Over the years, many people have asked me to look at their writing. “I need to know, do I have talent or not,” they say. “Then I’ll know if I should pursue writing or stick to accounting.”
Their request is seriously flawed, I’d reply. Anyone can become a better writer. When I taught English Composition at various colleges, I saw irrefutable proof of this. Students who submitted hackneyed, half-dead writing to start with turned in lively, well-written essays by the end of the semester. Likewise, I’ve seen plenty of writers whose work seems plain and unimaginative get assignment upon assignment from magazines while others with dazzling wordcraft skills can’t get published anywhere.
According to Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, I was right to question the query about talent. Dweck’s book, Mind-set: The New Psychology of Success, reports research showing that in education, the arts and business, people who believe talent is fixed and inborn do not fully develop their potential and do not recover easily from setbacks.
Her best news: You can change your mind-set about talent or intelligence. In only two months, kids who were taught that the brain, like a muscle, improves with exercise saw
their math scores rocket from F’s to B’s.
Toss out the belief that you either have writing talent or you don’t. Instead, approach getting published as requiring a set of skills that you can deliberately learn. These skills include:
(1) Being sensitive to the differences between words. A good dictionary can help with this, if you consult it to learn, for example, whether a “cauldron” is the same as a “kettle” or when a gang member would be said to have “bravery” and when “bravado.”
(2) Recognizing that getting your message across has less to do with what you meant and more to do with how readers understand the words you put together. If no one “gets it,” you must write it differently. Often this lesson is harder for those who feel desperately called to write than for those with a more matter-of-fact attitude toward writing.
(3) Being willing to put a piece of writing aside, look at again in the cold light of the morning and rearrange, replace and revise the elements of the piece to tell the story more clearly and more artfully.
(4) Having the discipline to learn and apply the rules of spelling, grammar and usage. Yes, when your work is accepted for publication you’ll usually have an editor who’ll save you from major mistakes. But editors prefer working with those who know and follow the standards of professional writing.
(5) Being able to bounce back from disappointment. In the writing business, the possibility of rejection never goes away. Successful writers learn not to take it personally for more than an hour or so, then they simply go on to the next publication outlet or the next writing project.
From what I’ve observed, these five skills and attitudes matter much more for success as a writer than anything we’d generally label as talent. Resolve to develop yourself along those lines and you’re certain to get somewhere as a writer. Really!