Are writers born or made?

The whole ‘Are Writers Born or Made’ debate is still very much alive, and I thought I’d have a go at unwrapping this onion from the perspective of a writer who believes they are very much not “naturally talented” at writing. I’m not saying this to be humble or self-depreciating – I really wasn’t very proficient at writing when I was little. I remember quite vividly during ‘story writing time’ at around age 10, always wishing and dreaming that the teacher would finally pick my story to read to the class. But she never did. Because there was always someone better and more ‘talented’, who could express themselves far more succinctly on the page than I could. And so I was left with my daydreams, keeping my stories hidden and out of sight.

When I was about 13 I noticed that one of my friends, who was particularly intelligent, appeared to be born with a knack for putting pen to paper. She could spout flowery, knotted prose on command. My words were jagged and messy in comparison, and most just didn’t make sense half the time. Her poems were layered with double entendres and cute euphemisms, my poems were full to brimming with gaudy alliterations and over the top onomatopoeias.

The level of skill my friend showed was miles ahead of my own, even though I was the poor mug plugging away, day after day, typing up stories into my parents old desktop computer. My friend didn’t write very often, but when she did, there could be heard adoring ‘ahhhhhs’ from teachers all around. It didn’t seem entirely fair, as my friend didn’t even enjoy writing. And even though I was always in the advanced English class, I had to work really hard just to stay there.

There certainly are people out there who sit down to write their first novel – and joyfully discover that they are actually really good at writing. It comes naturally to them, like breathing or eating chocolate. This category of incredibly blessed writers need only a bit of spit and polish before they become truly wonderful writers, conjuring up stories that can make your heart simmer and glow… or whimper with despair (think Jessica by Bryce Courtenay).

Then there are the rest of us poor souls, destined to spend countless years and thousands of hours typing away on our laptops before we can join their ranks – if at all. Occasionally we will finish a story and proclaim it ‘marvelous’ only to look back on it years later and shudder in horror. For someone who was clearly not born to be a writer, how long will it take them to tidy up those adverbs?

Chris Allen informs us in his guest post at The Creative Penn that:

It takes ten years and one million words to build a good writer ”

That’s a helluva lotta time! And to make matters worse, Malcolm Gladwell popularised the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. I mean, that’s just ghastly! I much prefer Ivan Izo’s interpretation over at Write on Fire, who points out that 10,000 pages is a far more realistic estimate – which is still a s— load of writing. But which guide post should we be using? And should we be using one at all?

I decided to be a little crazy, and I compiled a word count of all the stories I’ve ever written since I was 14 (unfortunately I don’t have access to the ones that are still on my parents’ old desktop computer) to compare my own stats to these numbers. I am quite happy to poke fun at myself and admit that some of my stories are tragically bad. Like picture what you imagine is bad, and then add a layer of soggy cake on top and that’s how bad they are.

So… far I’ve written 796,436 words or (divide that into roughly 250 words a page) 3,185 pages.

Dang, that’s nowhere near 10,000 pages! And I’m still many thousands of words short of Chris Allen’s one million word goal – say about 3 books to go?

You know what, I think it’s best to just completely disregard these insanely high numbers, and do what works for you (otherwise your sanity may be threatened, and I’m very much against that happening). I believe that if you work hard enough, you will one day become that ‘good writer’ you want to be, whether it’s two months or ten years from now.

There is no doubt that the most important attribute you really need to be a successful writer is resilience, not talent. Not ony to put up with all the rejection you’ll undoubtedly face over your career, but to be brave enough to continue writing even when you’re afraid you’ll never be good enough.

If it’s your dream to become a published author one day, don’t ever give up hope of finding an editor, publisher or agent who thinks your story is f—— brilliant and needs to be told ASAP. Because they’re out there right now, just waiting for your query. And we all know what separates the published authors from the unpublished ones. Published authors never give up.

🙂

33 thoughts on “Are writers born or made?

  1. I think (and hate myself for the diplomacy I’m about to spout) that a writer is naturally born or talented, even if it is only a small spark of talent (think of all the kids in your class who couldn’t write for love nor money- I’m sure no amount of hard work would have helped them) but if that tiny spark (or enormous burning flame) is not fanned and tended to, it will eventually fizzle out. I say this because that is how I feel. I always had a major talent for writing( humble, I know 😂) and if I had never kept on and on working at it and of course READING I don’t think that all these years down the line (although tragically unpublished ) I would be able to call myself a good writer today. It is exactly like singing : I’ve been a professional singer for 14 or so years, before that I was always singing wherever I could -school, Uni, karaoke! (I haven’t sung for a few years since baby and moving back to the UK) but I had/have a natural talent. HOWEVER, had I not practiced and worked and improved my technique I’d be 1/2 the singer I am today. Countless friends and acquaintances who had singing lesson after singing lessons were still, well, crappy singers because they didn’t have the little spark. Makes sense?
    So in short, after hijacking your comments section, it is natural talent (you clearly had it, regardless of what you’re saying) but it has to be tended to and nurtured and it will grow into a fiery inferno if you’re committed enough.
    🌺🌺

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  2. Pingback: Are writers born or made? – Stories of then

  3. I can’t worry about such things, I write, I paint, I sing and dance. I am fabulous at painting nails and owned a very successful business, I’d rather paint rubbish pictures. Do what makes you happy and you will succeed either way

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  4. Both. Writers have it in them but it also has to be nourished and inspired. In my case, school surely didn’t help. I came to it on my own when music stopped being a creative outlet. Perseverance is also key because for most of us, success doesn’t fall into our laps. It took me 21 years and 689 rejections.

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  5. Thank you for your take on this topic. I’m a former teacher and it’s interesting how the most naturally gifted students aren’t always the most ‘successful’ in the long run. There’s something to be said for having to work for what you want, and value in struggles to teach perseverance!
    I have to admit, the teacher in me doesn’t like the tie-down of the stats either- but I never was a big fan of massive assessment tools being used to measure everybody (or maybe it’s just because I’m nowhere NEAR 10,000 words and I do love my adverbs…)
    🙂 Anne

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  6. I love this thoughtful post.
    They say that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration and I think that is definitely true. If I am born talented at writing and don’t work hard at it, that would be wasted talent. If I don’t have talent but put a lot of work into writing, then I have a chance at being a good writer. I’d rather be the latter!!
    Thanks for stopping by my blog 🙂

    Cheers,
    Sophie

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  7. Milly, don’t just count stories, count everything including all your blog posts. It will start to add up very quickly and all writing contributes to a writer’s development.

    Also writing jealousy is very, very pointless. Because it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between a great writer and a good writer who has a good editor or sometimes even an okay writer with a great editor.

    But you have great ideas and often that’s more important than anything else. Great work as always. ☺

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  8. What a great and inspiring post Milly! I love this line – “What you really need to be a successful writer is resilience, not talent.” I will keep this in mind absolutely. Thank You for the motivation.

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  9. Don’t know if they are made or born, myself. I do know that I’ve seen them all work for it, so that must mean they are made. Like me that have an obsession with story, manipulation, and trickery, so that must mean they are born. Maybe it’s both?

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  10. Hi Milly … love this post!! Particularly love the last line about never giving up; even though it is so hard not to on some days. I loved writing at school, but when I look back now I think ‘Gah!! How embarrassing!’ My style has changed so much. I see a mentor with another ‘aspiring writer’ … our styles are SO DIFFERENT. She is one of those long prosy people with brilliant descriptions and imagery. I am short, straight to the point. After working together for nearly 2 years, we’ve finally come to realise we have our own styles and, while they are very different, neither pegs us as a better writer than the other … just different.
    Are we ever an expert? I think not. The learning curve never ends and that’s what makes it exciting (and frustrating at the same time.)

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  11. Great article! I think writers can be either born or made. But like you said, it’s the resilience and hard work that pays off in the end, no matter how well someone can write. You’ve certainly got lots of stamina and determination- very important traits, all those words you’ve written so far will help get you published one day.
    Besides – you’ve got an awesome blog with a large following, so you’re already doing something right!

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  12. How to define “good” writing? The same piece of work can be praised by one critic and rubbished by someone else. And books that are “well written” are not necessarily the ones that sell. I think it’s best not to take too much notice of conflicting advice from others, but develop your own voice and write what you like – if you’re very lucky a publisher may like it too.

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  13. I love this! There’s an Ira Glass quote that I really love about how when we’re moved to do creative work it can be tough – because at first we’re probably not going to match the heights of the authors we love. (There’s a link here: http://writerunderground.com/2011/04/28/ira-glass-on-creativity-or-the-gap-between-our-taste-and-our-work/) I often need to remind myself of this – that by doing the work that’s how you get better! Only the writer who doesn’t carry on putting pen to paper will fail to improve.

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  14. “Like breathing or eating chocolate.” Wow I love that analogy! This posts has helped me understand how hard it is for people to write and feel great about it. I have been told my whole life that I am an excellent writer but I didn’t believe until about a year ago. You are totally right about resilience. There are so many sides to the coin of writing and it all depends on how it lands in your hand. Thanks for shedding light on this subject!

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  15. Milly, I love this post! It’s my view point, and experience, almost exactly. I was not educated as a writer, and was never particularly good at it when I was in school or even undergraduate and graduate schools. But, I have a desire to write. Keeping a journal saved my life, after all. I have no where near 10,000 pages, or hours, under my belt. But I don’t let that worry me because I know the more I write, the better I get. I’m also dispensing with the approval of agents and publishers. My book is self-published with the help of writer friends who helped me improve it. It’s not perfect, but I like the way I told the story, and my writer friends like it too, so there you go. On another note, thanks for following my blog. I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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  16. This is a lovely article. I believe writers are made, because no matter how talented you are a person that is hard-working is more likely to produce a higher quality of work. Effort makes the most.

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  17. I love to write, and I know I have a long way to go. But that’s okay, I’m learning 🙂 I’m also a visual artist. I’m much better at painting than writing. I get a lot of compliments on my work and when people say ‘you’re so talented’, it drives me crazy! I worked hard to get good at painting. Yes, I loved creating art when I first started and I was really bad at it, but I loved it enough to keep working and making it better.
    Jo-Ann

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  18. I tried for a lot longer than ten years to be published–long enough that if I could see the future, I would’ve just given up. But I didn’t, and now I have sold 30 stories. Talent is nothing without persistence.

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  19. Thanks for sharing your story. I don’t think I even want to do that math to count my pages, nope, just going to keep on sitting here, writing more words. Trusting that one day something good will happen. Also reminded of others who have said a really bad draft is better than a blank page because you can edit and revise a bad draft. Not so a blank page.

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  20. How do you feel when you go to the Library and see A DOZEN books by Stephen King or James Patterson? Whoa! Intimidated or inspired? I can’t even SIT STILL that long!? (PS: I just posted 800 words. LOL!)

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