IQ and Writing

It’s almost a truism that people who dismiss IQ tend to sound really stupid, or at the very least, intellectually dishonest in the process. To the left, IQ is either meaningless or redefined to only measure the skills that they deem to be important, while other more concrete skills such as memorization or learning ability don’t count. According to the politically correct, anecdotal evidence of a smart person doing something dumb or stock characters of the ‘absent minded genius’ supersedes all academic literature on the subject and the empirical reality that smarter people do indeed tend achieve more in life.

Came upon this Are you smarter than a fiction writer?

This quote stood out: “The ability to memorize facts does not mean that you are smart”

Well, it doesn’t have to be trivia and facts; it could be something practical for a job setting, such as the ability to quickly memorize a set of instructions. Numerous studies have shown smarter people learn faster than people of average intelligence and retain more of what they study, in addition to an above average ability to forge non-obvious connections between pieces of knowledge. This is invaluable for any technical endeavor, including writing. Because smart people learn more efficiently than everyone else, they tend to know more, too. How this pertains to writing? It’s reasonable to assume there is an IQ threshold that must be met to produce intelligible prose, a higher threshold to learn the basics of grammar, and an even higher one to have the vocabulary to make your prose interesting. But last part has a subjective element – some people prefer simple books – and editors can fix grammar and spelling errors if the plot has promise; furthermore, people for whom English is a second language or those who prefer math over writing may have weakness in those areas – even with an above average IQ. According to, vocabulary has the highest correlation (0.8) with overall IQ of any individual measure of intelligence. This makes sense: smarter people tend to read more books and retain more of the words they read, as well as having a better ability to infer the meaning of a word from its context. But a bigger vocabulary doesn’t necessarily lends itself to better writing, since writing – once you move beyond the mechanics and the ability to form a cogent plot – has a large subjective component in determining quality.

On a related note, from Halfsigma: (link is dead, sorry):

Take, for example, Frank McCourt, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling memoir Angela’s Ashes. Defying the David Brooks prescription of hard work beginning from an early age, Frank McCourt had a deprived childhood which didn’t involve a whole lot of writing practice, and then he worked as a public school teacher in New York City for most of his life, and after he retired from teaching, he turned out his award-winning memoir. In his book Teacher Man, McCourt admits to being too lazy to finish his doctoral program at Trinity College, and admits to hitting the bottle quite a bit, but he also admitted to scoring in the 99th percentile on the GRE. When it comes to writing a memoir, apparently a high IQ, plus luck, trumps being a hard worker.

Lion is probably right about IQ playing an important role in the construction of grammatically correct sentences and the general writing process; however, an above average IQ is a necessary but insufficient condition for being a published (if that’s how we define ‘success’) writer. For every success like Frank McCourt, there are many writers that fail to get published for reasons that cannot be attributed to not being smart enough. James Altucher, a genius, failed to get his fiction and short stories published, only to have success later in life writing self-help books. The difference between being a competent writer and a competent and successful writer boils down to luck and other factors largely outside of the writer’s control, but competence requires IQ.

Related: Terry Pratchett, IQ, Practice and Mastery

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