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View Full Version : Is it possible to make significant gains in your writing?



DeusExMachina770
05-01-2009, 05:17 AM
I was never much of a writer as a child. I absolutely hated all forms of writing until about the age of 16, when I began writing stories. Last year in my psychology class we studied Chomsky's Theory of Language Acquisition, which states that if one does not learn language during a 'critical period' (roughly ages 2-7), they will never fully grasp language. It made me paranoid there might be a similar phenomenon that takes place from ages 8-16 regarding writing, reading, and verbal ability, and I missed my calling.

Did anyone here, like me, absolutely eschew writing and reading as a child but later go on to become a great writer? Any success stories?

It's something that worries me everyday. Some people say anyone can make gains in their writing, but not everyone can become a great writer. True/False?

Izz
05-01-2009, 05:37 AM
Every so often we get these nature vs nurture threads pop up, and they usually turn into slugfests :)

My opinion is that writing is like any art or sport - part raw talent and mostly hard work. There are some people who might have a head start, but i think anybody can become a writer, though not everyone can become a great writer. Great writers are very few and far between. But if you love writing, even if you've come to it a later age, there's nothing saying you can't become good or great.

Just gotta work hard at developing your craft, is all. You want to become a great football player, sprinter, swimmer, musician you gotta train and develop your skills and constantly look for ways to become better. Natural talent only takes you so far. Same deal with being a writer. Train, train, train. It's hard work, but so is reaching a high level in anything.

Maricar
05-01-2009, 05:49 AM
Do not worry. Just write. You will get better every day. I do not believe that anyone is born a great writer. Every one has had to learn how to put letters, and then words, together.

The only thing that would worry me about an aspiring writer is unwillingness to learn. As long as you seek to be a better writer, you can become a great one, if not tomorrow, then someday.

To answer your question, I'd say false. I'm not a great writer now, but I won't let "some people" say I can't ever be one.

NeuroFizz
05-01-2009, 07:40 AM
The critical threshold events in brain development are typically restricted to the gestation period and a few years past birth. When we talk about acquiring a skill, whether it be intellectual or physical, we all have learning curves. The trajectory of those learning curves are different for each individual person, and some have such a steep curve, they are said to have a special aptitude for that kind of activity (this can also be called talent). But there is still a curve, and to run up the slope still requires hard work and practice. People with really shallow learning curves may be able achieve similar success, but it may be a slower or more labor-intensive path. The really cool thing, though is the curve is rarely a nice smooth function. There are definite jumps, where something clicks, and leaps in ability/performance occur. And sometimes, these jumps may be most noticeable in those people whose learning curves are not the steepest (although they can occur in everyone). All of these variables are extremely individual and not just dependent on the native brain function of the individual. They are just as dependent upon experience, attentional aspects of experience, and things like moment-to-moment motivation and more long term motivational aspects of the individual's approach to the activity.

In other words, there is no way to adequately generalize anything about something like this because it has so many independent variables that are subject to amazing individual variability. And people with no special aptitude could outperform someone with exceptional aptitude if the former person works long and hard and the latter person does very little to develop that aptitude.

Now, add to all this the reality that what we consider important traits of a "great writer" are quite subjective, and the variability ramps up incredibly unpredictable levels.

rugcat
05-01-2009, 08:49 AM
And people with no special aptitude could outperform someone with exceptional aptitude if the former person works long and hard and the latter person does very little to develop that aptitude.
I very much believe you can't reach the heights of creative accomplishment without having an innate talent or gift. You can't become Picasso or Mozart or Yeats just by working hard.

But for we lesser mortals, you can take a smidgen of talent and through hard work, achieve amazing heights. I have two friends, both professors of music and professional jazz guitarists.

One of them showed immense talent at a young age, playing classical guitar. He worked hard, but in truth it came easy to him. At age fourteen, he played for Oscar Ghiglia. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Ghiglia) a top classical guitarist. Ghiglia said, simply. "You are a musician."

My other friend was an uninspired student with a passion for jazz. As a teen, it took him longer to pick things up, and he struggled often. He practiced six to eight hours a day most days, determined to master the art.

Today, in their forties, they often play duo gigs together and I'd be hard pressed to say which one is the better jazz guitarist -- very different styles, but very much peers.

I'd give anything to be able to play that well. (Except, apparently, to put in those years of practice and struggle.)

Izz
05-01-2009, 09:15 AM
Let me also add that a willingness to learn is a huge factor. And also a willingness to take advice. There are a lot of people who have the potential to become very good writers, but they don't want to take any advice or help.

And, in line with NeuroFizz's post: if you have (or will have) young children then read to them and with them as often as you can. Even while mother is still pregnant with baby you can read to the baby. It does have a major effect on the unborn's emotional and intellectual development. Gives them a headstart, so to speak, but I don't mean that if you haven't had that headstart you can't become a very good writer.

backslashbaby
05-01-2009, 02:24 PM
On Chomsky, even that fascinating phenomenon is more limited than he knew. Yes, it happens with some feral children, and yes it can happen often with 'mother tongue' versus learning other foreign languages. But it is not so strict. Think Helen Keller, and millions of folks who do speak other languages fluently with only older exposure. And most feral children do learn language adequately.

Literature is different too, imho, in that it is more similar to music than language aquisition. Language acquisition in its raw form is a much more evolutionary-related thing.

OTOH, I do think the nuances of literature are better rooted in folks' subconscious the longer they have read, and read widely. Like many things :D I forget the numbers used to designate 'expert' but I bet the majority of folks here are expert readers by the amount of reading they've done over their lives.

Edit - Oooo, I don't want to sound as if you have to have read from childhood up, just that the more one reads, the more one gets a feel for writing, no matter the age!

Ken
05-01-2009, 02:38 PM
... in Jack London's semi-autobiographical novel Martin Eden, the protagonist is barely able to read at the outset. With industrious application he becomes a highly successful author within little more than a year. When critics reacted by saying such a feat was impossible, London pointed out that he'd done it himself.

loiterer
05-01-2009, 03:32 PM
There's no reason at all that you couldn't become a published writer, no matter what age you start, whatever your background. You are in fact relatively young. Plenty of people who become successful authors start late in life - 40s, 50s, 60s.

The brain is an immensely flexible organ for those willing to stretch it. You can never fill it up, no matter how hard you try. Neurons begin dying off after the age of 25 or so, but this does not seem to impact on brain function--the brain is very clever at reorganising itself and typically makes many connections for each thing it remembers, somewhat like how we back up our computer data--therefore if you live a healthy life you shouldn't have problems until older age when things like Alzheimer's start becoming a risk.

The fact is, for anyone who tries to write a novel, no matter at what age, there is a large learning curve. It's quite standard for a person to spend a decade trying to write successfully before finally producing a novel that sells to a publisher.

Your worst enemy will be not your lack of experience, but your ability to persist.

ChristineR
05-01-2009, 07:08 PM
Think of a foreign language in which you cannot write at all. Then imagine you lived in that country, and you dedicated all your waking hours to learning the language. In a year or two you'd be reasonably proficient. I see no reason why you couldn't improve your English in the same way you can improve your Romanian. Chomsky was talking about children raised by wolves, which you weren't.

icerose
05-01-2009, 07:16 PM
My significant writing leaps happened in my early twenties. I know a writer who didn't really start reading anything he loved until he was about 35, didn't start writing until he was about 50 and didn't publish until he was 66.

Phaeal
05-01-2009, 07:26 PM
Well, your post is well-written, so obviously you have a good command of the language. No need to worry about that. Whether you have a command of narrative structure and fictional technique is another story that only your fiction can prove.

Narrative structure and fictional technique can be learned. There may be a storytelling knack or profluence that is native to the individual mind. This quality can erupt into massive success, as in the case of Dickens and J. K. Rowling. The storytelling knack can even survive clunkiness of technique for many, though not all readers. I'm not sure the storytelling knack can be taught. Nor do I think it's particularly rare.

emilycross
05-02-2009, 01:55 AM
I was never much of a writer as a child. I absolutely hated all forms of writing until about the age of 16, when I began writing stories. Last year in my psychology class we studied Chomsky's Theory of Language Acquisition, which states that if one does not learn language during a 'critical period' (roughly ages 2-7), they will never fully grasp language. It made me paranoid there might be a similar phenomenon that takes place from ages 8-16 regarding writing, reading, and verbal ability, and I missed my calling.

Did anyone here, like me, absolutely eschew writing and reading as a child but later go on to become a great writer? Any success stories?

It's something that worries me everyday. Some people say anyone can make gains in their writing, but not everyone can become a great writer. True/False?

I studied chomsky as part of my psychology degree, for every theory in psychology there is a dozen more which oppose the findings.

As one of my lecturers said "psychology is the science of critics". Don' worry about it. people can start writing at any age.

Just write and have fun.

Leave Chomsky, postal and minsky on the shelf.

SJAB
05-02-2009, 11:55 AM
Well, I never did any writing after leaving school at 16, (I went through the horrible late '60's, early '70's UK education system, those that lived through those times will understand) except what was needed to do my day job. (I have crunched numbers for a living all my life.)

Then at the great age of forty-five I decided to write for pleasure. Now, nine years later, I find myself with a top-notch agent, and looking down the barrel of a new carreer. Besides having the odd 'headless chicken' moment it is all rather a lot of fun!

I would not worry, you are young, go for it!

Maryn
05-02-2009, 05:01 PM
A woman I know at another writing website is a fine example of a writer pulling herself up by her own bootstraps. I don't know how it happened or where to lay blame, but she wrote at what I'd guess was about a sixth-grade level, with lots of mistakes showing no grasp of fundamentals. (She did spell check--but often chose the wrong homonym.)

When she sought feedback, she asked that critics mark every mistake, large and small. And we did. I don't know about others, but my critiques were three times the length of what I'd critiqued, as I corrected and explained why, and tried not to kill her spirit in the process. (I used green and purple markings, never red.)

Fast forward about three years. She makes very few errors. She gets agents asking for manuscripts. She worked her butt off reaching this point, but she did manage to give herself what appears to be a pretty complete education in written English starting when she was in her mid-thirties.

Maryn, who's met Noam Chomsky

backslashbaby
05-02-2009, 05:33 PM
Maryn, who's met Noam Chomsky

Really?! How cool is that!

Manix
05-02-2009, 05:46 PM
A woman I know at another writing website is a fine example of a writer pulling herself up by her own bootstraps. I don't know how it happened or where to lay blame, but she wrote at what I'd guess was about a sixth-grade level, with lots of mistakes showing no grasp of fundamentals. (She did spell check--but often chose the wrong homonym.)

When she sought feedback, she asked that critics mark every mistake, large and small. And we did. I don't know about others, but my critiques were three times the length of what I'd critiqued, as I corrected and explained why, and tried not to kill her spirit in the process. (I used green and purple markings, never red.)

Fast forward about three years. She makes very few errors. She gets agents asking for manuscripts. She worked her butt off reaching this point, but she did manage to give herself what appears to be a pretty complete education in written English starting when she was in her mid-thirties.

Maryn, who's met Noam Chomsky

What an awesome success story. When I was younger I always thought only the talented and educated could succeed. (That left me out!) As I got older (I'm 44 now) I decided my life was passing me by without ever realizing my dreams. If others could do it, so could I. Now I'm learning as I go and I feel more and more successful every day, even if my success is just getting a bit better at punctuation!;)

Wayne K
05-02-2009, 05:59 PM
I finished my original Ms about a year ago today and it was terrible. I sent it out anyway because I thought agents would critique it or tell me what direction to go in.

I got requests and a cowriting offer and I said no to that and rewrote it myself. I got a publisher to push me around a little, and in the end he said it was the economy, but I suspected it still wasn't good enough writing to get him to say yes.

I'm rewriting it now and have posted some chapters in SYW and I've been getting pretty good feedback. I'm the only person on this site who will ever see the original Ms, but believe me--if you're not afraid to be criticized, you can become a better writer at any age.

I've enjoyed the process too.

Wayne K, who would rather meet Maryn than Noam Chomsky.

backslashbaby
05-02-2009, 06:01 PM
Can we meet them both, over vodka? That'll do nicely :D

Doug Johnson
05-02-2009, 06:10 PM
Monica Lewinsky went from unknown to million dollar advance pretty quick, but her "technique" is not for everyone.

Wayne K
05-02-2009, 06:56 PM
Monica Lewinsky went from unknown to million dollar advance pretty quick, but her "technique" is not for everyone.

Entry level positions are so demanding too.

S.C. Denton
05-07-2009, 05:50 PM
I personally think significant gains is something that can be judged fairly easily by your short stories. But only after you've been writing for several years. If you take one of your very first stories and revise it say twice a year you should be able to see a fairly accurate progression.

Do this with several and break out all the drafts five years down the road and do a page by page, side by side comparison of your writing, and you ought to be able to see if you've made any obvious gains.

When I look back at some of the very first writing I did, I can tell that my writing has gotten better. Not drastically better but it has improved, and to me that's evidence enough that you can continue to get better so long as you actively try.

Cranky
05-07-2009, 05:59 PM
Bottom line is: if you're willing to put in the work, you *will* see improvement. I know that in the last three years, my writing has grown by leaps and bounds. Whether or not it's "good enough" yet is really irrelevant, as I've proved to myself that I can learn and improve, and that if I'm willing to put in the time and effort, I have every chance of grabbing that brass ring one day.

Diana Hignutt
05-07-2009, 06:29 PM
Anything is possible.

Ruv Draba
05-09-2009, 02:04 PM
I don't believe that it's likely you'll become a great writer until you become a great reader. If you don't at least read a lot of what you want to write, how can you improve on it? And the really great writers read both broadly and deeply. Their minds are fertilised by millions of hours of writing, translating to tens of thousands of hours of reading.

A few authors aren't writers at all though -- they're people who've had unusually interesting lives who happen to have decent ghost-writers. They may not be great writers but they are published.

My advice: if you haven't had an utterly fascinating life, read your head off. :)


Some people say anyone can make gains in their writing, but not everyone can become a great writer. True/False?Trivially true. Great writers are at least better than average. If everyone could become a great writer then everyone could become better than average. But only 50% of people can ever be better than average. So, true. :)

My advice: don't worry about great. Worry about being worthwhile.

JimmyB27
05-09-2009, 02:16 PM
I don't believe that it's likely you'll become a great writer until you become a great reader.
This is exactly what I was going to say. It's sort of like learning by osmosis; you read enough and you will pick up a lot of the grammar, spelling and other techniques to help make you a better author, without really realising it.

BravoYankee
05-09-2009, 10:37 PM
I'm a slow starter. I didn't get "good" at school until I was 20, not that long ago. Now I destroy school, meaning it takes very little effort for me to do really really well. This is seen tremendously in my writing, both for analytical papers as well as my novels.

You can see this in my GPA from my freshmen and sophomore years, which was at about a 2.5 (yikes!) to when I was a junior/senior which averaged to a 3.7, and it definitely wasn't because I was taking easier classes... most definitely not. Now as a grad student, the GPA is at about 3.8 (whoo!! I always knew I was smart... even though my high school teachers would never admit it).

So... there's at least one example of someone who made tremendous gains once they were out of their teens.