Recently I’ve been hearing a lot about the eternal artistic debate of talent versus practice. It’s giving me a lot of feelings. Here they are.
I came across a statement a couple of weeks ago that basically boiled down to this: If a person without talent works hard and is determined, that person will be better at their chosen craft than a person with talent who doesn’t and isn’t.
For the sake of clarity, I’m going to discuss this argument in terms of writing for the remainder of this post. I would also like to state outright that I may be biased on this issue because I do possess talent, as well as several maladaptive psychological coping mechanisms.
talent • noun • tal·ent \ˈta-lənt\
4 a: a special often athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude
b: a general intelligence or mental power
I am not, and will not be, dismissive of the idea that practice and dedication to a craft will improve one’s skill. Continual learning, formal and informal, of language and writing in particular is crucial to all writers. Why do you think “Read.” is on basically every famous author’s list of “Top Ten Writing Tips?” Reading obviously isn’t the immediate practice of putting pen to paper, but it opens one’s mind to new styles, new turns of phrase, and new methodology in storytelling.
However, in my opinion, there is only so far that practice, and reading, can take a person. Perfect practice only makes perfect technical ability. Ask anyone who’s ever tried to learn a language from a textbook. Sure, you have the vocabulary and the grammatical structure laid out for you on paper, and you can copy and recite until your fingers bleed and you’re blue in the face, but you are missing out on the nuance of the language the way that it is spoken and written by native speakers. Things like slang and abbreviation and even intonation.
What I mean is: you can study the English language, and even literature, all you want. You may be able to pick apart synecdoche, metonymy, recognize a misplaced semicolon or dangling modifier, understand passive voice and know exactly how to fix it. You may know all twelve of the archetypal characters, and the seven basic plots, and be able implement them.
The problem is that these things don’t make you a good writer. These things make you a technical writer.
The problem is that people think “good writing” is actually about technical writing.
Good writing is exactly the opposite of that.
Now don’t get me wrong, good writing depends on the understanding of the technical elements, absolutely. Moreso, however, good writing depends on understanding how and when to break every last one of them.
Let me tell you two brief stories about my writing experience in college, which are both from my second semester.
My English professor, every Wednesday, would have us hand our rough drafts for that week’s essay around our “peer groups” for editing, and sit quietly at the front of the room, only breaking the silence to call time for papers to be passed and to answer direct questions. I used all three of my allotted semester absences on these days. Said professor then wrote in her comments on one final draft that I should attend on these days, in particular, “for the benefit of [my] peers.”
My peers wrote “awkward” next to sentences with parallel structure.
My peers wrote “thesis statement?” at the end of my expository paragraphs when my thesis statement was not my final sentence, as if putting it at the end is a hard-and-fast rule. (Spoiler: it isn’t. Mostly because there is no such thing as a hard-and-fast rule in writing.)
My peers were impressed when I knew what an Oxford comma was.
To cut this story short, that professor then asked to nominate me for the freshman writing prize for my final paper (an 8-page argument about abortion legalization) at the end of the semester. All English department professors got only one nomination. I turned her down only because I knew I wasn’t going to be returning to school in the fall, and I didn’t think it would have been fair of me to take the scholarship money in the event that I won.
For the final assignment of my biology course, our professor mandated that we would write papers rather than typing up a final lab report. These papers were to be written about the link between biology and your chosen major. I wrote mine about biolinguistics – the varying genetic components in modern humans which accounted for the abilities to produce and comprehend speech and written language. I turned in the required hard copy on time. A few days later, my professor emailed me and asked for a digital copy, which I happily provided, not realizing her intention was to run it through a plagiarism detection program. She then sent me another email, the day before the final exam, which was also the last day of the semester, asking me to bring all of my reference and planning materials with me to the exam. I told her I had already gotten rid of them, since I was leaving campus immediately after the exam was finished. Needless to say, she was not pleased.
After I turned in my final, this professor asked me into the hall, where she proceeded to interrogate me about who had written my paper for me. When I told her I had written it myself, she asked me to summarize the entirety of it. I did, from Broca’s area of the brain and the FOXP2 gene to the hyoid and descended larynx. She glared, told me that what she had read was a graduate school-level paper, that she had “never seen this level of work from [me] before,” and that she would be investigating further. She came up with some bullshit reason to conference with my other professors, involve the dean, and give me a D on the paper, writing to me in a later email, “I could have failed you, but because you are a freshman, I have chosen to let you learn from your mistake.”
Nothing in my paper was plagiarized. It was my own work (in about 8 hours the day before the paper was actually due). And it was the first, and only, piece of writing that professor had ever seen from me. And I got a 93 on the final.
I am including these stories to demonstrate my final point. Good writing isn’t about how much thought or effort you put into something. Good writing isn’t about making sure all of your clauses are in order, or that you’re not ending a sentence with a preposition. Good writing is about efficiently and effectively stating an idea. It is about connecting an audience to a piece so inextricably that they either nominate you for a prize, or investigate you for plagiarism. Moreover, good creative writing is about creating a time and place for your audience to connect to not only on an intellectual level, but on an emotional one. And let me tell you something: perfect practice does not do that. What does that is color and personality, figurative language so rich you can feel the chill in the air and the heart palpitations as the hero hides from his adversary. What does that is music, lyricism, poetry. What does that is synesthetic comparisons and taking the time to detail a panic attack. What does that is passion, is understanding, not of archetypes, not of plot structure, not of grammar rules, but of people.
And you can’t teach that.
There is a time and a place for technical perfection, but pure technical perfection is boring, and writing, in any genre, should not be. Talented writers know this.
So, no, in my opinion, working hard and dedicating yourself to learning everything about your craft will not make you a good writer. But finding yourself, finding your voice, and not being afraid to use it, that will.
And guess what: some people won’t find it. Some people don’t even have it. And in this case, it doesn’t matter how much you write or how much you practice, you will never be as good as someone who does have it, even if they seldom use it.
Quality, not quantity.