Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Why Writing Talent Doesn't Matter

My triplets turned 19 this year — a family milestone that set my rapidly graying head spinning: How did they go from fitting inside my belly to being three such enormous teenagers? How did I survive the early years on so little sleep? What on earth did I do with all my spare time before having kids?

Mostly, however, I've been reflecting on what three different children they are. My husband and I have always felt that a stranger off the street would never peg them as siblings. 

Claire, the eldest, by three minutes, is quiet, diligent and hardworking. She carries the maths and sciences gene (from my husband's side) but is more athletic than either of her parents. Not only has she been playing soccer for 13 years, she's also coaching a young girls' team. She's studying sciences right now transferring into Kinesiology in September.

Duncan, the middle child, is smart and musical. He began composing at age 9 and he sang so much as a child we used to joke that we were living in an opera. Last year he auditioned for (and was accepted by) a real university opera program. This is more unusual than it sounds because he's also profoundly learning disabled and never attended school before this year. (We homeschooled him.)

Alison, the baby, is the most empathetic person you could ever hope to meet. Last week she was sick and unable to attend a show for which she'd bought a ticket. "That's okay mom," she said. "It's a benefit for children's hospital and they'll be getting the money. That's what's really important." She's studying general arts and is thinking about becoming a social worker. 

None of them is going into professional writing. Not that I feel badly about that. But if they ever want — or need — to write, here is what I tell them:

We are all born with certain talents. These are things we can "do" without having to work terribly hard at it. I was a born editor. I knew how to edit from the moment I faced the printed page.

Funnily enough, I was not born knowing how to write. It never came naturally to me. I had to learn the hard way. I think being a good editor was actually a profound disadvantage to me in becoming a writer. However eager I was to edit a sentence, I was reluctant to write it. But here's the conundrum: you can't edit (your own work) without writing it first.

It took me about a year to break the habit of editing while writing. And, wow, that was a tough time! I had to cover my screen, so I couldn't see what I was writing. I also used other tricks such as Write or Die, or the Pomodoro to keep my attention focused on my writing. As well, I learned to keep the yammering negative voice in my head from talking so damn much. (I outline the strategies I used in my book 8 ½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better.)

You can learn to write, too, with or without talent. Sure, writing talent helps, but it's less important than many imagine. I recall a friend of mine — a writer — once telling me about a colleague who had written a book. She and her circle had seen a chapter and they all thought it was terrible! But a year later, her colleague had a publishing deal with an enormous advance. No one could figure it out. But I could.

That writer would have ignored his friends' half-hearted support and, instead, kept working and revising. While everyone else was doing other things, he was producing yet another, better draft. What he lacked in apparent talent, he made up for with determination. 

Here is what Iranian writer Dina Nayeri (author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea) has to say about talent: "There is no mystery to becoming a writer. It is simply dedication, heavy reading, [and] heavy revising... It is only about the work."

Writing is like sports or music or helping others. If you want to be good at it, you don't do it only when you feel like it. You do it when it's hard. You stick with it.

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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.