you are, probably, quite right.

  22. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Harsh? Moi?! I would never write something harsh to generate buzz. Sensationalism is the work of the devil! ;-)

    But seriously, harsh or not, I stand by my claim. Glad to know you (probably) agree. ;-)

  23. Matt wrote on

    This is going to be a ‘yes but no but’ post.

    However much I try, I’m never going to be Leonardo Da Vinci. I don’t speak Italian for starters.

    While I agree broadly with the nature vs nurture point you make, Glenn, there are just too many assumptions in your heading statement for me to jump on board.

    Number 1, what about latent talent? What if you have the raw material (however that’s defined), but have never had an opportunity to develop it. Case in point: a former colleague of mine’s husband (always a great start to a story) worked in the army digging ditches. Then he did an aptitude test, which found that he had a natural aptitude for languages, and now works as an army translator.

    So while the ‘writers v non-writers’ thing may be true in theory, I’m not sure it’s useful in practice. How you do you sort the ‘people who could be great writers but aren’t yet’ from ‘people who will never be any good so should give up’

    Number 2, how do you define great, across writing in all its forms? Someone can be a great journalist and an ordinary novelist. Even in the one person, the constituent abilities don’t always line up. AA Gill (one of my favourite acerbic food writers) is severely dyslexic, so writes everything by dictation.

    I do relate to the ‘I was born a writer’ part though. It’s seriously about all I’m good for.

  24. Glenn (Owner) wrote on

    Very good questions, Matt. In response, I’d say those with latent talent ARE in fact, writers. And they probably do know it, at some deep level. Even if it’s only an innate ability to string a good sentence together, and to know when it’s right (enough).

    That said, I could be guilty of a LITTLE generalisation:

    “You’re either a writer, or you’re not. And if you don’t know you ARE, you’re NOT.”

    If I wanted to be more accurate and less contentious, I’d probably change that last sentence to:

    “And if you don’t know you ARE, you’re probably NOT.”

    But when have I ever wanted to be more accurate and less contentious? ;-)

    As for defining great, across all forms of writing… I think that’s a whole ‘nother story. My argument isn’t that natural writers are good at all forms. One is enough.

  25. James wrote on

    Nice idea but writing is absolutely a learned skill. It’s been around less than ten thousand years. Were it something you were born with, people would have been born with it a good deal before then.

    1. Glenn Murray wrote on

      Yeah, good point. Although I think that’s part of what I’m saying. You can learn the mechanics and rules of writing, definitely. It’s not the mechanics and rules that come naturally, it’s the expression and the flow. Obviously 10,000 years isn’t long enough for any of us particularly to have evolved any more or differently than any others in writing. But in expression and flow of communicative elements, our evolution goes back a lot further.

  26. James wrote on

    Once you pare your assertion back that far, all you’re really saying is that some people are more naturally adept with language than others, which is a very trivial claim

    1. Glenn Murray wrote on

      My claim is not that some people are more naturally adept, it’s that if you’re not naturally adept, you shouldn’t try to become a writer. Trivial or not, I stand by it.

  27. Peter wrote on

    Or, to put it another way…

    Everyone can talk, not everyone can sing.
    Writers are singers, not talkers.
    If you don’t think there’s a difference, or that they’re the same, you’re a talker.

    PS: Emile Zola said “The artist is nothing without the gift but the gift is nothing without work.”

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