Monday, December 3, 2012

Are writers born or created?

I was over at a friend's place recently and out of the blue she questioned if good writing is something that is taught, is it something we pick up along the way or is something we're born with?

She put up quite a compelling argument which really got me thinking. People who can write, and write well, is this something they're specifically taught in English class? Or do they pick it up from their surroundings and the books they read? Or maybe, just maybe, they're born with it.

Just after I turned 21, I lectured for a while at a university. (I should point out I never once felt like I should be standing at the front of a classroom of lecture hall considering my students were generally only two years younger than me, or in some cases, quite a bit older than me.)

During my position at the university I had to mark hundreds of essays and exams. Okay, I wasn't teaching English or Creative Writing, but I was teaching papers that were in a similar field to English. Because of this you would think then that everyone who was in this particular degree should have been able to write. You know - paragraphs making sense, correct spelling and grammar and some coherency throughout the essays.

For some people, this was easy. Their essays were well presented and beautifully written, not only making sense but applying the research to their work in really creative and interesting ways. Those were the essays I loved marking. Those were the students who really took pride in their work and wanted to do well (even though I'm sure many of them had put in an overnighter before it was due just to meet the deadline.)

Other students, however, would 'drop the ball' on their second sentence of the first paragraph. Their topic sentence would be forgotten as soon as they'd finished it. For some, they would even lose track of what they were saying at the start of that very same sentence... so they'd carry off on a new tangent.

To be honest, I was really shocked. Every single one of those students would have studied English all through high school as a pre-req for getting into this degree in the first place. How could they have passed their exams, got into a course which had limited intake and still have no clue how to write a comprehensive essay?!

Anyway, let's look at the students who wrote me those glowing essays. As I mentioned, they were fantastic. However, I could still see a huge difference between the essays. There were those who knew the material and knew how to write, and then there were those who had learned how to write.

There is a difference here....

See those who knew the material and knew how to write wrote great essays. But they rarely used "big" words, their punctuation and grammar was all over the place and the formatting of their essays wasn't quite how it should be. Those who had been taught knew the rules. Their paragraphs were set out perfectly, their spelling, grammar and punctuation was correct, and the words they used not only looked great but sounded very intelligent.

I'm going to be honest here. When I started university, I was in the first category of those who could write. I studied very hard, I researched all the material I would need and I wrote the essays. I knew how to write, but I didn't particularly know any 'big words' and I wasn't always the best on grammar and punctuation. But I tried my best.

During my first year of university I took a few classes which helped me significantly improve. I took creative writing courses, essay formatting courses, and generic 'principles of writing' courses. My peers in these classes groaned - they weren't interested in learning the basics of the written word. Most of them were just taking the class to make up credit. Me, however, I loved it. In this class we had to write two short stories every week, in all different styles. We had to write practice essays and poems, film scripts and monologues. I was completely in my element.

The basic principles of writing I learned in those classes took me through the rest of my college years, through my undergrad and grad school classes, through my first jobs, through my magazine article publications and my resume cover letters to where I am now. I'm still not as good as I'd like to be. I'm still not the Queen of spelling and grammar. You won't read my blogs and find it particularly intellectually stimulating, and it's quite possible you may find something that doesn't make sense, or a sentence that is far too long. (Although don't confuse my British English for spelling errors!)

The reason I wanted to bring up this story is that I think there are two answers to my friend's initial question. People who write, and write well, are created both from nature and nurture. See, I believe in order to create a great work of fiction, you need to have the creativity, imagination, a way with words and a love of writing that, most likely, you are born with (or are encouraged in that direction as a child). Then you need to learn how to write, and write well, which is the nurture/taught side. This comes from being taught the correct spelling, grammar and techniques. Following that you need to combine both the skills you're born with and the ones you learn to put in an awful lot of hard work to create the best possible work of fiction.

I think if you only had hard work, OR creativity, OR the foundations for writing then it wouldn't work. You need all three, and if you're missing one then you need to be taught how to do that one in order to write the best pieces of work you possibly can.

But... that is just my opinion. I'm curious to know yours....


  1. I think writing, like sports, like music, etc. is a gift. Yes, you can be taught how to write, but knowing how to construct a good sentence doesn't mean you're a talented writer, just as being taught how to play the piano doesn't make you a gifted musician. And just as you can hear the difference between the "taught" musician and the "gifted" musician, you can read the difference between the "taught" writer and the "gifted" writer.

    Being gifted doesn't make you the best, and it doesn't mean you don't need to learn. I don't think all people are gifted equally, and not everyone who is gifted will be equally successful (at least in material terms). Also, people who are taught can, perhaps, find some success in their "taught" field. But they will never have the same potential as those who are gifted.

    I quoted Stephen King in a recent Road Trip Wednesday where he says, essentially, that gifted people don't need to be told to practice. That's one of the differences. The taught musician needs to organize his time to get his 1-hour daily practice in, and will set his timer to be sure he does his hour, no more no less. The gifted musician doesn't even notice the time, and practices whenever he can, because he wants to.

    That's my opinion on the subject. You did ask. :)

  2. I love your opinion Colin! Very interesting, and I think you're spot on. I have never thought about it that way before but I agree with what you said! Thanks for the comment :-)

  3. I think it's a balance between having a natural aptitude for writing and learning the more technical side of it. You can't necessarily teach someone to be creative, although you can try to help them find ways to tap into any creativity they might have. And for some that isn't much because they're gifted in more logical areas instead, like my husband and son who are math guys. Both are very good technical writers, but don't thrive on creative writing. I do think you can teach people to write well in terms of grammar, punctuation and how they articulate ideas though. There are so many different types of writing that it's hard to make a statement about good writing in general.

    On the other side of it, there are people that have oodles of creativity, but lack any perspective or the ability to polish their work into something great and the final product is just a mess. It's kind of like the master painters. Their work is good for both its creativity and its technical skill.

    Anyway, that's my long winded opinion (and I could probably go on for longer haha). Great post topic! And I'm appalled that anyone would accuse you of making spelling errors for using British English, but then I'm Canadian. :)

    1. I agree with all your points too. I think you need to have a combination of it all really. Like someone could be incredibly gifted but have no desire to write, yet someone else may not have the talent but really want to write. I figure if they're taught the tools they will at least have a shot at becoming a writer?

      Interesting to see the opinions.

      Sorry for the bad comment formatting, this stuff is hard on a smart phone!

    2. I can't believe you're managing your blog from a smart phone while you're on the road! Now that's dedication! :)