Is talent useless in isolation?

I had a back-and-forth discussion this past week with an aspiring writer, who felt crushed because she “wasn’t talented enough” to make it as an indie author.  I asked her how she’d come to that conclusion.  She said that all her previous efforts (which she was reluctant to share) were “useless” or “no good” or “dull”.  She couldn’t seem to ignite a spark in or with her words that would make potential readers catch fire.

In reply, I sent her this image, courtesy of Alan Squires on Twitter a few years ago.

10 things that require zero talent

Not one of those attributes requires “talent” as such – but I’m willing to bet that an awful lot of supposedly “talented” people (including yours truly) are found wanting in one or more of them from time to time.  Some of us may even lack most of them!  (Glances guiltily in mirror.)  If she would apply herself, and work at it, and keep on trying, sooner or later her writing would probably improve to such an extent that it would become more marketable.

I used myself as an example, pointing out that I’d taken several years and a couple of million words to learn the craft before publishing my first book.  I still have almost 30 early manuscripts stored on my hard drive, most of which are too badly written to ever even get near publication status;  but they helped me learn and improve, so they still served a useful purpose.  If it comes to that, I don’t think my first book was all that good.  I re-read it now and wince at some of the amateurish mistakes I made!  I think my more recent books are much better.  Still, I guess most writers will say something similar.  We learn as we go along.

The conversation started me thinking.  I daresay a certain amount of talent is necessary, no matter how much practice one gets or effort one puts in.  Nevertheless, I think hard work with minimal talent will produce better results – perhaps much better – than talent with minimal hard work.

Of course, there’s also the question of having talent but not using it.  I’m sure we’re all familiar with the lament of seventeenth-century poet John Milton:

… that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless…

In his case, his blindness prevented him using his gift for writing (or so he thought in his despair).  Needless to say, he worked things out, and continued to produce great poetry.

There’s also the fact that hard work will teach you certain things you won’t learn by not applying yourself.  An example:

Always warm your hands before trying to milk your cow

I’m interested to hear your opinions on talent versus hard work.  What say you?


  1. In the first place I think that a lot of what is called talent is learned rather than innate. Yes, there are differences in how people’s brains work and some people find it easy to learn languages or music or math, and some people don’t. But no one is born with the ability to write–or for that matter speak.

    In my own case I believe that being exposed to poetry at a very young age–I was reading Wilde and Millay and Elliot from my mother’s shelves as soon as I could reach them–has a great deal to do with the development of my style. I developed an ear for the rhythm of English that serves to clarify my prose.

    That having been said, work is much more important that skill. I am having a very strong year for making sales and I didn’t get any better at writing from 2018 to 2019, I just started this year with a commitment to writing a story a week. I am currently behind on that goal (largely because I have been doing editing and promotion on upcoming projects, which cuts into my writing time) but making that commitment got me to buckle down and really take the work seriously.

    And I think with all artistic endeavours, skill comes from doing. No one writes because they are a talented writer–you write because you love it, and the talent comes as a result of the work.

  2. I think that I lucked out first (like Misha) in being exposed to the good stuff early on – from the time that I could read confidently (say from the age of 8 on) and then having a kind of apprenticeship in tailoring what I was writing for various purposes. This was in the military, where I was forever being tasked with writing something – anything from a thirty-second radio spot to instructional materials, to airman performance ratings, to news stories, and comedy skits. This also got me accustomed to critical feedback, but the main usefulness of that experience was to make me focus on what the message was, and the most effective way of conveying it.
    Finally – when I did start writing seriously, I had been blogging for a moderately popular mil-blog for three or four years, and had an audience of fans already there. So I was pretty certain from that that yes, my writing was good enough to ask money for it. In fact, the original mil-blog fans were the ones who encouraged me to go indy with the first book, and then with the novels.

  3. Once again, I can write about playing sports. The only “talent” I had for sports when I was a kid, was that I could run fast. When I was 13, I could run 100 yards in 11 seconds flat (not world-class, but pretty damn fast!). Someone once said, “You can’t coach speed,” although you can improve most anyone’s running speed through proper coaching. Later, I discovered that I also was blessed with great eyesight (20/13 vision in both eyes), and especially that I could see the rotation on the ball. Seeing that rotation is what enables you to be able to hit a curveball as a batter in baseball, as you can see by the particular spin on the ball that it will curve, and which direction and how much (the same talent helps when playing tennis or ping-pong). Some people never have the talent where they can see the spin on the ball, so they have great difficulty batting in baseball. Seeing the spin on the ball also helps when fielding ground balls in baseball, as by the speed of the spin on the ball you can tell how high the ball will bounce.

    Anyway, I did have to work hard to become a good athlete. Judging where a fly ball would come down (so you could be in a position to catch it) took some work. I also had a below-average throwing arm, but I compensated by using my speed to get to ground balls quicker than some other players, and I would also quickly throw the ball to first base. I reckon that having to learn to overcome some of my sports deficiencies as a kid made it easier for me to diagnose and correct other players problems when I became a coach. I also had a great little league baseball coach who taught me things like how to throw accurately, how to get a throw off quickly, and many other things. It is particularly funny how many pro baseball players cannot bunt the ball! Heck, my coach taught us all how to bunt effectively–just “catch” the ball with the bat.

    That all being said, unless a player has certain “talents” they are born with, like “fast-twitch” muscles to be a sprinter, or with good eyesight, they may not be able to become a great player. It was my experience as a kid that no kid who wore eyeglasses was ever a good hitter (batter). Then when I watched pro baseball, the few players who did wear glasses were either pitchers or else utility infielders, where their weak batting wouldn’t matter. Also, someone built like a football lineman is not going to be as fast as a skinny wide receiver or defensive back. But then again, players have to adapt to playing sports they are suited for. If you are a light-weight and fast, you’re not going to make it as a football lineman, but you could be a receiver or DB. Some folks are better at distance running, or at sprinting. Even players with bad eyesight could be a pitcher in baseball. So part of anything (even writing) is finding what you are suited for, and then learning to perfect your craft.

    One last thing…. Many things I learned by playing sports, I sort of figured out on my own. But I had some good coaches who really helped me in my technique. I also read books about playing sports. In particular, Ted Williams’ book about hitting baseballs made me a way better hitter! I believe it is important, in many fields of endeavor, to have a coach or mentor who can speed the process of your learning how to do some things. Of course, you need to find a good coach–some coaches (or mentors) could actually be detrimental to your development.

    1. I couldn’t hit a baseball worth a damn growing up. And yeah, I was that glasses-wearing, 90# wimp. Slow forward to my mid-20s, in the military, and after a couple of years of martial arts: second fastest runner in the squadron, and I could get base hits or better over just about anything pitched at me. Sometimes you just have to wait until you grow out of awkward before you can begin effectively training. But if you aren’t training some all the time, you’ll never know when you’re going to start benefiting from it.

      The more I learn about writing, the more convinced I am that I’m unlikely to ever be a strong pantser; that’s not how my brain works. But plotting? Oh yeah, that I can do. Then it feels more like an RPG I’m GMing.

      1. Mike, it’s funny, because I GM for RPGs. I just started a “Classic Traveller” RPG campaign, and already in the first adventure with the player-characters, I’ve had to fly by the “seat-of-my-pants” to come up with new data on the fly as the PCs try to go in unexpected directions. But that’s easy for me, as I have a long lifetime of experiences to draw upon, not to mention all of the stories I’ve read and movies I’ve watched. In fact, this current adventure has elements of pulp adventures and film noir. And one of the actions of one of the characters gave me a great idea for a plot twist which will be revealed to the PCs in the next game session.

        But that’s why I’m only a “would-be” author, as I seem to spend most of my retirement time in preparing to play various board games or RPGs. If only I devote an hour or two to the writing process….

        1. Yeah, I hear you. But I’m finding if I have a thorough outline, with where the beats ought to go and what they are< I don't spend an hour writing a wonderful scene that that doesn't go anywhere and leaves me stuck in a swamp someplace. Sure, I cut and save those pages off in my idea directory, but it still feels like I wasted an hour.

          I can do extemporaneous in front of groups on scouting skills, computer and information security, and statistics; but that's only because I have years of experience with those topics.

          I look at Peter's "talents", and I equate those with "skills"; something that only gets better the more your practice them (the right way.) As for his list of "attributes", they're not talents or skills as we think of them. However, we can practice, internalize, or improve on them similar to the way we do skills.

    2. I think to be at the very top anything, you need both natural gifts and hard work. Sports tend to be more obvious about that, because we often see the very tippy top in pop culture. As a girl, if you’re 5’10”, you aren’t going to be an Olympic gymnast. If you’re 5’5″ of either sex, you’re not going to be a professional basketball player. The natural talent has to be there, and then you have to spend years refining it.

      Fortunately, in most fields, it’s not necessary to be part of the very tippy top. I’ll never be Shakespeare or Jane Austen, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find a way to write a few novels and earn a living from them.

    3. I could see the rotation on the ball

      I didn’t even know that was possible. At baseball (as opposed to softball) pitch speeds, I can barely see the ball.

      Also, astigmatism and glasses. Very poor depth perception. I hated ball sports.

  4. I contest the assertion that body language is not a talent.
    (Likewise, that mysterious “tone” thing that gets me into trouble when I’m mouthing pleasantries. )

    Anyone who thinks that writing isn’t work, hasn’t tried it.
    By the time I finished the first story I considered salable, I recall thinking that I’d much rather be digging ditch.

    1. Yeah, there are definitely disabilities that make it challenging. So, to some extent inborn talent.

      I can see others of these that a severe enough disability could make challenging, but am less prepared to argue those cases.

      That said, some of those disabilities are rare, and other elements of the list can still be chosen even when some can’t. Plus, if you work really hard at it, you can learn to adapt to or overcome disabilities. Not all disabilities permit all tasks*, but persistence can make a surprising amount of difference. Mentoring also.

      *I know that some people, who I think well of, would evaluate me as a defective man for this, but I am probably never going to operate a chainsaw. The way I think about movement through space does not seem like something I can get to the point where it would ever be safe and wise.

      1. I use a chainsaw rather frequently, and I endorse BobtheRegisteredFool’s commentary on them. Chainsaws are at least 10 times more dangerous than firearms.

        1. You mean, like my discovery the other day that the torsion screw was only mounted in cheap plastic?
          (OK, throwing the chain at the slightest provocation probably makes it *safer*. Just a whole lot less useful.)

      2. I endorse Mike’s comment, chainsaws are -fantastically- dangerous. I use one occasionally, but as little as I can get away with.

        Important safety tip I got from a professional, which I feel is important enough to pass on at every opportunity: We do NOT, EVER, cut anything higher than waist level. Ever. Trim that branch over your head? No. Don’t do it. You’ll die.

        Because if the saw kicks back, as they do all the fricking time, when it is below your waist gravity keeps it from getting you. Its heavy, and you are already pushing down.

        If it is over your head and kicks back? Now gravity is -helping- it get you. Its heavy, and you’re holding it UP.

    2. I was going to make the same argument. There are people for whom “charm” is effortless. Then there are people like me who manage to drive others away without ever saying a word.

      I think it’s learnable, much like most talents are, but there’s no question that it comes a lot more easily to some people than to others.

  5. “Talent” as was explained to me by a budding young artist, is doing three full paintings a week plus sketches. On your own time. For fun. Do that from age 4 until age 14, and you’ll have talent.

    From a writing perspective, talent is WRITING STUFF and then you let other people decide if you’re “talented” or not. Two people will give you three opinions on that.

    I don’t have talent. What I have is people showing up, -demanding- I tell their story. Yesterday a young samurai showed up with his wife, who is an oni. They patiently explained the whole thing, with action scenes and everything, in ten minutes. Other denizens of Chez Phantom -begged- me not to tell them about it. Apparently it is stressful hearing me talk about this stuff.

    So now I’ve got hours of work to write the damn thing down and try not to f- up the details. It’ll never go anywhere without I should write it down, and those ghosts will never be given life. Which would be a shame, because they’re pretty cool.

  6. I can think of a few big name authors who are very talented but suffer from a poor work ethic. Do I even need to name them?

    1. If you mean Game of Throwns guy, I contest the “talented” assertion due to lack of evidence. I mean, have you read any of that stuff? Ew!

        1. Oh yes. ‘Sand Kings” deserved all the awards it got, because it is a fantastic piece of writing. Then he got wordy…

      1. Ability can be used for good, or for evil. He is effective at promoting evil, even if a lot of it doesn’t take on most of his audience. (Given the number of Game of Thrones fix fics I’ve seen on FFN, he made the poison taste good, but they still recognize it at poison on some level.)

        The ambiguity of whether I’m using my abilities for good or for evil? 🙂 Yeah, I know I have problems.

        1. Given the number of Game of Thrones fix fics I’ve seen on FFN, he made the poison taste good, but they still recognize it at poison on some level.

          Some what interesting given that Martin is one of the authors I’ve seen most strongly opposed to fan fic–to the extent that there pretty much wasn’t any ASoIaF fan fic on the official sites prior to the TV show. The official reason he gave was one I think many people here would understand (fan fic makes you lazy as a writer and prevents you from developing many of the world-building and characterization “muscles” that you will need later), but given what you just said about the nature of the fics, it makes me wonder…

          1. MZB seems to have been one of the very early and effective advocates against fanfic, and had some fairly obvious nefarious personal reasons to want to be tightly controlling narratives. (If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, the testimony California put on the record regarding the Breen matter is also fairly damaging to her, and is strongly suggestive of MO. Even if you discard Greyland’s claims.)

            Martin seems to be promoting nihilism as a way of weakening opposition to his beloved communism. (His twitter avatar is, or was, him wearing a red star hat. I am sure that a Swastika hat twitter avatar would not be in good taste.)

            Fanfic may well weaken worldbuilding. I started figuring out writing from the worldbuilding end, so that isn’t my experience. I’m definitely weak on the plot and characterization end. On the other hand, I’ve never successfully produced much of any creative writing, so I’m not representative of the case he describes. (Current WIP is a fanfic, driven by extensive reading in fanfic, and I’m having to put serious effort into learning plot and characterization. I seem to need outlines, I need plot for the outlines, and need characterization to understand plot.)

            1. “Even if you discard Greyland’s claims.”

              But but but, I thought we were supposed to #BelieveAllWhammyn! I’m so confused.

              “Martin seems to be promoting nihilism as a way of weakening opposition to his beloved communism.”

              Mr. Martin, from what I’ve read of his, seems to me a titanic bore. He writes grimdark tales of woe, always with some perverse twist. The inside of his brain must be like a bag of cats. Loud, painful and utterly predictable. If the MC has a choice to make, they always go dark. Every single time.

              1. I believe the point is not disbelieving that MZB was a rapist, but of believing that she was also nefarious enough to plagiarize stuff from her proteges, and then claim she was the wronged party.

                1. I personally believe those of Greyland’s claims that I’ve seen. But the affidavits the State of California put together are the least impeachable parts of what I’ve drawn my conclusions from, and alone seem sufficient. Sufficient to show that Breen and MZB put serious effort into controlling narratives around what they were doing to children, and were effective at containing the spread of information. That success came from skill and mental habits, which would have also been applied to her fiction.

                  We had a commentator at ATH, was skeptical of the child rape claims. But the reasons in her books advanced for that skepticism could also be interpreted as a carefully stage managed attempt to normalize and mainstream child molestation. If MZB’s fiction was really seen in such a light by her, then fanfiction, especially if widely distributed, could ruin the intended effect in the eyes of her audience. Which would explain the intensity of the negative reaction.

                  Martin is, I suspect, an example of grey goo used to make us think that human society is unpleasant, to make us desperate for the promised socialist utopia. ‘It is so historical, that must be what the wars of the roses were really like.’ Which effect would again be somewhat compromised by fanfic involving representative history, Final Fantasy Tactics, Bill Bergson, or tired Hollywood cliches put in by fumblers who don’t know writing, but do know that something about ASoIaF just doesn’t satisfy. Well, Martin’s hissy fits mean that HBO is finishing canon, and we will be seeing even more fix fics.

            2. Not so certain about that, IIRC early on, MZB seemed to be welcoming of fan fic. Or, at least I thought so, as she had a series of basically fan-fic anthologies, and seemed to be welcoming of prospective authors exploring aspects of her Darkover world. But all that came to a screeching halt. I had a perfectly nice Darkover fan-fic short story, which I went and submitted sometime around the late 1980ies for one of her anthologies – and I got a perfectly ferocious format letter in response, threatening legal action over anything resembling a venture into the Darkover mythos. It seemed that she was abruptly revoking permission for others to play in her Darkover playground. From what I gathered at the time (and I was overseas, and not engaged in fandom at the time) there was some kind of kerfuffle regarding a story line from a fan-fic writer duplicating something she had been working on – or so was her story at the time.
              The nature of that response rather soured me on contributing anything more to her anthology series,or seeing her as any kind of writing mentor…

                1. I think what the article quotes as described as hysteria and paranoia might be better understood as being part of those information control habits.

                  It may be that my hypothesis describes the breakdown, but it does not describe the prior engagement with fanfic. Or doesn’t seem to.

                  Strictly speaking, every writer cares about how their story is received. Otherwise it just goes up stream of consciousness, and doesn’t tend to reach a wider audience. Martin’s level of caring about how his stuff is seen may not be that strong in that context. Apparently he was set on not ending things in a big battle, and the tv folks are.

                  Writing fiction is a collection of skills typically used by one person. Variation means that skills are hard to transfer between writers. Single person production teams limit the number of projects one can hope to complete in a life time. A project that exercises some skills is not exercising others. I think, rather than avoiding fanfic, the thing to do is make sure to write a large number of original short stories in a relatively short period of time.

                  Inspiration of fanfic seems to be partly driven by a) widespread exposure to original b) attraction of original c) ease of changing and crossing over with original d) original is discontenting. Tom Simon has coined words like legoisity to describe some of these.

          2. I find to some extent that people criticizing fanfic only look at the originality part of the story; yet there are plenty of people who built up careers and published loads of books on Star Wars, Star Trek, (insert video game and movie here), and the really good ones are the ones where you misremember being an episode or a scene from the source material.

            Ergo, the ones which have the characters and scenarios so faithful to the original, it’s like a real continuation of the source.

            I mean, Dr. McCoy does NOT sound like Guinan, or Dr. Crusher; William Shatner’s Kirk does not have the same exact voice as Chris Pine’s (Though Pine did very well in his interpretation)

            Takes skill to keep the characters the way they are.

  7. Work ethic and practices is MUCH more important than talent. I’m somewhat talented (although not at sports), but I have a horrible work ethic. Calculus was easy to understand, but I never did enough homework to get good at it, which showed up on tests.

    Reading is much easier than writing and with KU I have more books available than I could possibly ever read, so I read far more than write and it is no one’s fault but my own.

    Speaking of reading material, I hope Mr. Carella is hard at work on the next Bicentennial War book. I’ll go leave a review of the first now as incentive.

    1. I have literally read an adult woman claim that children who aren’t given enough work in school will nevertheless develop a work ethic if the adults about them have one. . . sigh

  8. Talent is a start. Effort and tenacity, and a willingness to learn, count for more in the long run. I had lots of exposure to books and conversation as a child. I was encouraged to write and read. And I kept pounding away, telling stories to myself as well as putting them onto the page. That helped get the worst of my odes-to-dead-trees-fan-fic out of my system early.

    I owe grad school a lot of credit. In part because if I hadn’t vented through fiction… And in part because of the constructive criticism and learning to accept it (and what to back away from.) When I started working with fiction editors and alpha readers, being able to get past the initial “How dare you criticize my baby!?!” phase quickly helped a great deal.

  9. Nobody expects even the most musically talented to be able to perform professionally (and flawlessly) in front of an audience the first time they touch a piano or violin. There’s still a lot of years of learning how to make your physical body do what your brain hears, often over and over again.

    Likewise, even the most physically talented person won’t be able to get up and perform a ballet or gymnastic routine the first time. Again, years of learning and hours of practice are needed.

    Why should an author be any different?

  10. I have one of those dumb personalities that make me gravitate towards things that I have no talent for. Guitar? Nope… I’ve had guitars around for over 40 years, and I still can’t play worth a darn. Writing? Nope… no talent there either… but I LOVE telling stories, and I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. So, I write as much as possible. If my writing never gets any better than my guitar playing, I’m sunk. BUT, I don’t think that writing is the same talent black-hole that guitar is for me.

    Yesterday I came across my NaNoWriMo story from last year. I never finished it because life got in the way and I got way behind on my word count, then while I was playing catch-up, I totally crashed when I lost track of the story and couldn’t figure out where to go from there. So I gave up out of frustration.

    You know what? It wasn’t awesome, but it didn’t totally suck! The characters are a little cardboard and need some work, which surprised me, because I usually do better characters, but I liked them ok, so they are probably salvageable. AND, most importantly, reading the last chapter, I saw where it went off the rails. Now, I’m planning on going back and finishing it. It probably won’t be the one I publish, but it did show me that I’m improving.

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