Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: You Must Be Talented to Be a Professional Writer
(This is a vastly updated chapter on this topic from six years ago if it sounds slightly familiar. But it needs to be a chapter in the new Sacred Cows book.)
The word “talent” has been used for a very long time to destroy writers.
I have always believed that the word is the worst myth of them all in publishing, so here goes a chapter that I’m sure will be annoying to some people. Especially to those of you who think you are talented.
Okay, first to my trusty and well-worn Oxford American Dictionary for a standard definition.
Talent: Special or very great ability, people who have this.
That’s about it. Pretty straightforward. Notice the word “ability” and notice it says nothing about being “born with.” Just notice.
Okay, when it comes to writing, let me put my definition right out front here.
Talent in Writing: A measure of a person’s craft at storytelling at any given moment that depends on who is judging and the age of the person being judged.
As I have said before in a number of places, when I started writing, I was so untalented, it scared anyone who even tried to read something I wrote.
In school I hated writing because I was so bad at it. If I had listened to all the people who told me I had no talent for writing, I would have quit four decades ago. No, make that six decades ago, because all my early report cards said I had no talent for writing.
Now, after millions and millions of words practiced, many books and stories published, I get comments all the time like, “You are a talented writer, of course you can do it.”
Or one I got the other day. “You have the talent to write fast.”
Sorry, that one actually made me laugh.
Well, when I started to get serious about fiction writing, it took me hours and hours to do one page. Then that page would be so poorly written and riddled with mistakes that it got tossed away more often than not. Yup, I was a “naturally talented” fast writer.
Thank heavens for me I came to the realization early on in my life that talent was only a measure of craft at a certain point in time and nothing more.
Yet, frighteningly, parents, teachers, and so many family and friends think that talent is FIXED. If you are talented when you are young in something, you should be for your entire life. Well, sadly, as many have discovered, it doesn’t work that way.
For example, at one point in my life, I was a very talented golfer. Now at the age of 65 I suck at it. But some of the locals I play a round with at times think I am talented because my swing still looks pretty. Ahh, the measures of talent.
Yet parents and teachers early on are determined to saddle kids with the “talented” label or worse yet, push them away from things they don’t do very well at first because they have no “talent” for that.
Just makes me angry every time I hear of it.
If you call a student talented, it’s an excuse for them to not work as hard. “It’s easy for them.” If you say they don’t have talent, you allow them to not try at all, or think something is impossible to do and then quit.
In my opinion, talent is a deadly word to attach or even mention in front of any child.
Now, let’s look at writing. James Lee Burke, Stephen King, and others at the top of the lists are the most talented writers we have working. Many readers don’t have a taste for a certain writer’s work, but doesn’t matter. The bestsellers are talented storytellers who sell millions of copies every time they put out a new book. The evidence is in the sales.
I’ll take myself at this moment as an example. Compared to a beginning writer, I have a vast talent for writing. Compared to King, well not so much.
— My talent AT THE MOMENT is a measure of my ability and craft. Right now.
— And it depends on who I am being compared to.
— I am not permanently FIXED at this talent level. I can keep learning, practicing, working hard, and get better. Yes, I can become more “talented.”
And, of course, that measurement of my talent is also completely subjective to who is doing the looking. One new writer might think I’m talented, some other writer might wonder why I even get published at all, let alone make my living at it.
So how did I become so “talented?”
And how do I hope to become as talented as King someday?
Practice and focused study and an intense desire to keep learning.
Then more practice mixed with the constant drive to learn and become a better writer with every story I write. As I improve my craft, sell more books, I will become more talented.
FACTORS OF BEING TALENTED
A proclamation of TALENT on a person depends on a number of factors.
1…Age of the person being judged.
Tiger Woods. As a kid, his father had him hitting golf balls. And his father was training him how to think like a golfer as a kid.
So he goes onto the Mike Douglas Show as a very young kid and manages to hit a golf ball into the air about fifty feet. WOW, he was talented. (For a kid his age.)
But compared to me at that exact same time, if you just look at simple golf skills, no age factor at all, he was awful. At that moment in time when Tiger Woods was that kid on the Mike Douglas Show, I was a full-time professional golfer playing qualifying stops for the tour. I could fly a ball past 300 yards and seldom was over par on any course. Compared to me in strict golf standards, Tiger Woods at that time had no talent at all. I could hit a ball backhanded, standing on one leg, blindfolded farther than he could hit one at that same moment in time.
Age of the person observed was the major factor in calling Tiger talented at that time.
So what made Tiger Woods into the most “talented” golfer on the planet from that kid who could barely hit a ball fifty paces? Practice and focused study and then more years and years of practice and years and years of focused study. He learned how to hit a ball farther than I could in my prime, he learned how to win, how to control his mind and his ability. He hit millions and millions of golf balls and played millions of holes of golf over a lot of years.
In other words, his craft improved as he got older.
As a kid, people called him talented, as an adult, they still call him talented. He managed to continue to increase his talent, his craft, his ability. He never once let the “talented” label go to his head. He was lucky and well-trained.
2…What scale are you comparing the talented person to?
For example, I hope to run a marathon this fall near my 66th birthday. If I trudge along two weeks before my birthday, my age class will be 60-65 and I will suck compared to others. I will not be considered talented at all. But if I pick a marathon two weeks after my 66th birthday, my age class is 66-70, and you know, in that age class, my pounding and huffing along might be considered pretty darn good, even talented though I will have the same time either way.
A kid in high school English class might be able to write a paper better than his classmates because he’s spent time at home writing in a journal for five years. He has better craft because he has practiced and the others around him haven’t. So he gets called talented compared to the other people in his class. But now someone like me comes in, sits in that class, with my years of experience writing and I write a paper. I would be called the talented student now and the previous talented student would just fade into the pack.
Talent is relative to who you are comparing the person to.
So why do I consider the talented label as one of the worst myths in all of publishing, and the most destructive? Because I’ve seen it kill writer’s dreams so many times over the years.
Both sides of the coin are destructive. Talented or Untalented.
Both judgments kill writers’ careers if the writer lets the judgment go in deep.
In my Clarion six week workshop, I was the least talented of the twenty-three writers who were there. No one was even close to how awful I was. And I got toasted every critique and rightfully so.
All the negative feedback just made me slightly angry because I knew they were right, and it made me want to work even harder. (Remember, I had been very, very good at two national sports before Clarion. And I had been accepted and made it through years of law school when no one thought I could do it. I knew that practice and hard work were the key. And when you want to play at a national level, you have to work harder and longer than everyone else in the country. I knew that. I was willing to do that.)
So what happened to the most talented person at my Clarion? When I was the publisher at Pulphouse ten years later, I bought his only short story sale, a story he had written at Clarion. He got so much acclaim in that workshop and from friends, he clearly thought writing was too easy and went on to other things that challenged him.
I’ve had “talented” friends get angry at me and become bitter. They think because they are talented they don’t have to work. Yet there I am, working my butt off and making sales and getting better, but because they think talent is a “fixed” thing, and since I had no talent, but am now selling, the system has to be broken in some way.
Or worse yet, I would get the comments, “He was lucky.”
As Kevin J. Anderson once said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Yup. And the harder I work, the more I practice, the more I want to learn, the more talented I become.
Wow, who knew?
Comments like “He was lucky” often come from nothing more than thinking that talent is a fixed measure of a person. My old friends who saw some of those early stories would never think of me as talented. I’m fixed in their minds as hopeless and it’s head-shaking to them how I have gotten so lucky.
Why am I here?
Because I worked harder than most people.
In fact, I got angry once at a workshop of students who just shrugged off my success as nothing more than luck and me being me. I challenged them all that I could write more books in one year than all of them combined. That’s right, combined.
Six young professional writers against me. And I beat them. I did more work, wrote more books, in one year than all of them combined. None of them ever questioned again why I was more successful.
So it might also be safe to say that talent is a measure of how hard a person works at their craft.
The harder a writer works, the more a writer studies, the more talented a writer they become.
As I do with every chapter, I want to talk about solutions, but in this case, there aren’t many I’m afraid. At least not easy ones.
You have been labeled “talented.”
And you believe it.
That’s the worst thing that can happen to you, actually, in writing, if that little voice in your head that drives you actually took that word in and believed it.
The symptoms will be some or all of the following if that has happened.
—Your writing has slowed down.
—You will be getting angry at rejections.
—You will believe that no one understands your work.
—Your ego will be so huge, you might think there is no point in going indie because no one will be able to find your wonderful words.
—You will start looking for shortcuts to becoming rich as someone with your “talent” should be.
Alas, ten years from now we will be looking back (f we remember you at all) asking that awful question: “What ever happened to…?”
How to fix this problem?
Not a clue, actually, because I can’t help you with the ego. Chances are that if you have been given this label and believe it, deeply believe it, you are doomed. You will believe you no longer need to work, to learn, that you are good enough and it should just happen for you.
Once you stop working, stop trying to get better, stop learning, you stop.
In essence what happens is that you fix your talent right there and then stand and watch the rest of the world go past.
If your little voice really thinks you are talented and you think that famous is only for the lucky and bestsellers are bad writers, you are doomed.
You have to kill that voice somehow, some way, as quickly as you can.
The belief that you are talented locks you in and closes doors.
But killing that voice, letting go of that belief that you are talented and dropping back to the belief that you must work harder and harder to attain what you want is difficult at best.
Because of fear.
Inside, deep inside, you understand the truth, but fear uses the talented label as a shield.
Remember that talent is a measure of your craft at the moment which depends on who you are being compared to and your age. Best thing I can suggest is figure out where that “talented” label went in.
And then kill that moment.
For example, your workshop kept telling you that you are talented, but no one in there was published, and yet you believed them and it went in. Oh, oh… Get away from that workshop, join a workshop (and keep your mouth shut) that has professional-selling writers in it.
If your “talented belief system” can survive being torn down and you can go back to wanting to learn and get better, you might have a hope.
Find the source and clean it out of your mind as quickly as you can. If you can. Get professional help if you need it, which with this problem, you more than likely will.
Besides all the things I mentioned already, how do you really know if you have this problem? Simple…You think that all you need to do is sit down and write that great idea you have and polish it until it’s perfect and your talent will be shown to the world.
Problem is, you just can’t seem to find the time to write it. (Which is your deep mind saying, “Don’t try, you might fail. Better to believe you are talented than try to write and prove you are not.)
Truth: Thinking you are talented is an excuse to not work, to not write, to not learn, to not drive forward. Thinking you are talented is a reason to be lazy.
The Flip Side:
So what happens when you really believe you have no talent, when that has gone in deep?
Almost as bad as the flip side, actually. Having a label of being bad at something gives us all an excuse to not do it, even though we want to. Back to the fear issues.
You think “If I am so bad at this and it’s impossible for me to learn because I have no ‘talent’ for it, why should I even bother?”
Fear wins and you stop and never really try.
I hear this all the time these days from newer writers. It goes like this…
“I’m new, my stuff is bad, why should I mail it to an editor or publish it indie?”
So the fear stops them and they do nothing. Same death as feeling talented.
On this side of things, I had already lost my belief in the talent myth. So when I started into writing, all the pounding I took because of my poor craft just motivated me to learn and get better. I was told over and over, by everyone from my family to teachers that I had no talent for writing. “It just wasn’t me.”
I was talented at skiing, or golf, or math, or architecture. (Never was talented at the law.) Why didn’t I just stay with those? (I got that question more than I want to remember.)
But interestingly enough, I had the strength to stand up and say (in my own mind) “Only I know what’s right for me.”
In writing, only sales are the judge of quality writing, no matter what anyone says or how loudly someone proclaims themselves to be the judge. Readers purchasing your books and enjoying the read are all that matter.
(Seven years ago I counted how many books I had in print and the total was 17 million. Yet I get badmouthed all the time by young indie writers who have a few thousand sales and think I have no idea what I am doing. I haven’t even counted all the sales of my hundreds of indie titles yet. Someday I’ll waste a day or so doing that.)
And the only way to get more sales and to find more readers is to practice and learn and keep working harder than everyone around you. And not get in a hurry.
So if you have been given the “untalented” label, (and you believe it) you have to somehow climb over the fear, tell everyone to go take a flying leap, and just keep pushing forward.
Sadly, most won’t. Writing is hard enough just learning for the lucky ones that weren’t saddled with either side of this myth early on.
I have never believed I have talent. I have never believed I am untalented.
But I have believed in my own ability to work hard, practice, and keep learning.
And so far, that’s got me past a lot of proclamations by observers telling me that I have no talent or that I am talented.
And these days, I hate to admit, those hit me in about equal measure all the time. And that just makes me laugh.
The real bottom line is that to get past this myth, you have to believe in yourself and ignore everyone else’s belief system about you. Learn from others, but ignore what they say about your “talent.” Because the moment you take that alien belief system into your own mind and believe it, either good or bad, you are doomed.
Talent in Writing: A measure of a person’s craft at storytelling at any given moment that depends on who is judging and the age of the person being judged.
In other words, TALENT CAN BE LEARNED.
It’s up to you to work hard, practice hard, learn everything you can learn, so that you also become a “talented” (meaning skilled) storyteller.
The myth of needing talent or having no talent kills more writers careers than any myth in the business.
Don’t let yourself fall to this one.
Wow, Dean, thank you for this. It resonated with me so much.
I was told I was “talented” at writing since I was in school. And my experiences seemed to support that. I won awards for my short stories in school. I sold the first novel I ever wrote to a publisher. I continued winning awards and getting accolades. And you know what happened? Exactly what you said: I stopped writing. I haven’t written anything in years, and I miss it, but I feel stuck and unable to move forward because I have this “talented” label to live up to. I fear Indie publishing because yes, how will anyone ever find me?
I don’t think I have a huge ego – in fact, I think all the people who thought I was talented were unable to see through the facade. In fact, I think I have so much to learn that I don’t even know where to begin. And yes, I’m paralyzed by fear. Because somewhere along the way, I also internalized the fact that everything I write should be a bestseller. Rejections sting because they prove what I’ve known all along: that I’m really not all that talented, and I can’t live up to people’s expectations anyway, so why even bother trying?
You’ve given me so much to think about with this article. I’m going to have to figure out how to get past this.
Elizabeth, really glad you saw the article for what it was. Most writers in your place would just get angry at the article and ignore it. So because you were able to see it, you are already miles down the road toward fixing the problem. Miles. Because you can see it.
Now it is only a matter of tossing away the expectations and just having fun with the writing. Just tell stories. Doesn’t matter if they are good or bad, let readers decide that. Just tell stories. Do the best you can and get onto the learning path. And if you must, start a brand new name for the writing. That sometimes is enough to free the soul from the shackles of talent.
Another key is to start being excited and having fun with the learning. That attitude will also brush back the talent myth. If learning becomes fun instead of threatening, you win.
So have fun and congratulations and thanks. Always good to know that at least one person saw the article in the way it was intended.
EPIC post, Dean. Thanks for much for this, it’s bookmarked and will be re-visited often. So much of this applies to every other field, you could easily substitute writer/writer for any profession or hobby and it would work just as well.
Movies feed into the talent myth a lot as well. I watch a lot of movies and, having read your blog, when I see all the writing myths on display in the movie, basically saying, “THIS is what a writer is,” I either chuckle or get annoyed. (It depends on how the myth is presented and whether the character should know better.) When I was younger, I’d see authors in the movies and think, “Oh, that’s what being an author is like.” Now, I know better, but I wonder how many writers out there see the same movies and say, “Oh, they have talent so I could never do that.”
Of all the cinematic author characters you’ve seen (movies or TV), which ones do you think come closest to what being an author is like and which ones made you howl with laughter or just change the channel?
Throw Mamma From the Train is a wonderful writer movie that pokes at every writer myth. Don’t remember a real writer character because, to be honest, we’re way too boring.
I was fortunate be labeled neither talented nor talent-free by my teachers. I did conclude that I was no good at writing essays on literature for English class, which was disappointing since I’d adored reading from the moment I learned how. Unlike most teachers today, mine in the 1960s gave no instruction at all regarding how one might right an essay or a story or any other body of writing. They taught sentences and sentence structure and then seemed to assume that we could take it from there. Perhaps some students were able to do so. I was not one of them. And it didn’t occur to me that I could study existing essays, etc. Even if it had, I wouldn’t have been able to figure out how to pursue such study when I was 10 and 12, etc. Obviously I figured out enough to escape being labeled hopeless, which was good. But my own conviction that I didn’t have what it took wasn’t much better.
In my early twenties, I stumbled into working for an RPG company, and was called on from time to time to contribute small paragraphs here and there, when the contracted author failed to deliver his manuscript and everyone in the office who could string a few words together was called on to contribute an assigned section of the scheduled gaming module. That’s when I realized that I actually could do this writing thing!
I did a little practice unconsciously, using the opening of a favorite writer’s novel as structure, and writing my own words to fill in the sentences, matching the sentence lengths and structure, and paragraph lengths. It was just for my own learning. I never showed it to anyone. But it heartened me further. Enough so that I tackled my own adventure module, Gethaena, which was eventually published.
It was decades later however before I attempted short stories and novels. I think all the practice at storytelling in the game setting was really helpful, however, when I eventually tackled straight fiction.
A very good chapter on how useless the word talent actually is. Geoff Colvin has written a book that I recently read called “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else” and it has some nice bits on what happens when people who are considered “talented” don’t bother to practice hard in a way that is well planned. I just had to mention this since I feel this chapter is considering some of the same things but from a writer’s perspective. The interesting part for me was that hard work tends to pass by “talent” which I just consider different starting points that have been created from differing environments and resources when growing up (of course physical differences can be a bit different but in writing we don’t have to consider them as much).
I think a lot of people don’t consider to research their goals, be that goal a writer, golfer, lawyer. Odds are somebody was there first why not learn from it? I remember reading that Steve Jobs considered one of his most important moments to be when he realized that everything around us was built by people and its possible for just one person to make a difference. The same way we built up “Great writers” and only consider their ending point and not the actual journey they’ve traveled to get to that point.
Of course if one does research into a writing career they will encounter all the myths/misinformation and as such I’m really looking forward to this new Sacred Cows book.
Linda Maye Adams
I started writing when I was eight because my best friend Rebekah was writing. Wrote pretty much all the time (even got into trouble for writing during class!). So when a creative writing class popped up in 7th grade, we both applied for it. She got in. I was summoned to the counselor’s office and informed by the counselor that I could not take the class because I wasn’t “capable of it.” She didn’t give any explanation for it. But it was devastating to me. I went back to my classroom and cried, because I really wanted to be in that class.
In hindsight, she was probably measuring it by grades. I wasn’t a great student. I’m visual-spatial, and poor with details, which never translated well on tests. I also am not a very good speller and I flip words (train for tree) or leave them out all the time. But spelling doesn’t make a story, or characters.
But I was also lucky because my parents were supportive at the right times. So instead of slinking off and never writing again, I got mad and wrote more. In 9th grade, there was an essay contest, and I picked up an honorable mention (the winner was a sappy thing on school spirit). Take that, Counselor! My best friend, who did get in the class, stopped writing after the class.
BTW, I picked up my second honorable mention in the Writers of the Future contest.
Dean, I think you might enjoy the book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” by Anders Ericsson. Lots of research about deliberate practice and its benefits. Takes a good look at Mozart, Paganini, famous chess players, athletes and more.
Thanks, Lassal. I’ve scanned the book and agree, a good one.
I read Peak based on these few words. Thanks for mentioning it.
I am wonderfully blessed with a gift: the desire to tell the stories in my head. But like a set of custom golf clubs, it will sit in a corner and collect dust if it isn\’t taken out and worked with. My sister loves golf, and practice over the years means she no longer hits quite as many signs, trees or turtles. (The turkey was a complete accident. Or so she swears.). I love stories, so I take my gift out and work with it. I take workshops, I read books, I practice. Most importantly, I keep writing. Hopefully in a few more years the turkeys will be safe from me, too, but only if I keep using that gift and don\’t let it rust.
(Thanks for the answer in regards to confidence versus complacency, by the way. I saved it for my files as a reminder both now and in the future.)
Hi Dean. Great article! This whole discussion about talent reminded me of something. A University Professor had once written something in my reference that makes me laugh till this day. It says something like this, “Although he is not naturally talented, he makes up by hard work!”
I am enjoying your essentials videos on you tube. I really like your suggestion of incorporating all five senses into the writing and notice that every writer has his/her way of doing it. I have a question. I constantly hear about the phrase, “Show don’t tell” in fiction writing. Personally I don’t like the “Show don’t tell” phrase because it sounds very much like a strict rule. I like your suggestion of incorporating five senses which I feel gives me a lot more freedom. But how is your suggestion different from the “Show don’t tell” rule we keep hearing all time?
Show, don’t tell is a way to try to get writers from writing as a writer and crawl inside a character’s head and show the story from there. It’s a stupid saying because it doesn’t help writers in my opinion. But learning depth of writing ends up making readers feel like they are with the character, which is showing. But the silly saying “Show don’t tell” means nothing concrete to anyone and can cause more issues than it helps. But just my opinion.
That is the first time in my entire life I’ve ever understood that phrase. And wow, what a difference it makes. I’ve always figured it was a rule I was going to have to accept I was too bad a writer to follow because I could never do what other people seemed to mean by it. _This_ makes sense; I can learn to do that.
Dean to the rescue again!
On the subject of talent, this is very valuable. Because I’m like Elizabeth; everyone has always told me what a talented writer I am. But then if something isn’t perfect, if I can’t live up to that, then it’s all been a lie and I’m not really anything. Failed lawyer, failed writer. It’s a nasty, pernicious thing, and the only thing to do is to not let it win. (And never use that word with my children. Never.)
I agree with you, Dean. When I was following the “Show Don’t Tell” rule, I was struggling to write sentences. Every word I wrote, I obsessed whether I was showing or telling. I think that is the negative side of the rule. It makes you focus excessively on the words than on the story and may even cause the problem of rewriting where you needlessly restructure every sentence in a way that makes you think you’re showing. But when I read “Writing into the Dark” and your suggestion of getting inside the character’s head, words flowed easily. It was like acting where you pretend to be the character, act like him or her and feel his/her emotions. 🙂
I’d like to add that the “scale of talent” changes over time.
I’m not a big fan of football (soccer for you) but even I noticed that the games have gotten faster over the last two decades. A knowledgable friend told me players ran 3-5 kilometres per game back then, today it’s 10-12 km.
So the talented player from 1996 would have a hard time getting into a team of today.
It’s the same with some classic authors IMO: Back then they were hot but today better writers tell better stories. Of course, the predecessors laid the ground.
But standing on the shoulders of giants isn’t always flattering to the giants.
I have a friend who speaks, writes and reads 5 languages fluently, three living, two dead.
She was called talented by a few People in a way I can only call insulting. How is this insulting?
Of course! It’s God-given.
EVERYBODY with her TALENT could do it. It surely has nothing to do with the fact, hat she studies every day, watches newsprogramms in a different language every day, reads her leisure reading in different languages, organises to train with native-speakers – and trains them in German in return, because she can’t afford to pay them.
No. It’s all talent.
Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to put down her abilities. They are astounding and admirable and amaze me every day I see them in Action.
But I hate the fact that some People call her “talented” in a vaguely jealous tone that devalues her hard work and implies she didn’t earn them, when in fact she was responsible for making time for it and not a genetic fluke.
Yup, calling someone talented to explain away their work and focus is an insult. Every time.
My parents raised me to believe I was naturally talented at everything – and I’ve been spending the past decade or so trying to understand why I self-sabotage my writing, business ideas, etc. (pretty much everything but relationships) and how to stop it.
Thanks for giving me a new angle to work on!
“I get badmouthed all the time by young indie writers who have a few thousand sales and think I have no idea what I am doing”
Wow. Seriously? Where in the world do they get such egos? I would have thought these so-called writers would be smart enough to “google” you to find out your bio. But of course, they’re probably among those who count readers too stupid to know a good story so the thought wouldn’t occur to them. 😉
Yup, happens all the time and I just ignore it and they fade away. I try to help those who are driven and want the help.