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 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday January 17th, 6:46 AM
Comment by: mary P.
And how does this author know what 'natural' writers experience? Based on one comment from her talented son? This article did not expand understanding of the personal writing process, the differences in approaching the page in applying the ink in searching the soul. A natural writer is not a nimrod, can we get away from name-callling, and find ourselves writing more thoughtful work. Am I supposed to be heartened by the fact that natural writers don't get it, or that they are not perfect, or that nat as a natural writer I too am OK. I cam away from this article thinking I don't want to know how to write faster, better and to use 8 1/2 steps. I'll muddle along on my own.
Tuesday January 17th, 10:41 AM
Comment by: JoAnn M. (Bellaire, TX)
Daphne - loved the article. There are many life lessons here regardless of one's chosen area of work. I did not see it as a criticism of those that are naturally talented at anything, but a reminder that honest introspection likely leads to improved performance. Probably a good thing Mary is a natural writer, because editing doesn't appear to be a strength.
Tuesday January 17th, 10:51 AM
Comment by: MELODY H. (Westminster, CO)
Well done Daphne!The example of your son as a "natural singer" proved a great analogy for me. So while I recognize I am not a natural writer, I have had similar problems in other areas of my "natural intellect". You've answered a life question for me! Perhaps you were born an Editor, but missed a calling as a Psychologist! (...P.S. I got your humor and thought it was appropriate and funny!) :)
Tuesday January 17th, 12:50 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Mary, I'm so sorry that you inferred I was calling natural writers "nimrods"! I certainly did not mean to imply that.

In my experience — and I've worked with several thousand writers over the past 38 years — people tend to fall into one of two camps: they prefer editing or they prefer writing. I believe this is generally because they are naturally talented at one or other of these two tasks.

Also based on my experience, more people tend to be natural editors than natural writers. I'm not saying that either of these states is better than the other -- that would be like suggesting being right-handed is better than being left-handed. It's not as if anyone has a choice! We are all born as we are born, and we have to deal with it.

Natural editors need to learn to "let go" and write with abandon, putting their editor selves aside for the time of writing. Natural writers need to learn to focus on the job of editing after they've had the "fun" of writing.

I'm not convinced that one "side" has it any easier than the other...
Tuesday January 17th, 12:51 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for your kind words, JoAnn & Melody!
Tuesday January 17th, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Tom K. (reston, VA)
Mary P. Your challenge is not that you are a natural writer, it's that your reading comprehension needs work. The author was referring to editors, not writers, as nimrods - tongue and cheek at that. Ponder a bit deeper into the article's message and you'll find that she is offering a general observation that could be applied to any person of natural talent, from writer or singer to athlete or actor. Sometimes the chip on one's shoulder obscures understanding...
Tuesday January 17th, 9:07 PM
Comment by: Lori M.
Tom K, Forgive this nimrod editor: tongue-in-cheek, right?
Thursday January 19th, 12:07 PM
Comment by: Yvonne P.
Why is dissertation writing so difficult?
Wednesday January 25th, 7:27 PM
Comment by: Karen C.
Wow! For excitement and entertainment this is the place to be! A pleasant respite from the events at hand. I too enjoyed the article and can see many ways to apply the conversation. This definitely crosses all fields of interest and "natural" talents. It also gives us something to consider when we are working with people who experience their lives from a set of lenses different than ours.
Wednesday February 8th, 2:09 PM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
"A professional writer is someone who finds writing harder than most people do."
-- Thomas Mann
Friday February 10th, 12:30 PM
Comment by: John O.
This story drills down to the core of its subject. I discovered a screenwriter at a social event in Hollywood and immediately fell in love with his natural story sense. I hired him to write two screenplays. He wrote each one in a very short time, and both were brilliant. I know something about brilliance, I was involved with Steve -- before he was addressed by his full name Steven (Spielberg) when we both were put under term contract at Universal City Studios back in the day. Fast forward to my comments. The writer has refused or is unable to do re-writes on these two screeenplays. I have paid for professional story coverage by Hollywood readers, as I didn't want to damage the potential of each and submit them to the studios befoe they were ready. So, there they sit in the top drawer of my desk in my office while I try to recruit another talented writer to carry the torch for the original very talented natural writer who I affectionally call a "Nimrod."
Thursday June 22nd, 7:41 PM
Comment by: Ronald T.
Thank you, Daphne, for relating your son's natural talent story. Duncan's insight on it - and his willingness to own it - are commendable in one so young. I too have suffered for years with the tendencies and side-effects of natural talent, musically - as a classical baritone singer - and as a writer. The deadly combination of extreme self-criticism and natural talent thwarted any serious progress I might have made to a successful career in either discipline. I wish I had understood at his age what Duncan does. My life would most certainly have developed differently.

Your blog gives me new inspiration and encourages me again - at 63 - to write. The excellent practical suggestions and tools you provide focus my efforts away from the noisy objections in my head and onto the stories I want to tell. I now write "crappy first drafts" on my blank-screen laptop with a timer ticking in the background. Who knows, perhaps the fruit will be writing others want to read. Thank you, for the blog and the new spark it gives me.

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