On Writing: Can Anyone Become a Good Writer?

“Do you need someone to make you a paper badge with the word WRITER on it before you can believe you are one? God, I hope not.”

–  Stephen King

 

Well! I haven’t posted an official “on writing” blurb in over a month. That’s mostly because my writing posts tend to reflect my own progress in the journey to publication, and right now, I’m in the doldrums: agent-query land. But, as the rejections started trickling in (don’t worry, I’ll blog about rejection soon), it occurred to me that while I might not be a brilliant writer, at the very least I’m quite a bit better than I used to be.

Originally, the title of this post was “Can Anyone Become a Writer?” but I changed it, because the answer to that question is simple—yes. By the literal definition, anyone who has the ability to pick up a pen and form meaningful sentences can write. Heck, they don’t even need to pick up a pen…they can type it, or have someone type it for them. So that’s my simple answer. Yes, anyone (with a conscious brain) can write!

End of post!

Just kidding; I wouldn’t end the post at a mere 250 words. Especially because ‘can anyone become a writer?’ is probably not the real question here. The real question people wonder, I think, is, ‘can anyone become a good writer?’

Ah, here we go.

My answer, still, is yes. 

Surprised? Or maybe you think that I’m a terrible writer, and trying to make myself feel better by lowering my standards. That may be, but I have a bit more to say on this front.

Let’s start with a point we can all agree on: nobody can write beautiful prose straight out of the womb. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan and whichever writers you personally think are brilliant…none of them were cranking out Shakespeare at the age of five, or ten, or even twenty. And yet, today, their stories are lauded as being some of the best around. So, what happened?

Let’s examine a quote from Mrs. Rowling herself, taken from her Harvard Commencement Speech:

I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy to finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one area where I truly belonged.”

She and the other authors I mentioned all have some tips for improving on writing. “Read a lot” is the first one, followed closely by “write a lot.” I know from experience that reading good books helps expose you to various styles, throws you in the middle of some of the best works out there. And then, when you go to write, you naturally mesh all of those styles together to form your own.

I don’t know if I’m making sense here. What I’m trying to say is that I believe everyone starts out terribly, and how good we become depends a great deal on how hard we work at it. Remember the expression, “this is 20% talent and 80% heart”? Writing most definitely fits that description.

Stephen King is one of many who would disagree with me. According to his book On Writing, he believes that you either have it, or you don’t. I, on the other hand, think everyone who can pick up a pen has equal chance of becoming great. I can’t prove it, but in an industry where chance is everything, how can anyone? At the end of the day, this is all subjective.

Let’s use an example! Rick Riordan, who started writing when he was in eighth grade, took ten years to write and sell the first Percy Jackson, and that wasn’t until he was forty. And yet, I most certainly wouldn’t complain if I ever got to where Rick Riordan stands now. His books have been translated into multiple languages, he easily makes enough to have writing as his day job, and he’s one of my favorite authors.

But he took ten years to get his story good! J.K. Rowling only took three with hers. Stephen King took less than that. Many would argue they have more natural writing ability, and I would agree with them. Riordan probably had to spend more time building his talent; had to revise his story dozens of times, and had a tougher time getting published than JKR or King. But he did it, same as them. So, what does that leave?

Well, for me, it leaves hope. And it leaves the belief that, to answer the initial question, anyone can become a good writer. It may be harder for some than others, depending on who picks up the talent faster. But I think it can be picked up by anyone who tries hard enough.

I’ll close by using one more example: myself.

I started writing my novel in eighth grade. I’d meant to do it sooner, but put it off because I was afraid it would be bad.

I was right. It sucked, and by quite a bit. So much that even I didn’t like it!

So I read a lot more, wrote a lot more, and revised a lot more. The second draft still sucked. So did the third, but much less so. I read every book I could get my hands on, spent half my Christmas money on writing guidebooks, and even contacted authors asking them for advice (and quite a few responded, including a certain Tom Clancy). I did everything I could to get my writing better. I felt somehow impaired when I thought of all the writers who sold their books in two years; the fact that I was fifteen didn’t strike me as a significant factor. 

And, look where I am now. I might not be published, but I don’t think my writing completely sucks anymore. My book, after years of work, is finally in a place where I’m proud to let people—including literary agents—read it.

And what’s more, you’re reading this. You’re reading words that I wrote, and maybe you even like them! So, even if I’m not a good writer yet, I’ve made progress. Which is why I believe anyone can make progress. And I think that ‘natural talent’ is merely a measure of how fast that progress unfolds.

So, to summarize a long post: if you want to write, don’t give up. Please, please, don’t. It might take a lot of work, and you might have to practice a lot more than other writers, but I think that with enough willpower, anyone can learn what it takes to write well. And I think that even if you start out as a terrible writer, if you keep at it no matter what, you can make yourself into something better.

Believe me, I know.

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9 thoughts on “On Writing: Can Anyone Become a Good Writer?

  1. Thanks for the inspiration! I’ve wanted to write for a long time now. Five years ago, I decided I needed more life experience so my husband and I moved across country to live in and run a treatment home for 6 teenage boys. Since then, I have been hired to do some grant writing and have recently started my own writing blog. I feel for the first time that things are starting to fall into place for me with writing and I am so so excited to see where it takes me!
    Thanks for sharing
    Blessings
    -Jen
    http://thelilyandthemarrow.wordpress.com/

  2. Thanks for reading, I’m glad you liked it! :) That’s really cool, I definitely think life experiences are the best source of writing inspiration. Best of luck with everything!

  3. Thought provoking piece and on a topic every writer has no doubt pondered.

    I have to say I lean towards King’s take. Writing is something people tend to either do or not do. Few people pick up a laptop (the new pen) at the age of 50 having written scarcely anything other than memos and become good writers.

    Like all talents and skills those who practice in on eform or another from an early age tend to be better in adulthood.

    But work ethic is a huge factor – there can be 99 talented people but the one who pushes hardest will breakthrough in writing. Same goes for many disciplines.

    As for the age thing you mentioned – i heard a great quote about nobody under the age of 30 ever wrote a good book. I don’t entirely agree but I do think that the vast majority of people don’t have enough life experiences to draw upon to add extra dimensions to a book to make it work if they are young.

    I’m coming up to 29 so I feel like my time is arriving :)

    • Yes, King absolutely has his merits, and I completely understand where he’s coming from. I’ve noticed that most authors naturally started young because they loved writing since they were a kid, like me, and as you pointed out, life experience absolutely is a source of good writing. The best, in my opinion. I do think, though, that young people can have enough meaningful experiences to write a complex piece. I’d like to think I have, but who knows??
      On that note, good luck with your own writing! Hopefully someday, someone will break that “under 30” stereotype :)

  4. L. Marie says:

    Great post. Keep writing and submitting. Someone will take your work one day. The difference between a published writer and a nonpublished writer is persistence. I’ve been rejected more times than I can really count. (Over 60 times at least.) But as Stephen King and other writers have stated, you keep writing, keep improving. A writer I just interviewed said, “Don’t be afraid to start from scratch.” Rewrite and rewrite. I did. I persisted. And I’ve been published. Rejection is a way of teaching you to be persistent.

    • Thanks so much for the encouragement! I definitely don’t plan on stopping anytime soon. You’re absolutely right in saying rejections build persistence. I’m glad you liked the post, thanks again for the awesome comment! :)

  5. I love this. Really and truly. Great post. I’ve actually had the same thought process for years. I’m roughly your age (I think) and I’ve been writing since I was a child. Finally, last summer, at the age of fifteen, I really wrote. And accomplished a novel. I need to revise majorly. I put out another last November. And another is in the works now. One question though, how do you make your novel have enough ‘filler’ without seeming like filler? My novels tend to stay around 60,000 words, but I’d like more. The first is good, but needs to be thrown into a trilogy (I know, crazy). I did get a few rejections for it, but I was just happy some agents cared enough about my query. This one right now will have a great climax, but it is slow. In my opinion, I need something to happen, but I’m not sure what.

    • Hmm. What I’m hearing is that you’re planning out a trilogy, and you’re trying to find a way to make your first novel long enough (without being boring) to transition to stories two and three?

      First of all, I was in your position with the whole multi-book thing. I planned out a fantasy series of several books, and the novel described in this blog post is the first novel of that series. (Side note: I did eventually get a full request on said novel, but ultimately the agent passed and I’ve since begun a new project).
      I don’t claim to be an expert, but one piece of advice I can give you for certain: if you’re serious about being published, then your best bet is to write your first novel in such a way that it can stand on its own. Seriously, it makes a huge difference, to the point where you should say it stands on its own in your query letter. Certainly have plans for a series (as I did) but focus all your energy on making that first novel brilliant. If you spread out your creativity across three books, none of them will most likely get anywhere. I might be wrong, but as someone who took the series approach, I can tell you that’s a biggie.

      With that in mind, I’d advise you set aside the book two and three outlines and instead look at the story arc of book one. Most certainly you don’t have to wrap everything up all pretty, but look at the finer points. Do your characters all grow in some definitive way? Are they wiser, or angrier, or stronger, or (perhaps) dead-er than they were at the start of the book? Did at least SOME things get resolved, even if there’s a lot more to be done?
      (The Harry Potter novels, as always, are an excellent example here).

      I agree filler shouldn’t sound like filler; but beyond that, I think it’s important that a story not be dragged out to get to “the cool part in the next book.” Take that cool part and throw that sucker in book one, if you feel book one should in fact be longer. Then trust that you’re mind is creative enough to come up with newer, COOLER parts when it’s time to sit down and write the sequel.

      I hope this helps, but if I didn’t quite answer what you needed, feel free to comment again! Best of luck with all your writing, and feel free to check out my other posts if you’d like to bask in some of my querying angst.

  6. mbereo says:

    This article gives me some hope. I will get better.

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