Why Talent May Be Bad for Your Writing Career

Note: You can read an updated version of this post here.

Once upon a time, there were two girls, Julie and Joan. Julie was born with a gift for words. She taught herself to read when she was four. She was writing stories when she was six. In high school, she could write an essay that earned an A with her first draft—every time. Once, when her AP English teacher assigned the entire class to revise their research papers, he made an exception for Julie, writing on her paper, “This is perfect as it is! No revision necessary.” When she entered college, Julie’s only method of writing was to wait until the last minute, then write one draft and hope for the best. In the back of her mind, she assumed that good writers should not have to revise, and while she knew she was a talented writer, she did not understand at all what made her writing good, or not.

Joan, on the other hand, while not bad at writing, did not have a talent for it. However, she loved to write as much as Julie did. She read a lot, too. In high school, Joan rarely received A’s on her papers. She usually got a B, with many suggestions for revision. Sometimes she revised her work, and sometimes she didn’t, but she always read the comments and knew how she could make her writing better. By the time she got to college, she knew that she could not write a paper the night before if she wanted a good grade. She also was confident in her ability to work with a first draft to improve it. When she wrote something that wasn’t very good, she could tell, and she changed it.

Which student were you?

Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, discusses the difference between the “fixed mindset” of Julie and the “growth mindset” of Joan (excerpts from Dweck’s Mindset website):

“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

I was definitely Julie. My wake-up call came in a college literature class, where my usual type-em-out-the-night-before habit didn’t fool the astute professor. C+?! I thought I would disappear with shame.

But that was the beginning of my learning, finally, to be a writer.

So, what’s a talented writer with a fixed mindset to do?

Simply recognizing the flawed thinking of the fixed mindset is the first step. Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to have talent! But, as Malcolm Gladwell has said, in the end, “Talent is the desire to practice.”

Begin to acknowledge that you need to work at what you are good at and that you sometimes do things imperfectly, even those things you do best. If you are a parent, say it out loud, often, and within hearing distance of your children (especially teens).

And, if you are a teacher, be sure to give the talented students as much opportunity to practice as those who need to work harder for the A’s. They will thank you in the acknowledgments for their first book.

11 thoughts on “Why Talent May Be Bad for Your Writing Career

  1. Wonderful insights, Lisa ~

    I would have to confess that I was a “Julie” all throughout my years in school. It wasn’t until I came online about three years ago that I transformed myself into a “Joan”. I believe the biggest reason for the transformation is that I discovered blogging meant throwing a lot of my tried-and-true language skills out with the bath water! 🙂

    In general, I’m a big proponent of writing a first draft, proofreading, editing, and doing a final draft. That’s how all my blog posts are crafted.

    Nice to discover you. I really enjoy your writing style and best of luck throughout the blogging challenge!

    Melanie
    #blog30 #blogboost

    • Melanie, thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad to have found another Julie-turned-Joan. 🙂 I find that blogging is a great tool in both improving my writing and keeping myself to a schedule. I’m really enjoying the blogging challenge so far!

      • … and you’re going to really enjoy all the takeaways from the challenge, as well, Lisa. 🙂

        I hope you’ll give some genuine thought to signing up for the “31 Days to Build a Better Blog” challenge starting August 23rd with Lisbeth Tanz and Michelle Shaeffer (yes, the same Michelle that’s co-hosing the Ultimate Blog Challenge). It’s a very different kind of event where the focus is NOT on posting every day and we get the weekends off. Yippee! The focus will be on implementing lots of different tactics and strategies for making your blog work for you. Check it out if you like: Savvy Blogging Success

        Happy Blogging!
        Melanie

  2. Lisa ~ Love this post!

    I was and still am Joan. I work hard for my grades, A’s or B’s. I could never just write up an assignment in one night. In high school, my best grades didn’t come from just by completing the assignment, but by taking that extra step on each project. Even if I finished a few days early, I would go back and think what would make it better. Still do in college and in life. Hey, even ‘Death’s Island’ took six years to complete (talk about going back and revising).

    Best,
    Kelsey

    (By the way, this comment is the third revision : D )

    • Kelsey, you continue to inspire me! Seriously. I plan to share your online interviews with the young writing students I’ll be working with this fall, to show them what is possible if they have the Joan approach to writing (maybe I should rename it the Kelsey approach). 🙂

  3. Love the post. I am a Joan and my husband a Julie. He has been published, he edits and improves my writing and I learn. His challenge is the stuff that comes after you write good content – the polish, the marketing etc. because its like building a better mousetrap – if no one knows then no one will know. Great writers, singers etc. are great promoters too and have a support team. Just saw a blog pop up in TweetDeck from another participant in the Ultimate Challenge – have you searched yourself in google – I get more hits than my husband by far.

    • Roberta, you make a great point about a support team, as well as the importance of promotion (not always easy for reticent writers). I wonder how many Joans and Julies are married to each other? I’ve learned a lot from my more naturally Joan husband. 🙂 Thank you for stopping by!

  4. I was definitely a Julie. My mom claims I practically came out of the womb reading and wrote my first story in Kindergarten. In college, I once started a 20-page paper at midnight when it was due at 8am, and I got one of 2 A’s out of over 200 people in the class. I’ve always been told I was a good writer, so writing a book has involved a HUGE learning curve for me. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done–and I’m still revising the book. I’ve never had to re-write anything in my life, even my dissertation, and I’m on revision # (I don’t know, a lot). I’m not giving up though–I’m hoping I’m on my final revision. Great post!

    • Kristi, we seem to have had very similar experiences. I love Dweck’s work on this issue, especially her theory that praising talent rather than effort (e.g., being told you are a “good writer” in a very general way, without knowing what that means or how you accomplished it) promotes a fixed mindset and perfectionism. It has made me much more aware of how I speak to young people.

      Good luck with the revising! That’s a huge accomplishment that only another natural Julie can understand. 🙂 For me, revising got easier and easier the more I did it, to the point that, now, I can say honestly that I enjoy revising. Who woulda thunk it? 😉

  5. Lisa, Our experiences are similar in that I was shocked when I received my first “real” college paper back with a C- in bold, red ink. I cursed that professor, whom I later came to love.

    I still struggle with that big-headed side of myself when I write, but I at least spend more time in rewrites than ever before. Progress, not perfection!

    • Christi, progress, not perfect is, well, perfect! Our son had a teacher who used to tell students that they could stop when their work as “as perfect as it needs to be.” I like that. 🙂

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