Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Problem with Being a Natural Writer

My 22-year-old son started singing when he was two years old. We'd taken him and his siblings to a Raffi concert and it was comical the way we could see the lightbulb turn on in Duncan’s brain.

"Wait!" the thought bubble above his head seemed to say. "Performers can stand on stage, sing and have an entire roomful of people listen to them and applaud? I like that idea!"

Then, as soon as we returned home, he sat us all down, stood on a pine box in our hallway and made us listen to him sing. Over time, babysitters and friends frequently commented on the excellence of his voice. By the age of 6 he liked to wander down neighborhood streets covering Frank Sinatra songs like Fly Me To the Moon and All of Me.  (Comical in a six-year-old, I know. I only wish we'd recorded them!)

Fast forward many years and Duncan has just completed a four-year university degree in opera. My son and I speak regularly about what he's singing. We chat about singers and music. And we ponder his ultimate career aspirations. But recently he said something that shocked me.

"My problem is that I'm a Natural Singer," he said. I could hear the capital letters in the phrase as he used it. But I didn't recognize the term — in fact, I didn't even know it was a thing. Nor did I understand how being a Natural Singer could be remotely conceived as a problem. Wasn't it something good? Didn't it give him certain advantages? I asked him to explain.

The difficulty with being a natural singer, he told me, was threefold. First, because he had a basic level of talent, he could — and had — "slid by" without learning the techniques that help more "average" singers survive and thrive. Second, natural singers tend not to practice as much, because — at certain levels — they can get away without doing it. Third, they don't get the constructive criticism and support they need from their teachers and directors. This is likely because they are singing to a certain level of excellence and it's perceived they don't need the help.

As soon as Duncan gave me his explanation, I immediately saw the parallels with writing. There are some people we might describe as "Natural Writers." They write facilely and prolifically. They don't suffer from writer's block. They don't make grammatical errors. They naturally use transitions and connectors. Ask them to write and they'll have two questions: What's my word count? What's my deadline?

But like Natural Singers, they also have some problems. Many Natural Writers are allergic to the idea of self-editing. It's boring to them or they don't know how to do it. Once they've written the first draft, they are as done as a cake that's been in the oven 45 minutes.

As well, Natural Writers tend to see writing as something that should be easy. Then, when the inevitable hard work occurs they become impatient with the process. This work might include organizing pages of notes, citing references, pleasing an external editor or handling a story that's particularly difficult. Writing should be fun, they think, and when it isn't — when it starts to look suspiciously like work — they back off.

Finally, they're ill-equipped for the many disappointments that come part-and-parcel with the writing life. They don't like having to market themselves. Shouldn't the world just recognize their talent? They hate the idea of having to do other jobs while they build enough writing work to sustain themselves. Isn't it obvious they're meant to be writers? They resent having to be upbeat and buoyant with (sometimes annoying) editors. Can't those nimrods understand how naturally endowed they are?

Me? I've never had much writing talent. (I was a born editor.) Instead, I believe that hard work and a commitment to improve are the best ways to build a sustainable writing life. You can believe that, too — no matter how much or little talent you were born with.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.