Are you a natural writer? Here’s why that’s bad

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Being a natural writer might sound like a good thing. Here’s why it usually isn’t…

My 21-year-old son started singing when he was two years old. We’d taken the kids to a Raffi concert and it was comical the way we could see the lightbulb turn on in Duncan’s brain.

“Wait!” the thought bubble above his head seemed to say. “Performers can stand on stage, sing and have an entire roomful of people listen to them and applaud? I like that idea!”

Then, as soon as we returned home, he sat us all down, stood on a pine box in our hallway and made us listen to him sing. Over time, babysitters and friends frequently commented on the excellence of his voice. By the age of 6 he liked to wander down neighbourhood streets covering Frank Sinatra songs like Fly Me To the Moon and All of Me. (Comical in a six-year-old, I know. I only wish we’d recorded them!)

Fast forward many years and Duncan now is studying to be an opera singer. (That’s him, in the photo above, in costume for a role in La Traviata.) I’m interested in music myself — I’m currently in year 3 of my own piano lessons. My son and I speak regularly about what he’s singing. We chat about his program of study. And we ponder his ultimate career aspirations. But recently he said something that shocked me.

“My problem is that I’m a Natural Singer,” he said. I could hear the capital letters in the phrase as he used it. But I didn’t recognize the term — in fact, I didn’t even know it was a thing. Nor did I understand how being a Natural Singer could be remotely conceived as a problem. Wasn’t it something good? Didn’t it give him certain advantages? I asked him to explain.

The difficulty with being a natural singer, he told me, was threefold. First, because he had a basic level of talent, he could — and had — “slid by” without learning the techniques that help more “average” singers survive and thrive. Second, natural singers tend not to practice as much, because — at certain levels — they can get away without doing it. Third, they don’t get the constructive criticism and support they need from their teachers and directors. This is likely because they are singing to a certain level of excellence and it’s perceived they don’t need the help.

As soon as Duncan gave me his explanation, I immediately saw the parallels with writing. There are some people we might describe as “Natural Writers.” They write facilely and prolifically. They don’t suffer from writer’s block. They don’t make grammatical errors. They naturally use transitions and connectors. Ask them to write and they’ll have two questions: What’s my word count? What’s my deadline?

But like Natural Singers, they also have some problems. Many Natural Writers are allergic to the idea of self-editing. It’s boring to them or they don’t know how to do it. Once they’ve written the first draft, they are as done as a cake that’s been in the oven 45 minutes.

As well, Natural Writers tend to see writing as something that should be easy. Then, when the inevitable hard work occurs they become impatient with the process. This work might include organizing pages of notes, citing references, pleasing an external editor or handling a story that’s particularly difficult. Writing should be fun, they think, and when it isn’t — when it starts to look suspiciously like work — they back off.

Finally, they’re ill-equipped for the many disappointments that come part-and-parcel with the writing life. They don’t like having to market themselves. Shouldn’t the world just recognize their talent? They hate the idea of having to do other jobs while they build enough writing work to sustain themselves. Isn’t it obvious they’re meant to be writers? They resent having to be upbeat and buoyant with (sometimes annoying) editors. Can’t those nimrods understand how naturally endowed they are?

Me? I’ve never had much writing talent. (I was a born editor.) Nor have I seen the value of it. Instead, I believe that hard work and a commitment to improve are the best ways to build a sustainable writing life. You can believe that too — no matter how much or little talent you were born with.

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Do you know any natural writers? Are you one yourself? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. Please, scroll down to the comments section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.