Talent and craft


Jay Lake talks about the value of talent and craft right here. It seems to me that this is a misguided post, mainly because it never really defines the difference between “talent” and “craft.” If I’m reading him correctly, he’s asserting that there are a set number of skills a writer needs, and the writer’s talent is made up of the skills they have without practice, while craft is made up of the skills acquired with practice.

I think this is misguided. Let me go further. “Talent” is not some inborn trait. Maybe some people have biological, social, and cultural tendencies that make certain parts of writing easier to learn, but once the skills are there, how do you tell them apart from “craft?”

You can’t. Not really.

Personally, I believe every writing skill is learned. I’m teaching a couple of them to my son right now (not to make him a fiction writer–god forbid) and he’s practicing them whenever he tells a story. The best thing to do is to learn as many of those skills as possible as a child, when learning is a little easier than it is for adults. And if practice can be made fun, so it never feels like practice, so much the better.

I define talent as accuracy. A writer who can accurately predict the effect of a specific sentence, a particular character, a certain sequence of plot turns, is considered talented. The more subtle or sublime the effect, and the more original the construction, the more talented the writer is perceived to be. A writer who can’t predict the effects of their sentences or plot twists is not considered talented at all.

Writers who acquire these skills early are called talented. Writers who acquire them late call it craft. In truth, talent and exceptional craft are pretty much indistinguishable–if you pick up a wonderful book by someone you’ve never heard of before, how much of that wonderful came from some nebulous, inborn “gift?” How much was learned?

Talent is teachable. It can be hard or easy to teach, depending on the person, but it’s something most anyone can learn.

What holds writers back is not lack of talent, it’s lack of critical self-examination, qualified instruction, and willingness to be original.

Okay, procrastination over. I’m going back to work on today’s pages.

4 thoughts on “Talent and craft

  1. Rob Smith

    I think how you apply the words talent and craft work when you are talking about writing but what about something else? Say basketball. I can get my body into its best shape, practice shooting, driving and other skill sets to the best of my ability and still not be a talented basketball player. (In fact, I’m not.) I may have improved my skills through craft but does that equal talent? I don’t know.

  2. I’m not sure why Askimet won’t recognize your posts; it keeps dropping them into spam. Sorry about that.

    I’m not as concerned with the qualities people need to be successful as I am with the qualities that people attribute to the successful. How is anyone going to tell if your quick first step came from “talent” or “practice” or both in some immeasurable combination?

    They can’t. What matters is the craft. It’s easier for some than for others, but it’s all craft, imo, until someone proves otherwise.

  3. I’d agree that craft dominates and that one could be a successful writer mainly via craft.

    But there are some people who just aren’t very imaginative and they can’t really get imaginative through practice. They can still be successful writers, more easily in some genres than others. But it will be a limitation.

    Along a similar line, there was this one comedian who said that he feels sorry for corny people. They try to be funny but they can’t help but be corny. It’s not some fault of theirs. But they’re just gonna have to go through life telling un-funny jokes and being the only person in the room who laughs at them.

  4. Actually, people can improve their imaginations. It’s been tested.

    People filled out questionnaires asking for creative input. Their answers were pretty uncreative. The same people were asked to fill out the questionnaires as if they were hippies or painters, and their answers were wildly creative. Once they got out of their own way, they could do it.

    Also, have you ever read a book on writing comedy? Coming up with jokes is mainly about sitting at a desk and making long lists searching for inspiration. It’s more about toil and practice than brilliance.

    Just sayin’

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