Many quotes circulate around the Internet. Some of them are more dubious in origin than others. Some of them are downright stupid. Fair warning – this is going to get ranty.
“While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”
“Yes,” the writers say, sagely, nodding their heads. “Yes, this is indeed wise. Oh, how noble our profession is.”
This is utter nonsense. Utter nonsense written by Stephen King, who has otherwise spoken much wisdom that I respect, but nonsense nonetheless.
The thing is, it’s attractive nonsense. And it’s got enough anecdotal evidence behind it to make it sound like it ought to ring true. But that just makes it the persistent kind of false.
Authors on the Internet, I have found, have this Thing about mocking poor writing. I mean, despite the ridiculously problematic premises of the books, by far the most common complain I heard levelled at the Twilight and 50 Shades books were complaints about the writing quality. On sites like Tumblr and Pinterest, for every list of “Creative Adjectives” and “Said is Dead!!” verbs, there is a post or meme begging writers to never, ever use the phrase “glittering violet orbs” ever again. There are entire sites dedicated to ripping apart mediocre fanfiction.
Yes, it’s frustrating to read these things sometimes. As experienced writers who have passed the “violet orbs” stage (or amateur writers looking to), reading people making not only the mistakes we used to make but also the mistakes we see so many other people making (especially regular fanfic readers … having to sort out the fics that are worth my time is the only thing stopping me from falling into the pit of fanfic and never returning) is incredibly frustrating. I’ve been an editor. I know.
I also know that the only thing more frustrating is when someone asks for your advice and then refuses to follow it, or immediately dismisses you as incorrect. It’s very tempting, when that happens, to dismiss that person as a lost cause. After all, you have to want to see the flaws in your work in order to improve, and obviously they don’t!
And so, there comes that quote. And it sounds right – like an extension of “only talent can recognise genius” – only those with a baseline level of skill can see the gap between themselves and where they “need” to be (or, perhaps more accurately, can tell the steps they need to take to cross that gap).
Look, at least this is right about one thing – in order to cross each gap, you do need a baseline level of skill. Skill, not talent. That baseline level of skill just coincidentally happens to be the skill gained by getting to that point in the first place. But the problem with skill is that it takes time to earn.
Fluff it up all you like, but writing is a skill. The only writer who doesn’t improve is the one who won’t practise, and gets complacent. And call me crazy, but I’m unwilling to believe that there’s a natural “cap” to the amount one will improve if one continues to put in effort. My beliefs on talent and skill are best summed up (with much more profanity than I’d usually use) here, at Chuck Wendig’s blog post on the topic
Think back to those fanfic writers. Would you say that a 14-year-old could never improve to be a great writer, just because they use awkward phrasing now, or don’t have a firm grasp of pacing?
On the opposite end of the scale, if you’ve ever been part of a writer’s group with a wide age range, you have probably seen the retiree who’s got a lot of time on their hands all of a sudden and wants to start writing. My writing group has seen three or four of them. They all improve, and in great strides, too, once they start to come to grips with the mode of writing. Some of them get published. Some of them do very well. Some of them talk about only just starting to learn the skill now.
How many great writers have you heard talking with embarrassment about their first literary attempts? The novels that ended up shoved in a drawer, never to see the light of day because of their blatant unsuitability for human eyes. Did being bad once ever stop them from becoming amazing?
I’m not saying it’s easy. It does require time and effort to progress, and some people will progress faster than others. But talent, or “being a good writer” is a trait we assign to people after they’ve already had those years of practice. So let’s quit telling people that writing is a ‘you have it or you don’t’ kind of skill. You have the desire to improve or you don’t. That’s all.