Are Good Writers Born – Or Made?

There is a myth in the marketing world that anyone can write good copy. When this myth is spoken, it’s usually followed by the advice that all one needs is a good swipe file (successful ads of the past that one can “borrow” from).

This myth has always struck me as false — or at least only partially true.

I believe that when it comes right down to it, you must have some writing talent. If you don’t, your copy will not be brilliant. It may not even be good. In most cases, it will just be bad.

I see plenty of evidence that the last is the most common result.

There is another myth that if one studies enough of the right manuals, or attends enough of the right seminars, one can learn to write well. Frankly, if you don’t have some native talent — a “knack”, if you will — I don’t think all the classes, courses, or seminars in the world can help you much.

Stephen King would agree with me, I suspect. In a recent article he penned for the Washington Post, King wrote: “The only things that can teach writing are reading, writing and the semi-domestication of one’s muse.”

So there it is, then.

My opinion is that not everyone can learn to be a great (or even good) writer. Everyone is born with a certain aptitude (or lack of it), and they’re pretty much stuck with that aptitude. They can take classes or be taught to make the most of it, but they are always limited to a certain range in the development of their craft.

What do you think?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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9 thoughts on “Are Good Writers Born – Or Made?

  1. First of all let me say Ray you are brave to give that opinion, not least because it could be construed (completely wrongly) as arrogance on the part of the talented writer you undoubtedly are – also because it cannot help but reduce the number wanting to give it a try which cannot be good for selling copywriting courses

    Many marketers would be dishonest enough to say “anyone can learn” on the basis they have a course to sell, and all credit for the fact that you are opposing that vbiew.

    I think Stephen King was correct in saying that reading (and writing) are key to nurturing the talent. One of the indictments of our time is the lack of time kids spend reading.

    Good writers are good story tellers, and too much time is spent by the younger generation on an XBOX, not in dialogue with others.

    I do believe that you do not need to be a superstar to be a valuable writer, and a good proportion of the population can be taught in principle. I think the key ingredient is passion. I think those with a passion for reading and the written word can be taught to be a competent writer. If you lack the passion you will fail however much inate talent you have.

  2. Interesting subject and insights. Not sure I agree with your assessment though. Perhaps that's because during my time as professor at the University of Illinois and Cornell University–one of those professors who had weekly written assignments in every class–I saw students who wrote terribly become fairly decent writers as they spent more time writing.

    Whether those good writers would ever become great writers, I don't know. But I am convinced that by writing more anyone can become a better writer. And it really doesn't matter what they choose to write about when developing the skill; they just need to write.

    One other observation–the more people read, the better they write. So for your readers who want to become better at writing copy, my suggestion is to read a lot of copy and spend a lot of time writing, even if it is merely in a journal, to develop your knowledge and skills. You may not become the greatest of all time, but you will quickly become far better than most!

    • Thanks for giving me hope.  I love to read but am a terrible writer.  Not descriptive and really straight to the point (is that bad?).  I want to write but don’t have the talent.  I was not born a writer as you may have noticed.  Your comment gave me a boost that I can improve my writing with every practice. 

  3. So many marketers say sales skills are the important thing, not writing skills, so it's refreshing to read your post. Although anyone can improve their writing skills, there are many intangible things about the writing process (all of which occur before sitting down and putting words on the page) that can't really be taught.

  4. I agree with the two previous comments, and I agree with you, Ray. Reading is crucial. The other thing is an ability to actually feel something with our senses, filter it through our brain and our keyboard or pen, and organize it so that the reader feels something as well. It's all about what happens inside the reader, not on the page. This is so easy to forget.

    Personally, I get pretty caught up with my own words and how they make me feel. That's all good and fine, but the next step is the most important, and that is the step back to read it as somebody else may see it. And somebody else, and somebody else… The chemistry in the reader is the goal, not the eloquence or perfection on the page.

    Usually I have to let my writing age before I can do this stepping-back routine. I'm much too enamored with my own words at first, not wanting to let a single one of them go. But time takes care of all infatuation of our own making, and that's the time to edit mercilessly, and that's when good writing really happens, don't you think? It's all about editing, really. I listened to John Carlton talk one time and he said, “Edit until you cannot remove one more word and retain the meaning.” Wow.

  5. I would say this applies to virtually anything creative, like writing/playing music or performing stand up comedy or architecture… You can certainly put in the time and get better at it, but certain people have that innate ability that throws them off the charts. That's talent you can't buy.

    It's also the main reason I try to encourage people to know or discover their God-given talent and use it! Extraordinary things happen when you're living on purpose and being pulled along, instead of trying to push so hard you pop a vein. Maybe a bit too graphic, but that's how strongly I feel about it. 🙂

  6. I'm not sure. I think this is *all* theoretical. It's impossible to prove whether a decent writer can become good through lots of smart practice and study or whether a decent writer becoming good is impossible no matter what they do.

    I'd like to think that the mind is far more mysterious than the assertion made in this post.

    So here's my assessment:

    While I don't think people can become Shakespeare unless they're born with sufficient talent, I think just about anyone of average intelligence can become a good writer (though maybe not great).

    Even practice and training are a skill. So I believe if someone is OK or even mediocre truly wants to become a good writer. Wants it bad enough. And believes they can achieve it: If they practice enough and practice smart enough, they can indeed become good writers.

    But I believe that such a person is going to have to train very hard and *also* train very smart.

    And then there's another component: The person must *believe* they can do it. Not because I believe in LOA, but because I believe that if you embark on anything and straight out of the gate tell yourself you can't do it, you're sending direct messages to your nervous system not to unearth the inner resources that you have.

    Moreover, if at any time an expert has examined the capacity of an individual and concluded that they would never succeed because they fail to possess the requisite native talent and then ultimately that person did succeed… if this occurrence happened even just once, it throws your whole theory into question.

    Yet I have a feeling the above has happened many, many times throughout the history of the world.