Guest blogpost by Paul Smith
Can you become a professional writer?
“You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do.” said Kurt Vonnetgut, the famed American novelist. He is not alone is his opinion. Bob Dylan, widely regarded as the greatest song writer of all time, recalls writing his early lyrics, “They just came through me, it wasn’t like I was having to compose them.” This belief is commonly shared in the writing community. The ability to write well is a gift from god. Genius and talent is not something you can develop. You either have it or you don’t. But what are these really, but anecdotal accounts, opinions, heresy. You would be hard pressed to find any scientist to take these comments seriously.
Scientist demand objective answers. They are not interested in opinions or stories, but facts; facts, data, and hard evidence. And under the bright light of science some very different answers have begun to emerge. It appears by all objective evidence that Vonnetgut and a large portion of the writing community are just plain wrong. The belief that becoming a great writer is all about being born under the right star, most scientist agree, is absurd.
One of the worlds most eminent Scientist on expertise is Anders Ericsson. Ericsson began researching expertise in the 1960s. Since then hundreds of scientists, have done thousands of studies, on humanities best and brightest. The work that brought these studies to the public attention was The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. The book is an audacious quest to understand how genius is created, and, explores fields ranging from music to memory, dancing to decision making. The conclusions of the studies are largely the same: talent is something that can be developed. And writing is not different.
Just like Olympic athletes, chess masters or concert pianists, writers develop their skill with thousands of hours of practice. The story is always the same, hundreds of books read; thousands of hours spent writing and millions of words written. But what specifically can the latest research on writing expertise teach you about becoming a better writer?
A few things, first, great writers are usually only great in their domains. Exceptional journalists will struggle to write scientific reports; just as prominent scientist will struggle to write great journalism. So no matter what type of writer you want to become immerse yourself in your chosen field. Each field will have specific skills, rhetorical style and common language that can and must be mastered.
Once you know what field you want to write in, you also know what field to read in. Great writers read within their field. Steven King reads fiction (because he writes fiction). JM Coetzee reads literary novels (because he writes literary novels). So if you want to write trashy romantic novels, read trashy romantic novels. And more is usually better.
Steven King recalls reading “six tons of comic books” during his childhood and to this day reads at least seventy books every year. Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, when asked whether he read much replied:
Too much. And anything, including labels and recipes and advertisements. I have a passion for newspapers – I read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions, and several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at newsstands.
And don’t just read, read to learn. Great writers emulate their hero’s until the find their own voice. Hunter S. Thompson, the celebrated journalist, would retype the great works of Hemmingway and Fitzgerald. He said he wanted to know what it would feel like to write a classic. Winston Churchill modelled his writing style on the great historian Edward Gibbon. Benjamin Franklin learned to write by finding exceptional well written articles, studying them, and making notes. And then with only his notes he would rewrite the article in his own words. If his article was not as good as the original he would repeat the process until it was.
Finally, and most importantly: write. It may not be pretty at first, but the more you write the better you will get. Norman Mailer the author of The Naked and the Dead wrote about half a million words before publishing his first novel. Steven King from the age of six produced volumes of stories, many of them never seeing the light of day. Just like anything that is worthwhile to master, learning to write takes time. A study done on prominent poets showed that no decent poet published their first poem in less than 10 years (many took as long 20 or 30 years before producing their best work).
So, if you dream of becoming the next great writer in your field, the science says you can. Whether you will, I guess is a different question all together.