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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Can writing be learned?

   
Author Topic: Can writing be learned?
robertq
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There seem to be a lot of people
that think writing is just pure talent.
What are your thoughts on this

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darklight
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You can be taught to write well but if you don't have the imagination to think of good stories, it's not worth anything.

My oppinion anyhow.


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Rommel Fenrir Wolf II
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writing is easy if you write as you would talk. in my writing i write as if i were thinking as the charicter. talking and acting like i want them to. now when it comes to editing thank god for Microsoft Word for i cant spell worth a damn and my grammer is even worse. maybe it is because i am insain or just didnt cair about school to learn.
Rommel Fenrir Wolf II

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Robert Nowall
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I think I was born with the ability to tell stories. (I sometimes wish I had the ability to be verbally articulate). I was doing it, after a fashion, way before I thought of taking up the writer's trade.

But it took some time to reach my present level of lack-of-perfection. Right now, I look at everything I wrote before 1990 and know just how bad it was---the stuff after 1990 seems as good as some stuff that's been published.


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J
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I think there's a good analogy to music. You can learn theory, you can acquire great technical proficiency, but you can't be taught to have an ear for the notes. An average musician can have either technical mastery or talent. A great one has both.
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ChrisOwens
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As with anything: practice, practice, practice. Some are born with talent, some develop talent. Some have the circumstances, the time and resources. Others make the time, despite their circumstances, despite lack of resources. Some are very fortunate by placing the right story at the right time, others do so by persistance.
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Marzo
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I like J's analogy.

I think that there are a lot of facets to writing, some of which can be learned, some of which I would say require something pre-existing in the writer's character or way of thinking - though, technically, that could be learned as well, albeit not in a classroom setting.

Anyone can learn correct grammar and story structure, but whether or not they'd have the type of mind to feed them stories is a different matter. A writer should know how to take snippits of detail the world gives him, and combine them and flesh them out to make stories that appeal. I believe a writer has a certain way of looking at people and situations that others may not necessarily have.

You can find aspiring writers who have too much technique and not enough imagination, and vice-versa, and there's hope for them learning a little more about the aspect they're lacking.

Ultimately, unless you're completely devoid of imagination or the ability to force yourself to acquire one through a little different thinking, I think you can learn writing.

I can see the appeal of the old 'poet/writer as a muse's vessel', with inspiration flowing through them without their own control though; it's probably why that Romantic idea hasn't disappeared.


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InarticulateBabbler
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If you read James Bell's Plot & Structure, the introduction adresses this very issue. I tend to agree. Also, J's analogy was a completely viable variance.

quote:

"I wasted ten years of prime writing life because of the Big Lie.

In My twenties, I gave up the dream of becoming a writer because I had been told that writing could not be taught. Writers are born, people said. You either have what it takes or you don't, and if you don't you'll never get it.

My first writings didn't have it. I thought I was doomed."

(Skip ahead a little)

"At age thirty-four, I read an interview with a lawyer who'd had a novel published. And what he said hit me in my lengthy briefs. He said he'd had an accident and was almost killed. In the hospital, given a second chance at life, he decided the one thing he wanted was to be a writer. And he would write and write, even if he never got published because that's what he wanted.

Well, I wanted it too.

But the Big Lie was still there, hovering around my brain, mocking me.

Especially when I began to study the craft of writing."

(skip a bit more)

"While in the throes of the Big Lie,the most frustrating thing to me was Plot. Because what I wrote didn't have it.

I would read short stories and novels and wonder how the writers did it. How did they get all this great story material? The Big Lie said that they had it all in their heads, naturally, and it just flowed out on the page as they went along.

I tried it. I tried to let plot flow. But what came out on the page was dreadful. No plot! No story! Zip!

But when I began to learn about the craft, I saw that plotting had elements I could learn. And I found out about structure: when plot elements were put in a certain order, a stronger story resulted.

I can still remember the day it came together for me. It was an epiphany. All of a sudden, something clicked in my head. The pieces started to fit. The Jell-O hardened.

About a year later, I had a screenplay optioned. Then another.

Then I wrote a novel. It was published.

Then I got a five-book fiction contract. Somehow, someway, I had learned to write after all.

The Big Lie was exposed."



[This message has been edited by InarticulateBabbler (edited May 24, 2007).]


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KayTi
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I think there has to be some kind of talent/passion/drive - or people just won't put in the work to become writers.

I have also come to realize there's a lot of mechanics/techniques/tricks that will help translate that talent/passion/drive into something marketable.

But I think there's a real risk in over-relying on the techniques (or the "advice of the month/year") and ignoring your gut. Your gut doesn't lie. If it says this piece is drivel, you can't put frosting on it and make a cake. You might need to jettison it, keep mechanics and technique in mind, but then let your passion drive you for a while. At least this is what I'm learning is the balance point for me as a writer. Somewhere between craft and passion.


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Balthasar
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As far as I'm concerned, when it comes to writing, talent is a meaningless word. Everything about writing can be learned.

The only prerequisite is you have to like to read stories, and you have to want to write them.

That can't be taught.

But everything else can.

[This message has been edited by Balthasar (edited May 24, 2007).]


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DebbieKW
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Certainly writing can be learned. Why else teach kids how to write in school? However, I think you're referring to written storytelling. Like someone else said, storytelling is a craft, just like glass-working, jewelry-making, making pottery, etc. Like any craft, anyone can learn it. However I do think that some people naturally have the 'gift' to do it better--to catch on to how it's done more quickly--than others. Of course, they also need to combine the above with the persistence needed to get published. Just my opinion.
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wrenbird
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I like that post about the "Big Lie." Oh, the countless times I have felt it lurking in the dark regions of my mind.
Do you know how many times have I started my writing session by reading what I wrote the day before and almost deleted the whole thing? And always, it is because of that nagging feeling that, sure I love to write and want to write and need to write, but what if I just don't have the talent? What if this is all a waste of time?
*shudder*
And the truth is, no matter how many time I hear that it is a "Big Lie," I still can't banish it all together. Maybe one day, when I land on the NY Times Bestseller's List.

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Corky
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quote:
Maybe one day, when I land on the NY Times Bestseller's List.

Oh, but then you'll have a couple of other "lies" to deal with:

Imposter Syndrome--"I really don't belong here, and anyone who reads my book is going to see immediately that I'm really just an imposter, and they'll come with pitchforks and torches to drive me out, or at least embarrass me terribly."

Next Act Syndrome (aka One-Shot Wonder fear)--"Great, now what do I do? How do I come up with something this good again? I'll never live up to the hype on this book." (which leads to Imposter Syndrome with "This book doesn't even live up to the hype.")


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Skribent
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I, too, like the post about the "Big Lie". I don't think writing is only for 'talented' people. I think individuals have the capacity to learn how to tell a story, and do it well.

quote:
I can still remember the day it came together for me. It was an epiphany. All of a sudden, something clicked in my head. The pieces started to fit. The Jell-O hardened

However, I don't think every individual reaches the 'Aha!' moment. I'm in health care, and it took a few months of study until I hit that moment. That's when everything clicked and the individual components we had been learning became cohesive. There were a couple of people in class who never reached that 'Aha!' moment, and they ended up being expelled from the class.

Not many people have the luxury (or discipline) to study the craft of writing and storytelling on a full time basis. So it may take months or years for everything to click. And, even when a person reaches that point, I believe there's always more to learn.

[Edited to change a choice in words.]

[This message has been edited by Skribent (edited May 24, 2007).]


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nitewriter
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I agree with Stephen King. He believes that an aspiring can improve - until they reach a certain level of expertise. That level is determined by inborn talent. All the study, desire and practice in the world won't make you a Welty, Capote or Swift. Those are people with genius, and that is obviously inborn.
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justpat
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I think Steven King said a weak writer can learn to be a mediocre writer, and a mediocre writer can learn to be a good writer, but a good writer can never learn to be a great writer. That takes a natural talent which cannot be learned.

This is good news for me, it really removes a lot of pressure. I will never be great, so I can concentrate on just getting good.


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arriki
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Yes, but HOW do you go about "improving" your writing?
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rstegman
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The question of whether writing can be taught, really depends on what needs to be taught.

The discipline can be taught. The typing can be taught. The language skills; sentance structure, syntax, spelling, grammar, all can be taught.

The interest in doing it cannot be taught be has to come from inside. The idea, the story, cannot be taught and that also has to come from inside.

They do say that everybody has at least one story within them. They just have to make it important to write it out. Editors can always improve on the story if needed.


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Lord Darkstorm
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quote:
Yes, but HOW do you go about "improving" your writing?

First, by writing. Writing books are helpful for teaching you how to think about writing...and by far the most important thing we can forget to do...keep reading. Books show us how other people do write, and be it good or bad, there is something to be learned from it.

Talent is something that I think any creative process needs. Some people have a lot of it, some don't. The real difference is the amount of work that has to be done to make it good. Still, no matter how much talent someone has, there is always work involved to go from not bad, to good, and even more to get to the point it is worth someone else's money.


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arriki
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But how do you just "learn" from reading well-written books?
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J
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The same way you learn to speak well around well-spoken folks or to behave well around well-behaved folks. If you read junk like Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind all the time, you subconsciously absorb the idea that shallow, swollen, sanctimonious nonsense, heavy on purposeless filler description and devoid of substance, theme, or real character development, is an acceptable--or even desirable, God help us--way to write.

If you throw in some great writing--some Hemingway, or Chesterton, or London, or Tolkien, or any of the other titans of the craft--you can immediately see and learn from the differences. From my examples above, the lessons jump right off the page. Read Hemingway and you see the incredible power of brevity and the unwritten word--how to say something with more depth and meaning in seven words than another author can in seven sentences. Read Chesterton and you see how to have a meaningful, vibrant authorial voice that makes the story as distinctly your own. Read London and you see how to develop a character--a remorselessly vicious dog, in most of his books--so well that the reader loves him out of mere depth of understanding. Read Tolkien and learn the art of purposeful, meaningful description.

That's how you learn. You read, pay attention to what they write and how they write it, emulate, experiment with your own writing. At the end of the day you necessarily are left with your own style, but if that style is nurtured on a diet of great writing, it stands a much better chance of being clear, powerful, and useful to telling your stories than if you fed it on a junk-food diet from the sci-fi/fantasy shelves. Picking books indiscriminately is as unhealthy for your writing as picking food indiscriminately is for your body, and "best-selling" is a far cry from "great."

[This message has been edited by J (edited May 30, 2007).]


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Matt Lust
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Reading is not to writing like viewing a painting/sketch is to drawing.

Language works such that each side of it goes together. If you want to be a better speaker practicing helps but knowing what makes a good speaker is as if not more important. A fundamental element of good speaking is delivery. When you listen to speakers like Kennedy, MLK, Churchill and cadences and patterns begin to emerge.

Writing is the same way. One needs to know how good writing is delivered to the audience. Reading is to listening as writing is to speaking. Reading good work will teach you things than writing cannot, not will not or does not but cannot.


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Mystic
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I like to think of this topic through Legos. If it is in a person's nature to simply build a Lego structure and then show it everyone, then at best, that person can only write derivative stories with no spark or passion behind the words. However, if a person builds a Lego structure and creates an imaginary world around it, then that person has the innate ability to call upon his imagination to give life to the lifeless and create a story. For me, I can remember building robots, people, and spaceships out of Legos, but thinking that was not enough. They needed names, backstories, motivations for their actions, emotions, complex relationships and all sorts of other stuff that has helped me in my writing.
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Skribent
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quote:
Yes, but HOW do you go about "improving" your writing?

Find a person or people to critique your work. What are your weak areas? Character? Plot? Theme? Openings, endings, too much info, too little? What are your strong areas? Then read up on ways to improve those weak areas. Find someone who is good at something you need to improve upon and ask them how they go about characterization or plotting or whatever it is.


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wbriggs
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Go to Boot Camp in June.
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djvdakota
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I think anyone can learn to write well--even learn to write publishable material.

I also think anyone can learn music.

But I also think there's an element that is most ignored and most needed, and learnable--the kind of element that elevates just writing, or just playing the piano to an art form.

I heard of a quote recently from a piano competition judge. He said that that year's entrants had been disappointing. Not because they weren't proficient. They were HIGHLY proficient. But that they lacked heart. Their music was technically perfect, but soulless.

Technical learning isn't enough.

Writing needs a soul. Without it, it's just ink on a page. Meaningless information.


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Lord Darkstorm
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I think what it means is talent. It is one thing to repeat a bunch of notes, or write a story based on learned skills. It's the talent that turns them to art. In music it comes out in expression, how the inflections and pacing are played outside of the scope of just timing and take on a feeling they don't have without it.

Talent is the bases of creation. Still, we need the skill just as badly.


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RMatthewWare
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I think writing is more technique than talent. You can learn most of the things necessary to write well. When it comes to engaging ideas, then yeah, that is more of a natural phenomenon, though you can learn how to look for ideas. But most writing ability is learned.

There are a lot of people that can come up with great ideas, and they have an engaging story in their head. But when it comes down to it, they don't write well. Things like punctuation, story structure, order of events, etc; they just plain suck at. And they won't learn how to do these thing correctly because they think that what they are writing is good and beyond criticism.

It comes down to arrogance. They think that because they have a natural talent for gathering stories, they don't need help putting them on paper. Hogwash. And if you disagree with me, go to the Fragments and Feedback. Sure, there are a lot of great story beginnings, but there are also some that just start poorly. And I'm not talking about them having a lack of hook or main character, I mean they are completely incoherent.

So, long story short, writing as a technique can and should be learned. It should be improved upon. A writer should always be trying to improve his/her craft. There are many books and resources dedicated to such topics.

Matt


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Robert Nowall
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A further thought on "talent"---somehow, the notion that talent is what makes a writer ties in with the notion that it's somehow decided who will be a writer and who won't be, and since it's all decided in advance, I might as well not bother.

After some further thought, I'm leaning towards the importance of technical skill---learning how to craft a story is, maybe, more important.

(There's another factor---name branding. I've read a lot of Stephen King's stuff---but I think a lot of it got published just because Stephen King wrote it, not because it was necessarily any good. (I know King has published under pseudonyms---but I know of no case where he wasn't found out.) When he's good, there's nobody better, but when he's not...)


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rstegman
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A friend and I were discussing talent and we think we might have a handle on what talent is.

Talent, is really an ability for something to come easy to you. the more talent you have, the easier it is.

We have a tendancy of concentrating our abilities to things that come easy, while avoiding things that are difficult to pick up. That "come easy" is talent. People with a lot of talent will become great at it because doing it is so easy for them.

This does not take into account that one must work at it to rech the limits of one's ability or talent.

We can work at and get good at something we have no talent for, but if we applied the same amount of work toward something we have talent for, we would reach a higher level of skill.

I love to write. My talent is in producing a lot of drivel real fast. My level of it coming easy to me (my talent)is only at a certain level, basically just below publication quality.


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Balthasar
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I disagree with your definition of talent, rstegman, at least how it pertains to writing.

In terms of physical ability, yes, talent and ease go hand in hand. This is true for both sports and playing a musical instrument, though more so with sports.

But when it comes to creativity, I don't know if I agree. In almost every interview on the subject of writing, almost every writer says it gets HARDER as you get better, not EASIER.

That's true in my experience. I'm no Shakespeare, of course, but putting stories together is far more difficult for me today than it was when I was 18. First, as a 33-yr-old, I have a higher level of aesthetic standards than I did when I was 18. Second, I've studied the craft of storytelling and know, for the most part, what I need to do to put together a well-told story. (Of course, whether or not the story is worth telling is another thing.)

If there is a talent for writing -- it's a talent for knowing which stories are meaningful, i.e., worth telling, and which stories are banal and trivial. But even then I'm not sure if this is a talent or not. Spend a year reading and thinking about Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostovesky, and you'll have built a rather solid critical apparatus for separating the good from the bad.

Going back to talent -- and this may have already been said, I didn't take the time to read every post -- I'd say that when it comes to the act of creating anything -- stories, music, art -- the only thing that really needed is a love for the form and a desire to do it.

With stories, that's all the talent you need.

And I'd even say that is true with art. We don't look at a Cezanne or a Gauguin because of their ability to paint; we look at them and admire them because of the vision they give us.

But with music, that's different. You need good musicians to bring life to your songs. But I'm not sure you need musical ability to write good songs. In fact, I'm sure of it.

But this is a huge tangent . . .


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nitewriter
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"Talent is really the ability for something to come easy to you."

I don't agree with this. No less a writer than James Joyce struggled to get the words on paper. There is the story about a friend who asked him how his writing had gone that day. James said "I got five words written down today." His friend said "Well for you that's very good." James replied "Yes, but I'm not sure of the order they go in."

Take a look at the symphonic manuscripts of Beethoven. Notes and lines are scratched out and revised so much as to render the score nearly unreadable. Anyone want to argue that Beethoven was talented?


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Lord Darkstorm
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I looked up the definition of talent, and there are quite a few definitions which describe it as something people have that allows them to perform certain things well. I think what many people fail to realize is that anyone who does well with their talent only does so because of the effort they put into that skill. Musicians practice their instruments, artist draw/paint/sketch, professional athletes train, and writers write. The more anyone practices their skills and works to develop them, then they will eventually reach a state where someone will appreciate that effort. I do believe that most people who want to write for the sake of writing (not to get rich, or become famous) have some talent or you wouldn't be interested. Too many people fear that without talent they can't do it, and I would agree. It's like the piano example, you can play note for note perfect, and it still not sound good. Your grammar can be perfect, your characters well defined, and have the most intricate world...but if it reads like a blueprint, then it lacks the creativity that breaths life into it. Baring the extremely lucky (I'd suggest the lottery since you have better odds), like eragon, the rest of us will have to actually work for it. Talent can get people a jump ahead, but in the end, it's those who learn the skills and practice them that will succeed. Talent by itself isn't enough. You have to work for it.

[This message has been edited by Lord Darkstorm (edited June 04, 2007).]


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DeepDreamer
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Rachel Simon said "Talent is not YOU ARE HERE. Talent is YOU CAN GET HERE IF YOU TRY."

Talent has also been described, not as knowing how to create, but what to create.

In my belief and in my experience, the skill of writing can be learned. The techniques of the art can be taught. Knowing what to write, that's the hard part.

I don't believe talent is something you either have or don't have. I believe talent is a measure of aptitude. Some people have more talent to begin with. But it's like a muscle. The more it's worked, the more it can work. The more you use your talent, the more talented you become.

Vision is a whole 'nother topic. I think people are either born visionaries, or not. People who are visionaries tend to be talented because they have a desire to bring their visions to light, and will work hard and long and use whatever means necessary to do that.


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arriki
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Yes, but everything here seems to be talking about composing stories, not the actual efforts/study of putting words in order and dividing up paragraphs and figuring where to put in a hard scenebreak and where not to.

Little brushstrokes like how to move a character from Point A to Point B without boring the reader. Or how to make a character likeable or detestable or funny or furious without saying so.


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DeepDreamer
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I don't see how there's any difference between teaching where best to divide a section into paragraphs or how to move a character through time without detailing everything that happened between point A and B. Both the mechanics and the techniques can be taught and learned. That's what the bulk of how-to books on writing are about, after all.

What part of writing can't be learned?


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J
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The part where you conceive of an absolutely brilliant story and tell it so well that it becomes part of the reader's soul.

Without practice and learning, Hemingway could have never been Hemingway. But no amount of practice, learning, or technical proficiency will ever make me Hemingway.


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Lord Darkstorm
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quote:
Yes, but everything here seems to be talking about composing stories, not the actual efforts/study of putting words in order and dividing up paragraphs and figuring where to put in a hard scenebreak and where not to.

Sentences, paragraphs, and how you build them are part of grammar. How you build a story is part of learning to write stories, as is where you start and stop a scene. How do you learn? Read writing books, I'm sure there are several threads on which ones people found useful. Practice, and practice some more, then practice some more...and one day people won't rip your stories to shreds...but they still won't be good enough, and you will practice some more. The point, if you want to learn to write, it is going to take work. It won't happen overnight. If working for it is too much, well, I can't help you.

quote:
What part of writing can't be learned?

Only the part that becomes your style, how you tell your story. We all have our own voice, and that comes in time.


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Matt Lust
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I'd have to agree that "voice" (I use this as Lord D used style)is probably the only thing that can't be "taught" if by taught we also mean following a set of techniques.

To me Style can be a genre or other set of rules about story structure or format. An author's voice is almost as unique as a singer's. Some authors like Heinlein are very clever at masking their voice to fit the story while others have to suit the story to their voice. As an example I've never read an OSC novel that I couldn't believe was also written by the same guy who also wrote ______ OSC novel. Whereas try reading Have Spacesuit will Travel, Starship troopers, and Time Enough For Love in sequence. I've tried and its almost impossible because RAH's voice shifts range and timbre significantly

(Though to be fair OSC is not dead and may come out with a novel that I can't see the same man behind the curtain, and the three RAH novels I picked represent early, prime and twilight of a masterful career)


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DeepDreamer
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A quote related to what Lord Darkstorm said: "Amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can't get it wrong."
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