Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Talent is for Cheats – the 3 things a writer really needs

A wag once said that writing is 10% talent, 90% hard work. That’s a shocking over-statement of talent required. You can be a successful writer with just a modicum of talent, quite possibly with none at all. Here’s what you really need.

The ability to create

Imagination and invention - you were born with it, but you whipped it out of yourself as you grew up. Responsibility requires decisions, decisions require solutions built on workable answers - the adult world has no time for dreamers, for ‘what ifs’ - but as Socrates would tell you, the truth doesn’t lie in an answer, but in asking the right question.

Watch this space for further ideas on developing your imagination. You must train yourself to be a compulsive creator. NEVER block an idea – roll with it, let it develop, let it fester. Blocking is the death of creation, and will be the death of you. Capture as much as you can – most of it will be nonsense but some of it will be priceless.

The ability to craft

Learn how to write – there are plenty of writers who will present you with ruleslearn them, master them, transcend them. This is at odds with the creative process, and indeed can stifle creativity if you mix the two – but as a writer you must be bi-polar – you must be a romantic and a realist. You must be able to produce ideas to the point of self-indulgent inanity, and yet you must be a brutal critic; you must be liberal in your creating, fascistic in your crafting – but you must be them at different times.

Read every book in the world, read all the books on writing you can, exercise your writing as much as you can – do it without restraint and without concern for its impact on your creativity – that’s a separate issue. Then apply everything you’ve learnt about the craft on that steaming pile of inane ideas you’ve come up with.

The ability to achieve critical distance

Give enough monkeys enough time and they will indeed come up with the works of Shakespeare, but without critical distance, those damn’ monkeys would never know it. You could be the crappiest writer in the whole world but if you kept at it long enough, you’d produce something publishable – that’s why critical distance is key, and arguably the most important skill a writer can develop.

Craft and experience will make you a better critic, but if you can’t take emotional detachment from your work it comes to nothing. Time is the best way of achieving it – remember that life-shattering first relationship break-up? It may have taken twenty years but now you can calmly deconstruct why it all went wrong – same situation with your writing.

Create, craft, critique - that's all there is to it. Leave talent for the cheats.


  1. And er... that's it.

    Stirring post as usual, James. I agree with all of it but particularly the points about creativity. When we're at infant's school we're encouraged to make things up. Once we're being coached to pass exams, we're told never to make things up any more.
    I remember taking my English language O level (rather early because I was a swot) and being told not to take the creative writing option in the essay paper because 'nobody does them well'. Total rubbish - in all the time I'd been at the school I hadn't written one factual essay for an English exam, I always did the story. I ignored the teacher and got an A.

    Now, a lot of people now ask me how hard it is to make things up. I've always done it, so I didn't have to unlearn how not to. But how many of those people who do find it hard had English teachers who told them to grow up and write proper essays only?

  2. Yes! The best stories I read are the ones that are the most creative!

  3. @Roz great comment, - thank you for taking the time. Yeah, I did the creative writing bit of the English O level. Proves the point that English A Level didn't even have a creative writing option. (showing our age here) Sounds like you've managed to stay connected to your imagination tho. Mine's always been there festering away, but I must admit that I'm having to reconnect and stoke it up a bit - it's become a little bitter and twisted, so I'm being nice to it.

    @Laura - thanks for stopping by and commenting - followed your blog too, looks interesting and I'm looking forward to reading more.

  4. 'English A level didn't have a creative writing option'... I'd forgotten that, but you're right! Still, it was better than university-level English, which (at London University) was all about regurgitating critics. Not only was it devoid of creativity, they didn't even want your own response! But I digress (bit between teeth)