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Good Writing vs. Talented Writing

20 May 2013

From Brain Pickings:

The secrets of good writing have been debated again and again and again. But “good writing” might, after all, be the wrong ideal to aim for. In About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews, celebrated author and literary critic Samuel Delany . . . synthesizes his most valuable insights from thirty-five years of teaching creative writing. . . .

One his key observations is the crucial difference between “good writing” and “talented writing,” the former being largely the product of technique (and we know from H.P. Lovecraft that “no aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules”), the other a matter of linguistic and aesthetic sensitivity:

Though they have things in common, good writing and talented writing are not the same.


If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story. It will still not be a good one. The major fault of eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull.

Now old stories can always be told with new language. You can even add new characters to them; you can use them to dramatize new ideas. But eventually even the new language, characters, and ideas lose their ability to invigorate.

Either in content or in style, in subject matter or in rhetorical approach, fiction that is too much like other fiction is bad by definition. However paradoxical it sounds, good writing as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finally what turns most writers away from writing.

Talented writing is, however, something else. You need talent to write fiction.

Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings and thanks to Patricia for the tip.

Writing Advice

45 Comments to “Good Writing vs. Talented Writing”

  1. Yes. There is a difference between competence and talent.

    I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have some talent and the desire to express that talent creatively. But the form changes. Some are talented in words, some in pencils, some in musical notes. But the ability to express ourselves creatively – I think – is inherent to our humanness. The medium changes, the inherent creativity does not.

    However, I don’t believe talent is given in equal shares.

    On the plus side, I could be wrong, but I think talent can be developed. I think it is developed in different ways that we expect – by deepening and growing as a person; by processing and understanding our experiences; and through practice. But not just wheel to the grindstone practice. Practice that takes into account guidance (a good teacher or mentor is worth gold), experience and deepening of our perceptions.

  2. Crap.

  3. I suspect all writers question their talent, writing alone in their garrets. Maybe the better question is does it take talent to write a good book? Delaney’s argument seems to be that talent resides primarily in voice, something even most editors can’t define. A rousing good yarn told competently can be a good book, even if the writer isn’t talented in writing prose. At some point you have to be realistic about your limitations. I will never write the Great American Novel. I’m not good at writing sensory detail or extended metaphors. What I am good at is writing funny romantic comedy. I don’t know if Delaney would classify that as a talent. I’m more inclined to consider it a quirk of my brain. I just see the world through a funny lens. So I try to work on improving my weaknesses but my style is always subservient to my irreverent voice. But in my heart I long to write an emotive historical novel filled with evocative description and extended metaphors. I just don’t have the talent.

    • Dre – I totally hear you. Oh how I wish I could write fiction (and sing like a lark, paint like a master and dance like Gizelle)! But I can’t – I just don’t have the talent for it. Fiction and story eludes me. I just can’t figure out what happens next. 🙂

      But I may have a talent for non-fiction. So, I have to sigh, try to write the books I can write, and keep trying to do the best I possibly can in my genre.

      And for the record, I adore funny romantic comedies! Much more than evocative, lyrical historical novels actually. So, your books would bring joy to my life, and there you are. 🙂

  4. I had to unlearn all my creative writing courses that weren’t poetry courses. It was all technique, technique, technique, and never a thought spent on storytelling.

  5. I don’t believe in talent. Most every great artist, throughout history, worked their fingers to the bone practicing their craft. And that’s where the illusion of “talent” comes from, when people who haven’t put in the work look at them and say, “Wow, I could never do that.”

    Michelangelo wasn’t immediately a genius the first time he picked up a pencil. He had to practice and hone his craft. It’s definitely true that some people start out ahead–the children of writers are exposed to writing from an early age, and people who read a lot as kids have an advantage over people who didn’t. But it’s mistaken and damaging to think that that has to do with a biological limit to potential writing skill that is somehow hard-coded into our genes.

    • I disagree; I think there *is* such a thing as talent. My daughter is a talented artist, and always has been. I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, no matter how hard I try or how much I practice. What you *do* with your talent is a matter of practice, and hard work, but the spark has to be there initially.

      • You’re right, Becca, if it was simply a matter of “working your fingers to the bone and honing your craft”, then Shakespeare must have worked harder than anyone ever, but he didn’t, though he might have worked hard, he also possessed an innate talent for writing.
        All of us are different, and some people are just naturally more talented in areas that others are not.
        Life ain’t fair.

        • My thing is, what good does it do to believe that you need talent?

          Either it leaves people thinking that they don’t have enough talent to be really great, so they work less than they would have and get depressed, or (even worse) it leaves people thinking they ARE talented, giving them a sense of entitlement and even less willingness to work on their skill.

          There was some kind of magic to Shakespeare that made him the greatest writer of all time. He had something that not a lot of people have–there’s no way for me to argue that. But personally, I think that that kind of magic only comes to people who’re willing to work for it. How did Shakespeare become the best writer ever? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it just by being born and picking up a quill.

          • I don’t think anyone is saying that talent alone is enough. We all know it has to be coupled with hard work. But hard work alone isn’t enough either.

            • I think hard work alone can be enough. But this is a case of worldviews–I don’t know that there are any studies or hard evidence to prove it one way or the other.

              Either way, I don’t see what someone has to gain by making “talent” a part of their thinking.

              • @John – there are three extremely good reasons to make “talent” part of your thinking:

                a. Loyalty to the truth makes us better writers; it makes our perceptions clear and accurate.

                b. Acceptance of the reality of life – our limitations, also makes us better writers. Grief cleanses and purifies.

                c. Acceptance of our strengths (the fact that we are talented) makes us more committed and allows us to stand behind our words even in the face of opposition. It helps us value ourselves, and know that we have something to offer. That helps us be passionate, which will empower our work.

                In your posts, you seem to think that acceptance of talent will discourage people or cause them to feel arrogant. If that’s true for some people, it’s a starting place. Emotional maturity, when gained, will integrate both limitations and strengths in powerful ways, causing people to deepen their character and create vision and dedication.

                There is a last reason. If you have no talent for a task, and you put time into it, that is time you could have spent putting toward the talents you do have. On the other hand, pursuit of a goal can be its own reward, so this is mixed. Some people may gain more from the striving. I would never discourage anyone from reaching toward a dream, even if they don’t have talent – that’s a personal decision.

                How do you know if you have talent? I don’t have a definitive answer for that, but I suspect you can tell when, as a beginner, you learn something relatively easily. When you ‘get’ it fast, when it flows from your fingers, when you know what your teacher is about to tell you before they finish speaking, you have talent. That’s not to say people won’t face challenges when they are at the intermediate or advanced levels, but to start, it feels natural.

          • With talent you still have to do the hard work but I think you get to play with breaking the rules earlier.

            Without talent I think it takes longer to get to the point when you know when it’s ok to break the rules.

            However a talented writer may not sell as well as a good writer. Consumers are fickle creatures and aren’t necessarily looking for the next great American novel but something that entertains and does not challenge them.

    • I don’t know where the “talent” portion of the brain is, any more than I’m sure where the “intelligence” portion is. (I know where it’s not. Not the same thing.) However, some brains (and/or bodies) just work better than others at certain things. When we apply this concept to the general ability to deal with unusual or complex problems, we call the result intelligence. When we apply it to general ability at a given specific activity, we call it talent.

      Talent is most easily observed in fields of endeavor which have conventions but not rules.* One really good indicator of talent is the ability to violate convention and have the result be superior to what would have been produced within the limits of convention. Sometimes this produces a new convention, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the new approach really only works for the person who implemented it. The difference between intelligence and talent is the difference between a Karpov and a Kasparov. Either one of them could beat the pants off almost anybody else, but one of them is doing it by being really good at traditional play and one of them is doing it by knowing when not to play traditionally.

      Or, as has been said of Richard Feynman:

      There are two kinds of geniuses: the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they’ve done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark.

      *One surprising example is hypnotherapy: anybody can learn to hypnotize people, but the ability to construct and deliver workable suggestions in anything other than routine situations can’t, so far as I have observed, be taught. Either you’re good at it, or you’re not, and some people are just good at it from the first time they try. From my readings in the subject, psychotherapy works more or less the same way.

      • I’d agree with this. Not everyone can become a “magician,” but anyone can become an “ordinary genius” (hello, oxymoron!). And I don’t know exactly how much separates the two.

        According to chessgames.com, over both their careers, Garry Kasparov beat Anatoly Karpov 28 to 21, with 129 draws. So that’s a margin of seven games–and they drew 129 times. That doesn’t look so bad for us ordinary people.

        • Once you get into the rarefied air of true genius, of either sort, the distinctions start to look very fiddly to we mere mortals. 🙂

  6. Competence and craft are essential, and they’re something that can be learned. I’m always striving to improve my own competence and mastery of the craft of writing.

    The other thing, the thing that makes competent writing great, I think, isn’t so much talent as it is the willingness to let all the power of your thoughts and emotions spill out onto the page without holding back or pulling punches, or bending or watering it down (as in the Kafka quote on the previous post). And that’s something that I think can also be learned, and that I’m always working on improving.

    • the willingness to let all the power of your thoughts and emotions spill out onto the page

      That, sadly, isn’t it either. I have read any number of writers who did just that, and even did it with competence and craft — but the content of those thoughts and emotions was so limited and banal that reading them wasn’t worth the time it took.

      Before you have thoughts worth exposing in that way (emotions are common to us all) you have to do some thinking. That means that you have to put in the hard work of observing things first-hand, and figuring out what it is that you can learn from the evidence available, instead of letting other people (or the media, or schools, or Gawdelpus, ‘society’) make up your mind for you. Nobody ever produced worthwhile writing by being a wall in an echo chamber.

      George Orwell, I believe, hit upon the exact truth when he said that people who are politically or doctrinally orthodox are exceptionally unlikely to make good writers. (He didn’t have truck with words like ‘talented’.) If you are to write good original work, you need to have good original thoughts, and it is astronomically unlikely that your original thoughts will just happen to coincide with someone else’s party line.

      Unfortunately, going along with the ‘in’ crowd is much less work than thinking for yourself, and much more rewarding socially. One can even eat your cake and have it, to some extent, by flattering yourself that all one’s second-hand thoughts and ideology are really the product of one’s own brilliant and original brain. But this will not fool readers. Their nostrils will twitch at the stale smell of a twice-told tale, and whether consciously or not, they will be moved to move on.

      • While I agree with you in general, I would say that many best-selling writers seem to have made a career of telling the same tale again and again… and that’s why readers keep coming back to them.

        • Yes; but such writers at least invented their own formula.

          C. S. Lewis suggested that instead of thinking of good and bad books, we should think of books that appeal to book-lovers and books that appeal to casual readers. Casual readers read fiction for the surprises, to find out what happens in the story, and almost never reread a book. When you rewrite the same story over and over, you’re catering to a fanbase of casual readers by giving them the opportunity to reread your story with the spoilers erased each time.

  7. Bruce Lee theorized human talent as blocks of stone chiseled into skill by technique.


  8. I keep this quote by Daniel Pink on my desk:

    Don’t worry about what other people think. And work harder. Persistence almost always trumps talent.

    • tell that to Amanda McKittrick Ros.

    • Persistence without talent does trump talent without persistence; but talent and persistence together will always take the trick.

      If you want to play with the analogy of trumps, and bring a little life into it, think of persistence as the trump suit, and talent as high cards. Shakespeare was the ace of diamonds — and Elizabeth I bid diamonds.

  9. I have critiqued other writers in my writing groups and in contests. Most of us start in the same place as far as technique. I almost always saw some potential in those efforts. The few times I knew with certainty that a writer wouldn’t make it had nothing to do with technique and everything to do with perspective. These writers exhibited a mundane outlook that made their writing tedious and boring. You can improve your technique, but the lack of a curious, open mind isn’t fixable.

  10. I was thought that any work of art is made of two things, the subject and the skill with which you depict that subject. The skill is acquired through mechanical, repetitive, constant learning and also teaching others. Everyone has a certain degree of ability to master a skill. There are skillful musicians who cannot compose anything worth hearing. There are plenty of painters that will never paint anything that will make people stop and take note. And there are plenty of English language educated people, who write superbly, but they will never write a book, or a book that will sell. The ability to create a subject that other people stand in owe, is talent. When people say he/she is talented at writing, do they mean skilled at writing, or creative, having the ability to produce new and interesting subjects? Is the creative part, the talent. You either have talent, some, or not. Talent will never be achieved through skill alone. Sure you’ll give the illusion of talent by being very skillful, but all you did is copy the masters.
    There is a big difference between talent and skill. Michelangelo was born talented, he like anyone else had to work to develop his skills. Other artisans worked as hard to learn the skill of chiseling marble, but they were Michelangelo’s helpers, not masters.
    Bottom line, people want to be entertained, captivated, intrigued, bamboozled by a book, which is a subject/talent supplied skillfully.

  11. My favorite writing advice ever came from a friend of my dad’s: “you have talent. Don’t let it go to your head. Plenty of talented writers are destined to swing from rope.” to this day i dont know if it was his quip or a quote/paraphrase but i love it. IF there is such a thing as talent, and IF i have it, i refuse to let it hold me back. Lol

  12. Mastery is not the same as innate talent, and without many hours of working at your craft, it’s unlikely you’ll live up to your potential. I understand why we might feel threatened by the notion that no matter how hard we work at it we can only go so far. What keeps me writing is that every once in a while, I’m delighted by a sentence I wrote, which now that I think about it, seems a little nuts. All those years of study and writing, and that’s my reward. William Faulkner was my cousin going several generations back, but I will never have his genius. Should that discourage me from writing? I think to approach anything like satisfaction in this business you have to get validation from a sentence you wrote or a good review or an email from a reader. For most of us, there will always be some writer whose talent and mastery awes us and make us feel humble. My two cents.

  13. The problem with trying to define “talent” is that you can’t. It isn’t a single thing. It’s a combination of inner abilities and fortuitous experiences which we can bring to bear on anything we try to do.

    We all have talents (plural) — and here’s the thing this whole essay misses: the only way to unlock their potential is with skill. You may be a genius at language, but you still have to learn Cantonese to speak it. (And if you weren’t raised with a tonal language, you may never learn to speak it well, even if you can understand and read and write it brilliantly.)

    So yes, talent is partly learned, and even when it isn’t, it may take a tremendous amount of skill development to unlock it.

    And people with amazing talent often don’t know they have it, because they can understand greatness, and they try to match the greatness of someone else, and discount their own brilliance.

    So this talk about talent is a difficult one. We need to talk about greatness, to recognize it. We need to not go around saying, “hey, anybody can do that.” At the same time we so often shut off the potential of other talents by discounting skill.

    The only useful lesson here in that regard is the reminder that “perfect” is often mediocre — but that’s not because the person doing the work is mediocre. It’s because the search for perfect prevents them from doing the unique thing they can do.

  14. I figure talent is the ability to put everything together so it works as a whole, even as the good folks carp about the details.

  15. This ScienceBlog article is timely tonight. A study of chess and music players suggests that practice only accounts for about one-third of the difference in skill levels. The rest could be a function of intelligence and working memory.


    The question is how well these results would apply to writing.

    • To give a couple of similar examples from my experience, I easily beat most people I play Scrabble against even though I only play a few times a year, and the first time I played pool was a friendly match against a school class-mate who competed at regional level, yet I came pretty close to beating him.


      No. I spent years studying maths, so I know Scrabble isn’t about picking words that fit on the board, it’s about getting your high-scoring letters or words on the high-scoring squares, and preventing your opponent from doing so. I spent years studying physics, so I could figure out how the ball was going to move when I hit it.

      It might look like magic to some, but it was largely about taking learned skills from other areas and applying them to different ones.

  16. Craft + magic.

    Where does the magic come from? An inner story teller, reading voraciously, being immersed in a fictional world from an early age (your own and that of the authors you read).

    Not all writers bring the same level of magic to their work, and it doesn’t matter because there are so many readers and so many types and styles of books; so we can read our heroes, who have the magic in unbelievable, inconceivable amounts, and not be intimidated into never writing another word.

  17. Luckily, there is room for us all: those who max out with competence and the few who takes things beyond. Because the same parameters can be attributed to readers. What works for those who enjoy Stephen King (though he’s immensely talented) or Nora Roberts doesn’t work for those enthralled by Faulkner or James Joyce.

  18. Michael E. Walston

    It took me a day or so to mull this over, but I think it’s a valuable perspective.

    Basically, people, he’s not talking about writers. Or their work habits. He’s talking about their writing. There’s a distinction.

    What it boils down to is, some writing is inspired. Most writing isn’t. I agree with that.

    Putting in lots of hours and working to hone your craft are both sort of irrelevant when it comes to true inspiration.

    But I say it’s a good thing to go ahead and master your technique. And the more hours you put in, the more chances you get for the lightning of inspiration to strike.

    Carry on,everybody.

    • “What it boils down to is, some writing is inspired. Most writing isn’t.”

      Please define inspired.

      • Inspired writing is that you read & think, “Damn, I’ll never write anything this good. Ever.” And if you haven’t read anything that made you think that, you haven’t read very much.

        As for good writing vs. talented writing, I’d like to quote the words of Henry Thoreau:

        Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy he can?

        I believe that addresses anyone’s worry about whether one’s own writing is “good” or “talented”.

      • Michael E. Walston

        Inspiration is something that comes from within. It’s a gift. Something that cannot be manufactured.

        As far as a definition goes, that’s the best I can do.:)

  19. I was avoiding this article, but I finally went over and read it. I’m not a writer, but I am an avid reader. I rarely say this about opinion pieces, but that article is total bullshit.

    “Either in content or in style, in subject matter or in rhetorical approach, fiction that is too much like other fiction is bad by definition.”

    That attitude isn’t just wrong, it’s despicable. All fiction is, to some degree, like other fiction in content, style, subject matter, and rhetorical approach.

    This is the sort of claim that can be disproven with a single counterexample. If we can come up with one writer’s whose fiction was “too much like” other fiction in one of those four ways and no one will relegate that fiction to the “bad by definition” category, the statement is wrong.

    The counterexample is really well-known. You may have heard of William Shakespeare. The content and subject matter of almost all of his plays were “too much like” the content and subject matter of well-known plays of other playwrights.

    The attitude reflected in the statement I quoted is a widely used rhetorical device by folks who want to dismiss most fiction without bothering to engage with it. It’s lazy, hateful bullshit.

    • margaret rainforth

      Hey, William, tell us how you really feel!

    • Yes, but Shakespeare brought the magic, those other plays /histories are for the most part long forgotten or at best little known. Shakespeare is the ultimate example of hard work and dedication to craft but most of all exceptional talent and innovation.

      PS I don’t see the article saying anything is ‘bad’ just that some are better. That’s life.

  20. Ockham, you get the TSLTW award. [truth speaks louder than writer]/

    I agree, except you’re more polite that me. Bullshit is genteel compared to what I was thinking first run.

    loathsome and lazy thinking, and so effen twee it’s a wonder {assume that is a quote from Lovecraft] he doesnt have nosebleeds just cobbling together ‘in subject matter or in rhetorical approach’. I’ll run his words by my friends on the docks and see if they think the writer’s writing is ‘bad by definition.’ They have cuss words that even the master, Shakespeare, didnt dream up. And stevedores are the ones who taught me long ago this line I placed in one of my books… ” that people can spout thoughts without ever having thought them.”

    Mercy, y Basta. and thanks.

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