Dan O’Shea has another thought-provoking post on his blog today, referring to posts by John Hornor and Chuck Wendig about how much of writing is talent alone, and how much of it can be taught. (There’s a lot more to their comments than that; go check them out. I’ll wait.)
I commented on the other blogs, but it occurred to me that my two comments tied well into a single blog post and, since I haven’t posted anything for about a week, I might as well get off my ass and do it.
Stephen King has my favorite take on how much one’s writing can be improved in his excellent book, On Writing. (Recommended for all writers, regardless of style or genre.) I don’t have the book handy, so I’ll paraphrase (while plagiarizing my comment on Dan’s blog):
There are four levels of writer: Incompetent, Competent, Good, and Great.
An Incompetent writer is, well, incompetent. Not much you can do with him.
A Competent writer can, with work and guidance, become a good writer.
A Good writer can, with sloth and dissipation, become a Competent writer. He cannot, however, become a Great writer, only a better writer.
Great writers are born. They can, however, piss that greatness away and become Good, or merely Competent. We all know people who have done this.
Greatness is that unteachable spark called talent, or a gift, or God’s Lips to our ear. Everything else can be learned. Incompetence is like anti-talent: no matter how hard you try, you’re just not wired that way. You’re never going to get it.
I suspect it’s not just writing. Every field is like this. I used to be a musician, and it’s certainly true there.
Can anything truly be taught? The best teacher I ever had says no one can teach you anything. Everything is learned through a combination of trial and error and rote. The teacher—if he’s good—is a guide. He uses his experience to suggest paths most likely to lead to success, and cautions against dead ends. He encourages, but not unrealistically.
So I’d say yes, writing can be learned, though it cannot be taught any more than anything else can. Which is still plenty.