Only the gifted few (Mistake #71)

Some weeks ago I wrote Mistake No. 69 and received a tweet from a writer who told me bluntly he’d stopped reading at a certain point during the post, fairly early on.

That point was: “But it’s not really about the writing. Most people can write.”

I asked him neutrally whether the post had bored him or whether he disagreed with aspects of it. I was quite willing to engage and would’ve welcomed the feedback or discussion, as a lot of good can come from disagreement. But I didn’t receive a reply. He later deleted his tweet.

It’s speculation, but his quoting of my words back at me led me to eventually suppose, perhaps unjustly, that he must have objected to my view that writing wasn’t all-important and that ‘most people can write’, rather than to anything I wrote which preceded it. This suspicion was, I admit, reinforced by the fact that I’ve met some resistance to these opinions before.

I’ve tutored non-fiction for around eight years, and in that time I’ve seen the work of thousands of student writers – both my own, and those of tutors I’ve provided holiday cover for. I’m not bragging or rating my opinion more highly than yours should you disagree with what I am about to say: I’m just giving what I’m about to say some context.

And what I’m about to say is around 90% of people whose work passes before me can write.

Now I realise it’s a subjective assessment – what does it mean to be able to write, anyhow? – but it is what it is and it’s the only one I can practically make. And I realise this assessment is not formed of a sample taken from the general population, but from a sample who want to write and have enrolled on a writing course, but still. I’ve read and read and read, and reread and reread and reread, and I cannot escape from my view that Most People Can Write. Or, more accurately, Most People Who Want to be Writers Can Write.

And some people – writers, actually – appear displeased about this. Whether or not it applies to the Tweeter who got me thinking about what I’ve written in this post, I’ve nevertheless come across a fair few others, online and in person, in my time. And some have even written about this displeasure in print. I can never forget a snooty little article I once read in Writing Magazine perhaps ten years ago, penned by a writer who was tired of people telling him that they thought they could be writers, even going so far as to criticise a man of medicine, I think it was, who had plans to write in his retirement, suggesting it was somehow on a par with him (the writer) having a future ambition to take up brain surgery.

What I suspect is that some writers see themselves as members of an exclusive club. They want ‘being able to write’ to be, and be seen as, a rare skill. ‘Most people can write’ is a knock to the ego on which this perceived exclusivity is based: it’s a challenge to the notion that it is an infrequent, and therefore more special, talent.

I imagine it suits some people that the idea persists that only a few make a living from writing because only those few are good enough to do so – but I’m not sure this is true. I’d say the picture is like this: only a few make a living from writing because most of the rest who can write but don’t end up in the business either don’t apply themselves for long enough, or aren’t unlazy enough, or get frustrated at the obstacles, or disillusioned with rejections, or they realise writing is not what they wanted or hoped it would be, or that it’s too badly paid, or too hard work. Or else they simply end up going off and finding something far better to do – because, no, not everybody sees this as the be-all and end-all.

Writing for publication – which is what I’m on about here – is about ideas, about research, about people, about salesmanship, about entertaining and about educating. I know nothing of fiction, but I know a bit about non-fiction and about publishing it and, atheist that I am, but Good God it is Not About The Writing.

Being able to write, I think, correlates quite closely with a love and passion for reading, which is one of the reasons why I’m always banging on about the value of reading. So given that you’re reading this, I’ll wager that you can, almost certainly, write. More than that: you can probably write to publishable standard.

And if someone doesn’t like that? Well, that’s a stubborn piece of gristle in their throat and nothing for you to fret about.

Comments 9

  • Spot on. It's reading, persistence and a hefty slice of luck (though someone once told me you make your own luck – that's what hard work is) that gets you there.

  • Thanks VP. And yes, I'm sure you're right about the luck…

  • I agree Alex. When I get novice students in my classes to 'write on demand', from a prompt – I do that to show them that they CAN ALL WRITE. Mostly they are surprised and delighted at what they've produced in five minutes. The hard bit, is of course writing something longer – a short story, an article or a novel – that's still as good. I think that boils down to technique (which you can learn) and practice – which just means writing and reading lots.

  • Absolutely – thanks for comment, Helen!

  • Yes, I agree with you, Alex. Most people can write. Most people are capable of having their work published. But only those who work hard actually see their work published regularly, or find their larger projects published. And yes, as VP says, it also takes luck. Thomas Jefferson once said, "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more of it I have."

    The Roman philosopher, Seneca, said: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." I like that quote. Those who find themselves having their 'big' projects published are those who've undertaken the preparatory work and are ready when they spot the opportunity.

    So yes, 90% of people can write. But of those only a few have the drive, the determination, and the luck to be published.

  • Great quote from Seneca!

  • A point well made although I think, as you say, it's worth remembering your sample isn't taken from the general population. Having taught literacy to a sample from the other end of the spectrum – a group of fourteen under 25s who had to attend my lessons or lose their Jobseeker's Allowance – I know that in some sample groups, you're lucky if 90% of them can string a simple sentence together. So while I debate your percentages (sorry!), your message is spot on. Enterprise, motivation, self-discipline, confidence, determination, the ability to resist freaking out because you spend your days with only a laptop for company; these are the skills that turn 'people who can write' into 'writers'.

  • Good post. I totally agree, and believe most writing techniques can be taught in time. Although, hard work and luck are the main players without doubt.

  • Lots of good points, Alison – and yes my sample is a very narrow and specific group of people. Particularly like the 'not freaking out' one!

    Thanks for comment, too, Maria.

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