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On the Potential of the Bad, Competent, Good or Great Writer

I recently devoured ON WRITING by Stephen King. It really is a great read (fascinating, inspiring), and I'm happy to have finally read it. Since finishing, I have found myself returning to a couple things Mr. King said and I'd like to discuss one. And that is the following:

"...while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one." (p. 136)

I don't know how I feel about this. The horde of hopefuls in my head want to beleive that, wherever I'm at talent-wise, I have a chance at becoming good or great. But then, I also don't see myself developing the talent of, say, Markus Zusak or Suzanne Collins—ever.

So I see what he's saying, and I think it comes down to how one defines or views such words as "good" and "great." A writer can improve greatly, for example, as I think many of us have, but will never be a [insert author that fills you with awe]. And yet, I still find myself balking at the idea that we have a built-in cap to our potential, and wondering if it really is impossible to cross these thresholds. Even if a good writer will never become one of the greats, does a bad writer really have no chance at becoming competent or good? I'm not sure. I find myself agreeing and then disagreeing in the span of two thoughts.

What's your take?

28 comments:

  1. I reviewed On Writing and really enjoyed it. I tend to agree with King only because I think the difference between a good and a great writer has nothing to do with writing - it has to do with how they see the world. Really great writers are able to come at a story from a direction the rest of us don't even know existed. They can't physically 'write' any better than a good writer, they just have things to write about that the rest of us don't see.

    However, I will say this. Nobody can know if they are a good or a great writer until they try. Endeavor to write your best stuff and let everyone else decide how good it is.

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  2. Here is my one and only example of what I consider of Stephen King's opinion.

    I had a woman send me a short story to critique. It was awful. I mean, downright awful. There was no conflict, punctuation horrid, words plain and boring. I felt for her though, as she explained why she wanted to be a writer. So, I threw in a few suggestions, edited the punctuation and word placement-pointing out why and where she could research it on her own.

    I was a litte scared I hurt her feelings, but then the next piece she sent me...blew me out of the water. I couldn't believe it was the same person, but it was. It was her story that started as AWFUL. So-I think there is hope for anyone if they have the desire and the drive to do what it takes-which is a lot of learning and hard work.

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  3. You've got to accept that you're not Michael Chabon or Jonthan Saffron Foeur; but that doesn't mean your talent is worthless or that your craft isn't on its own development path.

    The biggest takeaway from On Writing for me was that you've got to work at the craft of writing; and that this work is a continual process. Talent may be natural, but one of the most naturally talented musicians I've ever met failed to find work with a symphony because he wouldn't practice. He was being passed over for people who were far less talented, but who toiled to hone their craft. In this regard talent can be superseded by hard work and you should always strive to improve.

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  4. Unless you are an Olympic Gold Medalist, there's always going to be someone better than you. There's always going to be that writer who is better, someone you aspire to be like. That doesn't mean you can't be great in your own right. I think with hard work and study, a good writer can become great, but they can't become the best.

    Writing is a talent, yes, but it's not like singing. If you are a crappy singer, you are always going to be crappy even if you take lessons. But take a writing class and that talent begins to develop. Over time and with practice, you get better and better.

    Stephen King is wrong.

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  5. I understood what he means, I think. I don't think every writer can be great, no matter how long they work on it. But what's great? It depends what the goal is. I'll never be great at historical fiction, or poetry.

    But if writers find the right fit--and not just what they want it to be--but where their talent naturally flows to, they can be great.

    Sometimes were just not good at the things we think are really cool. :-)

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  6. Volunteering at a local writer's conference the last couple of years, I've seen "bad" writers come back having made HUGE improvements. They listen; they learn. I'd like to think my own writing has improved because I listen, desperately want to learn and keep practicing. There's a lot of good practical advice in King's book . . .

    But, dig up those stories of how hard your favorite authors worked when you get blue that you'll never be as talented as them. I sometimes feel the same awe, the same inadequacy, the same 'why bother', but I flat out enjoy writing too much to quit.

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  7. I absolutely LOVE On Writing. I even jokingly call it my bible. I think what King means is that you can't cultivate that "something" that amazing writers have. I don't think he means to discourage effort. I do disagree that bad writers can't become competent writers.

    But here's my take on it. Do I think I'm one of the all-time greats? No. But I hope that I'm talented enough and work hard enough at it to be published one day.

    And honestly, I'm ok with that because the vast majority of published writers out there AREN'T the "greats." But what matters to me is that, one day, someone reads what I write and loves it, despite imperfections. To me, that's the key (whether great, good, competent, or bad) -- finding someone who loves your story just as much as you do. That's what makes it worthwhile.

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  8. Remember, he is clearly speaking and mirroring his very own creative Self.

    There are not limits, except the ones we apply to our own Self.

    We can each surprise our Self, and even sabotage our Self.

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  9. I share your concern about setting limits, Casey. You’ve got to push yourself, like a dancer finding that extra inch of elongation. We may not come to our craft with the same abilities, but we can all improve. And instead of comparing ourselves to paragons of literary greatness, I think it’s easier on the psyche to look at where we started and where we are now.

    I used to have students keep writing portfolios, so that whenever they felt despondent about their work, they could always go back and see how far they’d come since the beginning of the year. It was a definite morale booster. :)

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  10. Life is full of the Little Engine That Could stories. Maybe few are born to greatness but many propel themselves a long way with hard work. So I must, respectfully, disagree with the way King phrased that. The concepts of bad, competent, good and great are subjective anyway.

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  11. What great responses! Every one of you has an amazing point.

    I think you really nailed it though, Chad. We can master the craft as well as a "great" writer, perhaps, but if we don't have the brilliant imagination, voice, and/or masterful execution that is more unique to the exceptionally talented, then there's no comparison.

    I still feel that a bad writer can be made into a competent one, if they truly have the drive to learn. That's the key though. A lot of "bad" writers aren't willing to learn the essentials (grammar and the like). But those that are willing... why can't they gain competence?

    Perhaps King is specifically talking about the writers that won't put the effort in to learn and advance. If that's the case, then I can agree.

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  12. I think there's a semipermeable cap on all things. There's only so far you can go without Built-In Awesomeness, but on the flip side, Built-In Awesomeness can only take you so far if not joined with hard work. So you need to augment whatever level of awesomeness you came with by adding hard work, practice, and dedication. I'm pretty sure [name of awe-inspiring writing god] didn't get to where they are by coasting on anything. Sure, maybe they were born with some serious Awesome going on, but they also had to work hard as well.

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  13. I read On Writing a while ago and also loved it. King did make some pretty sweeping generalities though. Sometimes I agreed with him sometimes I did not. I think, in general, this statement about potential is pretty true, but it's not, by any stretch of the imagination, irrefutable fact. We all have the potential to become better writers if the desire and work are there. I wouldn't say that every good writer could be great, but I think that some of them could be with enough experience and learning and hard work.

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  14. It's all so subjective... one's man's outstanding prose is another man's outstanding privy!

    Haste yee back ;-)

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  15. All I know is that we don't all have to be great to excel and be happy and entertain others with our writing. :)

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  16. I loved ON WRITING, reviewed it myself, and I agree with King. There is a difference between a good writer and a great writer. To some degree the difference is subjective, but that doesn't negate the fact it exists. Or, as David noted-we can't all be Michael Chabon.

    The assumption you're making is that from good to great is a continuum, while King suggests the opposite. Nor do I think he he is saying there's a built in cap to our potential. In fact, he'd probably be horrified—imagine that, Stephen King horrified— if you suggested it.

    The message I took from the book was a heartening one: If you continue to learn, read, write, and write, and write some more, you will continue to become a better writer.

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  17. Your the second person today who has recommeneded this book--I'll have to check it out.

    I believe there is only so far that hard work can take you. I know I'll never write anything as amazing as the Elegance of the Hedgehog or the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and I'm ok with that.

    I'd settle for being an entertaining story-teller with a publishing deal. I imagine that being a literary genius is over rated anyway.

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  18. I look at writing talent the way I look at musical talent. Are there some people who are born violinists, for example, or is it through hard work and practice that they excel? I think it's a bit of both but mostly through hard work. I agree with you that I'll never be a Zusak but I may get pretty darn good, certainly better than I am now.

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  19. I don't think people who start off terrible but listen and learn are actually bad writers. They're beginners.

    A truly bad writer is incapable of writing anything competently.

    But someone who's had to work to be a (very) good writer may not have that innate flair that makes some writers great.

    It's like drawing—you can learn to draw well, but some people have it come more easily than others, and some people are naturally amazing. Most people who fight their ways from terrible through competent to good cannot reach that level of innately astounding that the naturally gifted artist can.

    Both are subjective determinations, though.

    I find myself admiring different individual aspects of authors' writings, and there are very few writers who I can point to and say "I hope I get compared to her, someday." (Or him, but I suspect I'm far more likely to get compared to the gals I admire than the guys.)

    I know I'm a competent writer. My boss calls me a good one, and that's just for my ability to write work materials. Am I great? I doubt it.

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  20. That is a great book. I read it years ago and still remember it well.

    And, like you, as much as I loved what Stephen King wrote -- and felt truly inspired by it -- I disagree that good writers can't become great writers, etc. etc.

    I do think writers are born with a talent for writing, and storytellers have a natural instinct for storytelling. But I don't think Hemingway's first works were brilliant out of the box. Like anything, writing is a craft, and the more we write, the better we all become.

    I don't think we're all destined to become great writers. But to imply that people can't improve, I think is wrong.

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  21. I think there is a difference between writers who think they are great/good and writers who don't--and writers who evaluate their skill level honestly, then hone their skill through practice.

    Although it is true that some natural talent be involved. I could practice every day of my life, but I will never be a good ballerina.

    On the other hand, though, I don't have the *drive* to attempt to be a ballerina--but I do to be a writer. So, logically, it makes sense that what really matters is true drive, and constantly striving towards that goal.

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  22. My thoughts are this... when I was in college; I was a music major with my sights on playing for the NYC ballet. In my summer before becoming a Junior, I decided that even with my 8 hours of daily practice, I would never be good enough to realize my dream and would I be happy playing for some local orchestra? My answer then was No.

    Now, with many decades between then and now, I realize this was silly and impatient. I don't regret that decision, but I know what can come from hard work and commitment and who’s to say what will be? Maybe you/we won't be the next Tolstoy, but you will be the next YOU. And no one can ever take that away.

    CS Lewis said at the June Conference - you need to put in 1,000 (can't remember the exact number - but you get the point) hours before you can do your art.

    Richard Peck said, true writers are born through revisions.

    Stay your path. Be persistent. You will make it.

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  23. I am torn about this too but I would like to add that Stephen King has never considered himself to be one of the literary greats.

    I think he means that there is an indefinable magic that makes a truly good writer and a truly great one. Learning the craft can only take you so far, you must have that talent to hone. Also an incredible determination and will to succeed. SK was rejected a lot and he never gave up.

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  24. As a writing book giving insights into the writing as a chosen profession, I preferred Margaret Atwood's "Negotiating with the Dead". Another good book is "Writing Begins with the Breath" by Laraine Herring. There were too many times in On Writing that I felt Mr King had forgotten what it's like to be an unpublished author striving to improve one's talent and one's craft.

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  25. Fascinating conversation!
    I lurk here often, but had to delurk for this one!
    I agree with Chad. I think writing is an art, and the "great" writers have a different lens. But that doesn't and shouldn't exclude really good and talented writers.

    I do think there is a category for greatness, in all endeavors, and not everyone can be there.

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  26. I read Stephen King's book, and loved it!

    I think natural ability is essential as a writer. From working with elementary students, I have seen that just about any kid can be taught to follow a formula and write a decent, organized paper (story, essay, etc). But being able to pass a writing test doesn't make you a good (or necessarily competent) writer.

    With writing, I think you've either got it or you don't. Some of us will soar to greatness, other's will not. But how do we defne greatness? If it's about literary genius, then that leaves me out.

    If you look back at my writing when I first started, you might say I was barely competent. But I have kept going, kept learning, kept pushing myself. I've improved a lot! So maybe it's not only about ability, but also the love of the process and the willingness to grow, even when it is painful.

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  27. Practice makes closer to perfect, for sure, but for some of us, this translates to a DIII scholarship, while, for the lucky few, it translates to Michael Jordan.

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  28. I agree with King 100%. Writing is a talent, just like a musical ear or dancing ability or how hard one can throw a baseball. No matter how much one practices, you can't learn to throw a baseball 95 mph. You might be able to improve your 90 mph fastball to 95, but if you're topping out at 70, 95 isn't going to happen.

    Same with writing. Or music. Or dancing. Cooking. Take your pick. Everyone has their ceiling.

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