Go with Your InstinctSkills

The positive response I got to last week’s post, Give Yourself A Break, has prompted me to think about what writers want to hear. And I guess it’s the same thing we all want to hear: That we are doing well, we are on the right track, we are going to meet and exceed our goals, and that we will go on to become rich and famous someday. Well, not all of us aspire to the rich and famous part, but you get the idea.

I recently found this aspiring writer’s blog, which I think offers an honest perspective on writing matters from the trenches. In particular, I was drawn to her discussion about instinct versus skill as pertains to writing. I think that good writing is a sometimes dysfunctional relationship between instinct and skill, and the right combination of the two is what makes great writers great. Like anyone with a natural talent–for writing, sports, dance, music, whatever–that talent needs to be nurtured, applied, refined, and crafted in order to bring out its greatest potential. It’s part of the reason why the best writers are also often the hardest working. The ones willing to take criticism, use constructive feedback to better their “performance”, read and research what others in their field are doing (both those who’ve succeeded and those who’ve failed, as there are important lessons to be learned from each), are often the ones who excel and improve and can have careers with great highs, plus the ability to overcome the inevitable lows. The writers who fuss, moan, and take out their frustrations in their work don’t get very far.

So, I think it’s worth pointing out that all writers should start with their instincts and then apply their skills to their craft. Just when you’ve become comfortable and feel like you’re at the top of your game, that’s the perfect time to start learning new skills, and rethinking your instincts (if that’s even possible) in order to stretch yourself even more.

What do you think? Is it instinct or skill that makes or breaks great writers?

9 Responses to Go with Your InstinctSkills

  1. Mimi Cross says:

    Instinct is definitely crucial.

    You can hear it in the words an author chooses to use, the voices of the characters, the sun or shadows of the setting, the naturalness of the storyline.

    Instinct has to be there from the start, then, if the skills aren’t present, they need to be learned and honed. Like musicians, writers have to woodshed! Write and write and write and apply the rules of the craft. (And maybe break a few.) Otherwise the words run wild.

    But it’s wildness we need to start. Instinct.

    Luckily, like writing skills, instinct can be developed.

  2. Lisa Marie says:

    Hmm, well, I was trained as a classical pianist and had one season out before jumping the fence to journalism. I cannot begin to equate it with writing. Certainly, there’s a natural skill involved, to a certain degree. But in the world of classical music, there is no ambiguity. Someone either has the physical strength, hand-eye-foot coordination, etc., needed to perform – or not. Performers and aspirings are sorted out early in the game. It’s very pure. Writing, on the other hand, can be taught to almost anyone, just like any other skill.

    All of the intuition and skill won’t help a writer if he or she lacks insight into the human condition. I once interviewed a popular author for a magazine piece. He told me that he thought that no one should even attempt to write a novel before the age of thirty, even if writing skills were in place. He said that by this age, most people had been through at least one really hard knock – they’d lost a friend or family member, been fired from a dream job or gone through some other kind of life-changing event that made them more empathetic to the readers they are trying to reach.

  3. Jami Gold says:

    Thank you so much for linking to my blog. I always enjoy making people think with my posts.

    I like your idea that the perfect time to push ourselves harder is once we’re comfortable with our skills. I saw a chart a while back on the 4 stages of competence (unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, and unconscious competence), and as I pointed out in my blog post yesterday, I think we all want to know where we are on the learning curve – how close are we to that elusive unconscious competence level. But if you’re right (and I think you are), then we never really stop learning and progressing across the chart. When we reach unconscious competence with one skill, we should reach for a new skill to start the cycle with. Thanks for making me think!

  4. Jami Gold says:

    In fact, you made me think so much about this question that I expanded my comment into a whole post. Thank you for the inspiration!

  5. I would add what appears to be an odd choice but is important to me: “data.” On a project I’m currently trying to market, part instinct/part inspiration initiated my decision and the reaction I got from people to whom I described the project propelled me forward to completion. I have a large number of ideas for novels, and try to gather as much information as I can based on limited resources to know if I throw myself into a project I love it will be one that also connects with what readers want. I agree it’s important not to write to trend, but I believe that if decisions in publishing seemed more data-based/supported/driven based on reader input, then rejection based on reader preferences would be easier to accept, replacing the demoralizing phrase, “not excited.” Perhaps it’s not reasonable to expect that kind of data to be readily available, I don’t know.

    A marketable idea with potential reader interest though takes a back seat to the skill of being able to put it to paper in a way that at times takes the reader’s breath away and always keeps them reading.

  6. Bethany Neal says:

    Maybe I’m taking skill for granted, but I feel instinct is invaluable. It’s that itch in the back of your mind that tells you ch. 31 is totally out of sequence and MC would never say that after she confessed she’d cheated on her BF!

    Oh, what would I do without my itchy little instinct?

  7. Ryan Field says:

    “Just when you’ve become comfortable and feel like you’re at the top of your game, that’s the perfect time to start learning new skills, and rethinking your instincts (if that’s even possible) in order to stretch yourself even more.”

    This is one of the reasons why I love reading blog posts like this whenever I get the chance. I’m always trying to learn something new. And there’s always something new to learn.

  8. Stacey says:

    Thanks for all the great comments. This is a thought-provoking discussion, and I like the idea of the 4 stages of competence. Whatever keeps you learning and growing and motivated is what you should be doing. Keep up the good work!

  9. Pingback: How Much More Do You Have to Learn? | Jami Gold, Paranormal Author

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