Natural talent ruins writing careers?
I just read an article, and it really changed the way I think of my writing, and my overall productivity in general. The article in question is The Atlantic’s “Why Writer’s are the Worst Procrastinators“, which expounded on the fact that many – if not most – writers have a habit of procrastinating.
Not news, right? It’s general knowledge by now that the hardest part of writing is, well, actually writing. The interesting part of the article is its explanation for why.
Most people will agree that those of us suffering from the affliction of wanting to put pen to paper probably did pretty well in English class, and by extension, most of school as well. Without trying, we were able to turn in papers and stories that were the best in the class, better than those of the other kids who had to put in effort to simply get a B.
And we were rewarded for it. The teachers would mark our papers with gold stars, read them in front of the class, maybe even whisper to us clandestinely after the bell rang that our paper was a little flower growing out of the pile of dung that consisted of everyone else’s work.
And what did we learn from this? We learned that success is based mostly on natural talent and ability. We certainly didn’t learn that success is something that can be strived for. You either have the building blocks for it, or you don’t.
Flash forward ten years to you, the best kid in 9th grade English class, competing for success against all the other kids who were best in their 9th grade English classes. Your position in this new group of peers is probably a lot more middling than it once was, I’m guessing.
You’re being judged to a whole new standard – but you know your work simply doesn’t live up to it. Heck, it’s not even as good as it sounded in your head last night while you were planning this masterpiece in bed. Something is simply lost in the process of trying to get that thing from your brain cells and out through your fingertips and onto the screen.
Since you never learned how to fail, or even succeed through hard work rather than through sheer talent, you decide to give up. In essence, to keep that masterpiece in your head, where it still has the potential to be AMAZING. Once you’ve written it, it won’t have that potential anymore.
What was amazing to me is exactly how much this described me. Seriously, it was as if someone created a case study of my life. And I’m going to bet that, if you’re a writer, this story probably bears more than a passing resemblance to yours.
I really do suggest reading the article, where they explain it ten times better than I did. Mostly, I want to talk about how we can use this new self-awareness.
how to use this knowledge to improve your writing
Now that you know all this, you can use this knowledge to your advantage. Next time you sit down to write and you want to give up because the words don’t sound right, remind yourself that any words written – no matter how crappy – are automatically better than those that aren’t. Make a concerted effort to find out your weaknesses and work on them, rather than relying on your natural talent.
In one of Freakonomics Radio’s recent podcasts, “How to Become Great at Just about Anything“, psychologist K. Anders Ericsson spoke of the importance of ‘deliberate practice‘. Two necessary elements of deliberate practice are:
- you must pick an element of your work that you actively try to improve upon
- you must be engaged and challenged by the practice, otherwise you will naturally plateau
So if you’re often being told that your dialogue needs work, try to find ways to improve on it – look for specific exercises and writing prompts to help you do so. It’s also incredibly important to get feedback, and get an idea of how your writing stacks up to other/published writers by reading deliberately. It’s impossible to know where your writing stands if you live in a vacuum.
So… how do you plan to strive to improve your writing? Let me know in the comments!