Is Talent Overrated? 8 Things that are More Important than Talent for Writing Success

by Anne R. Allen

I often run into new writers who want to be reassured they have talent. They sometimes ask me to read some fledgling work in hopes I'll pronounce them "talented."

I always decline. (A wise author never goes there.) It's not simply that I can't fit one more thing into my already jam-packed schedule—it's also that I have no way of telling if people have talent.

I can only tell if they have skills. And if they don't have skills—which they probably don't if they're newbies—their job is to acquire some, not rely on some stranger's opinion of what abilities they were born with.

In fact, sometimes I think the most insulting thing you can say to an author is, "you're so talented," although I know I've said it myself, intending to praise.

But when most of us say an artist is "talented," we actually mean "skilled".

Lots of people are born with creative gifts—but very few have the ambition and determination to use those gifts to create anything meaningful. Many talented people sit around in cafés and talk about the great art they're going to create someday.

But skilled people are more likely to be at home actually creating it.

I believe everybody comes into this world with certain talents, and the talents you're born with will probably determine the path you take in life (assuming you live in a society where you're allowed to choose.)

You find out what your talents are by what you're drawn to. Nobody else can tell you that.

But even if you do have loads of talent, that and five bucks will get you a Venti Caffe Mocha. What you need is talent plus skills.

And acquiring skills takes time.

I have known lots of wannabe writers who sabotaged themselves with magical thinking about their own talent. Usually some teacher or mentor told them early on that they were gifted in some way, and this made them feel special.

Feeling special is great, if it motivates you to work hard and acquire skills.

But unfortunately, for a lot of people, this "special" feeling either makes them feel entitled to a fast-track to success, or it paralyzes them with fear they can't live up to the promise.

This is because so many people believe talent alone is all that's required to be good at something.

It seems to be true of writers more than musicians, visual artists, or athletes. I suppose because there's a prevailing feeling that "anybody can write." But that's simply not true. Nobody's born knowing how to write strong, compelling prose. You need to study and practice.

What aspiring violinist wouldn't take violin lessons? What painter doesn't learn how to mix and apply paint to canvas? What golfer doesn't constantly work to perfect a golf swing?

But writers think we can hit a hole-in-one on our first day on the course without so much as a lesson.

Some seem to feel too entitled to bother to study the craft and business of writing at all, and others seem embarrassed to admit how much they don't know.

It's as if they think they're betraying that talent by going out and learning how to use it.

Agent Jo Unwin, talking to the Bookseller in October said something I don't think I've heard voiced before: "it seems to me that the people who find it easy to submit to agents aren’t necessarily the best writers." She added: "Some people feel more entitled to write than others."

I recognize the two types of writers she's talking about. And I fear I may have once been in the ranks of the "entitled." I queried way too soon and expected agents to recognize my talent even though I hadn't studied enough about the marketplace to know what today's readers are looking for.

I'd spent most of my life reading the classics and shunning the bestsellers my academic family considered "beneath" them. And yet I wanted agents to see my work as the next bestseller. 

 Obviously I still had a lot of skills to acquire. 

Mostly I learned them the hard way. But you don't have to—if you put the idea of your "special artistic talent" aside and work on other things that are more likely to steer you onto the road to success.

8 Attributes That are More Important than Talent for Writing Success

1) Drive

To become successful writers, we need the determination to overcome the obstacles our subconscious will erect for us. Sitting down and actually putting those first words on a page can be one of the toughest things you'll ever face.

Our fired-up NaNoWrimos out there are showing that determination. Good for you!

We all need the courage to put butt in chair (or if you're super-health-conscious, get behind one of those standing desks) and start typing words. And make sentences of those words. (Why sentences? Here's a hilarious piece from the New Yorker on how (not) to write a sentence: guaranteed to make you laugh.) 

After that, you have to make the sentences into stories. With characters. Who are not all idealized versions of you. Stories with scenes in which something happens. Something that propels the reader into the next scene.

Sounds easy. But many "talented" people never get there. I have known tons of talented sentence writers who never learned to write a story. On occasion they may write poetic, reflective vignettes. Usually about sitting in cafés. But anything more would take away from their sitting-in-cafés time.

They lack drive.

These days we also need the drive to build a social media presence and author platform while we're learning craft, or all those lovely stories won't reach readers.

2) Passion

You need to be in love with writing. You have to fall in love with the process itself: not just your characters and story and what's going on in your head. Not just the praise you get from your critique group or your readership. You need to adore the day-to-day work of putting the story on the page.

If you don't feel the passion, your reader won't either.

3) Listening Skills

This may be the most important ability of all. If you can't listen to other people—and work to truly understand them—your stories will be flat and repetitive.

If you only write about yourself and your own thoughts and experiences, you'll bore your readers silly. You also won't have much to say. As Nikki Giovanni said, "If you wrote [only] from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."

You need to tell stories about other people. How do you find out about other people? By zipping your own lips and listening to them. And caring about what you hear.

This is true of listening to your fellow writers, too. Sometimes they can give you insanely stupid advice—more on that in a future post—but usually you can get some pretty solid tips.

4) The Desire to Learn

I'd say about 50% of wannabe writers don't actually want to learn to write. They want to BE writers, but they don't want to acquire the skills to do it effectively.

I've actually heard newbies say stuff like, "I don't need to read a book about how to write. I got A's in English all through high school and I'm a great speller."

There's a word for people who think they know everything already: ignorant.

Writing is like any other craft. You need to learn the rules. And then practice, practice, practice until they are second nature to you.

I love to quote Somerset Maugham's great observation about writing rules: "There are three rules of writing. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are."

But actually we do know what some of the rules are—up to a point. We have rules for grammar, spelling and word use. (They're slightly different for fiction writing—more on that in another post.)

There are also some fairly firm rules about point of view, story arc, and character development. And the necessity of conflict. Not to mention believable dialogue and non-snooze-inducing inner monologue. We need to learn them.

We also need to learn to make the words flow on the page without sounding as if we're robots, illiterates, or pretentious asshats.

Plus we need to learn these rules tend to evolve according to changes in the marketplace and new technology.

Those aren't "talents" you're born with. They are skills you have to learn.

5) The Ability to be Alone

I suspect a lot of those café sitters are simply extroverts who have a tough time being alone.

I'm not saying you have to be an introvert to be a good writer. Many great novels have been written by extroverts. Many have even been written in cafés.

But these are people who are actually writing, not talking about it. And when they write, they're creating their own "alone" space. You can't write without it.

And no matter where your "room" is, you have to be able to tolerate your own company.

Columnist Michael Ventura wrote an iconic essay on the subject for The Sun literary magazine over two decades ago, called The Talent of the Room, and it is all still true:

"Writing is something you do alone in a room. Copy that sentence and put it on your wall because there’s no way to exaggerate or overemphasize this fact. It’s the most important thing to remember if you want to be a writer. Writing is something you do alone in a room."...Michael Ventura

6) Understanding of the Marketplace

You wouldn't open a dress shop or a hardware store without visiting a lot of similar retail establishments. And you wouldn't open a restaurant without noticing what other restaurants are located nearby.

Publishing is a business, and if you want to sell a product, you need to know what's selling and what customers are buying.

This means reading the books on the bestseller list. Or at least knowing about them. You don't need to read a one-off viral phenomenon like 50 Shades of Grey as much as you need to read the writers who top the list consistently. Especially bestsellers in your genre. It's the only way to understand what readers are expecting right now in terms of style and content.

It's also important to read the classics, of course. If you don't know what has gone before, you're going to waste a lot of time re-inventing the wheel.

Mostly you need to read, period. As Stephen King said...and I keep repeating:

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut."...Stephen King

7) Gratitude

If you reject information that's offered to you, and stubbornly cling to bad writing habits—or take lessons as personal insults, you're in for a grim time.

It's good to remember that every failure—as well as every success—can be an opportunity for growth and a way to acquire the skills you need to succeed.

When some beta reader sends you back your ms. bleeding with comments about your misuse of commas, this is not the time to stage a temper tantrum. It's time to buy a grammar book and learn something about that pesky punctuation mark.

You should also be glad you now know why all those agents rejected your pages. Maybe your story is great, but they saw 20 misplaced commas in the first page and hit delete.

I'm not saying you should be grateful for every pointless, mean review, or the idiot critique that is only about the critiquer's agenda.

And I'm not saying a little wallowing in hurt and anger isn't therapeutic when we're in the stage of gathering rejections or getting those first one-star reviews. (Yes, everybody gets them.)

But after that, figure out what you've learned (sometimes, of course, what you've learned is that the world is full of asshats whose opinions are based on ignorance and/or malice, but that's important stuff to learn, too.)

Then be grateful, accept the lesson and move on to the next level.

8) Persistence

You knew I was going to say this, right? Yeah, there are thousands of Internet memes with inspirational messages like, "The difference between success and failure is persistence."

Things get to be clichés for a reason. People think they're worth repeating.

Here are some of the more popular ones:

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. Thomas Edison

A successful man is one who can build a firm foundation with the bricks that others throw at him.
David Brinkley

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. Confucius

Failure is just a resting place. It is an opportunity to begin again more intelligently. Henry Ford

It’s not how many times you fall down, it’s how many times you get back up. Unknown

Is Talent Important? 

Sure. Talent helps. But less talented people who are willing to work and learn are more likely to succeed than wildly talented people who aren't willing to put in the time to acquire skills.

In a 2008 essay titled The Myth of Talent, photographer Craig Tanner said,

"Conventional wisdom says that it is not enough to dream. You need talent. And definition of talent lifted straight from the dictionary describes talent as 'a natural ability of a superior quality'. In other words, you either have it or you don't. I call this cultural flaw in our self-awareness the Myth of Talent. And buying into this dead end myth about ourselves is where it goes wrong for many people – particularly people who have a dream of becoming an artist."

His essay argues that the real talent is indeed skill, which can be acquired, and is not not an accident of birth. "the truth about talent is this – talent is a set of skills you develop over time through desire."

What about you, Scriveners? Have you ever worried whether you have the "talent" to be a writer? Were you told you were talented and found it hard to live up to the title? Have you known wildly talented people who never produced anything meaningful?



by Shirley S. Allen  (my mom)

A woman who had such determination that she published a novel at age eighty-five and another at age eighty-nine. 

"Jane Austen meets Little House on the Prairie"

The true tale of a powerful woman who pioneered the American West: Anne's great-great grandmother,  Roxanna Britton, born in Western Reserve, Ohio in 1833. This gripping novel based on Roxanna's extraordinary life was written by Anne's mother, novelist and scholar, Shirley S. Allen.

Widowed as a young mother, Roxanna breaks through traditional barriers by finding a husband of her own choice, developing her own small business, and in 1865, becoming one of the first married women to own property. We follow her through the hard times of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to a homestead in Nebraska to her final home in Elsinore, California. 

"This has become one of my all time favorite stories of "real" people. Ms. Allen's adept use of dialogue and her clear eye for drama and suspense kept me compulsively turning the pages. Her evocation of a bygone era, rich with descriptive details--the historical Chicago fire is one vivid example--is absolutely brilliant. I will never forget Sanny and her family, especially her struggle and her daughters' struggle to become individuals in a male dominated world. 

"But it is family that triumphs in the end; and the need for it to survive resonates most deeply in my mind and heart. An excellent novel that I highly recommend to anyone who enjoys reading true stories about people who not only overcome adversity with grace and integrity but through strength of character also prevail. Well done, Ms. Shirley Allen!" Ann Carbine Best

Roxanna Britton is available as an ebook at  Amazon USAmazon UKAmazon CAKobo, Nook, iTunes, Inktera, and Scribd.


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WALKER PERCY PRIZE IN SHORT FICTION $15 ENTRY FEE. Winner receives $1,000 and publication in New Orleans Review. All finalists considered for publication. Enter previously unpublished original stories up to 7,500 words. Deadline December 31st

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