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The Myth of the Good Writer


This piece debunks some of the counterproductive myths that surround the work of writing, including the notion that there is a certain kind of "good" writer for whom writing is inherently easy, effortless, and joyous. It finds that the ways schools often assign writing can reinforce these negative ideas, and it concludes with recommendations for thinking about writing more productively.

By Erin McNulty

"People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident." - Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Consider the following sentences:

"I've just never been good at writing."

"I am not a great writer, so I am nervous about this class."

"My writing just doesn’t flow."

""I want to sound sophisticated, but I don’t feel like I am good at it."

If these sound like things you have said before, fear not: you are in the company of some of the greatest writers of all time.

As Anne Lamott elegantly reminds us, we too often thnk of writers as brilliant novelists, poets, or academics who can sit down and write beautifully without even trying. We tend to think, in other words, that great writing either comes naturally or not at all. However, even professional writers struggle. They struggle to begin writing, they struggle with writer’s block as they write, and they even struggle with the feeling that their finished work is inadequate.

"We tend to think [...] that great writing either comes naturally or not at all."

Neil Gaiman, author of such works as American Gods and Coraline, wrote that he once was invited to a party of “great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And felt at any moment they would realize that [he] didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.” Later that night, he ran into Neil Armstrong, who said to Gaiman, “I just look at all these people and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.” Gaiman concluded that if “Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did.”

This should be comforting to student writers, many of whom enter new writing courses feeling uncomfortable about their own abilities. Their lack of confidence can be due to criticism from previous instructors, or even a history of low grades that have convinced them that writing is out of their depth. However, even if previous experiences have led you to believe that your writing is not up to par, this does not mean that your writing can never be good, or that you don’t have the potential to be successful in a writing course.

"Just because a work isn’t considered academic or literary doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading [...]"

Part of this confusion can stem from unfair ideas about what counts as “good” or “real” writing in the first place. Just as we tend to believe that there are good writers, we also tend to think that only academic writing counts as serious writing. If it isn’t writing for a class—a research paper, a white paper, a book report, we may feel that it doesn’t have the same value. Other forms—poetry, fiction writing, comic books, or even blogging are too often seen as “lesser” forms. In fact, even Stephen King had this problem:

"I have spent a good many years—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I kept hearing Miss Hisler asking why I wanted to waste my talent, why I wanted to waste my time, why I wanted to write junk. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent." - Stephen King, On Writing.

To be clear: whatever you would like to write is worth writing. Just because a work isn’t considered academic or literary doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading or that your skillset is somehow less.

A receptive audience that appreciates our work can help us shed these unproductive ideas about writing. Unfortunately, such audiences can be hard to find. This is especially true in the academic context, which all too often encourages us to see writing as a game of compare and contrast. Being exposed to legitimately great writing in English classes can have the side effect of making our writing seem amateurish by comparison. Doubly so if we’re writing for a course where we’ll be forced to share our writing with peers.

"Good writing comes from practicing and honing a craft."

The solution, of course, is not to retreat by avoiding good writing or shying away from sharing our work. Instead, we should relish these opportunities. We should also change the ways we think and talk about writing itself.

Just like the skills that are key to the other classes we take throughout high school and college, writing is something that must be learned. Engineers learn their craft slowly but surely via study and experience, picking up knowledge as they encounter challenge. So do chemists, programmers, agriculturalists, mathematicians, carpenters, florists, veterinarians, and physicians. None of the skills that define these jobs come effortlessly—and neither does writing. Good writing comes from practicing and honing a craft.

Thus, there is no such thing as a good or natural writer. There are simply writers who have had more practice.

For more on Neil Gaiman and his interaction with Neil Armstrong, click here to visit Gaiman's journal.