The importance of talent and the difficulty of ‘good writing’

Rob K. Henderson discusses his writing process, interestingly, downplaying the role of talent:

Yes, you need some bare minimum level of ability to be a good writer, but not as much as you might think. It also implies that the writer can only do things he or she is “good at.” Most people aren’t working jobs which demand some unique talent.

I think he greatly underestimates how much ‘bare minimum level of ability’ being a good writer entails. It’s like an MLB player or a PGA golfer instructing that all you have to to do is ‘hit the ball strait’ or something to that effect. That is the desired outcome, yes, but this elides all the stuff that goes into making that happen.

Good writing is one of the hardest things to do I have found. Despite how it’s often assumed that math is higher on the ‘difficulty hierarchy’ compared to the ‘soft and subjective’ humanities, having done both [0], I can say although math may be conceptually harder, writing as a skill may be harder to master or have success at.

Taking the opposite position of Mr. Henderson, talent is immensely important, even if the process of writing seems deceptively simple (e.g. just write). This is because there are many writers who already have the time and inclination to write, so controlling for that environmental factor, what remain are innate factors, and clearly some writers are much more successful than others.

Much like soccer, in contrast to something expensive like skiing or ice hockey, writing is has low barriers to entry and many participants, so this makes innate factors more important, much like how soccer is popular in South America, but only the most talented youth can make a career at it. It’s not like 13-year-olds who aspire to play soccer have careers or family obligations, so this means talent is the deciding factor.

Yes, luck plays some role, but having read a lot, the most successful writers are also adept at things like structure, ‘turn of phrase’, word choice and other subtle but invaluable aspects of writing. Talent is insufficient but necessary. Bad writing is always DOA; good writing at least has a shot. Talented people are at least at up for consideration given that their skills are on par and hence have some hope, whereas untalented people are generally always passed up and have no hope.

Luck does matter, but I am of the opinion talent is necessary to be lucky; that is, lucky people are almost always talented, and some talented people are unlucky and fail to reach their full potential. But the talent is always there. An example is actors auditioning for a leading role; they may all have talent, but only one can land the role. It’s mathematically likely someone who auditions enough times will land a role eventually, but only if the talent is there.

I’m sure some have seen quotes along the lines that ‘Stephen King was rejected by 30 publishers’ or that ‘Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected 20 times’. Same for J. K. Rowling. Yes, this is normal and expected, even among talented writers. A publishing house is inundated with far more manuscripts than it can ever hope to publish, so rejection rates will always be high. But because those authors were talented and hence the writing up to par, they just needed to wait. The odds, although low for any individual publishing house, were never zero on a long enough timeline.

Of course, practice matters too. Almost anyone who aspires to be good at something practices a lot, yet outcomes vary greatly. What makes Magnus Carlsen so dominant at chess; it’s not like he practices more than his opponents, who also practice a lot. Today’s pre-teen chess grandmasters are beating veterans who put in their ‘ten-thousand hours’, alluding to Malcolm Gladwell, the Canadian author of the 2008 best-selling Outliers, that produced a legacy of far more self-help pablum than any actually successful people who followed it. It’s evident some people get much more millage for their practice or hours compared to others, for any competitive endeavor. Some quickly move up the ranks; most stagnate.

But even if talent matters, can good writing be taught? Beyond the basics like punctuation, likely not. No amount of practice can make someone with an IQ of, say, 105, write like Moldbug. Even good writing that seems easy or effortless is hard to reproduce. Verbosity works for Moldbug, just as simplicity works for other writers. In either case, the writing succeeds, but this cannot be said for untalented writers. Why these two totally opposite writing styles ‘work’ is hard to explicate, but they do.

Consider a passage from a 2005 essay by the late Christopher Hitchens about his disdain for Christmas, “It was at Thanksgiving this year that, making my way through an airport, I was confronted by the leering and antlered visage of what to my disordered senses appeared to be a bloody great moose. Only as reason regained her throne did I realize that the reindeer—that plague species—were back.” It is little wonder he was so successful.

It would seem such biting but eloquent writing, from the cadence of the prose to the word choice, can only be acquired by the guiding invisible hand of talent, not taught.

Additionally, you cannot ‘focus group’ writing, unlike other mediums of information. Disney can predict with a high degree of certainty that its superhero movies will do well, as there is a large, built-in market for those movies, and they tend to be conceived on the same creative blueprint or foundation. Even its ‘duds’ that only gross hundreds of millions of dollars instead of billions are still profitable.

But this is not possible with writing, especially not internet writing. What is the market for short-form non-fiction? Who knows. It’s hit or miss, mostly miss. Writing tips are not that helpful either because it’s so situational and unpredictable in terms of the audience and how the work is received, and it’s hard to generalize any specific methods that work especially well.

People know good writing when they see it, or can subconsciously appreciate good writing. But the rub is good writing cannot be reproduced in the way a car can be reproduced at an assembly line, in that there is no set of instructions or blueprint that reliably produces good writing–just, at best, heuristics that sometimes work but often don’t. In computer science parlance, it’s like finding the preimage of a hash.

The fact that it’s hard to explicate precisely or in rule-form what makes writing good, is why the profession is surprisingly resilient to AI. AI-generated writing has a certain unmistakable clunkiness or wordiness (more like excessive punctuation and prepositions, not like how Moldbug is wordy) that gives it away. Despite fears of AI destroying jobs, the job of re-writing AI-generated content to sound more human-like or readable is thriving for this reason.

Overall, talent is that which persists after everything else is controlled for. I don’t want to sound too dismissive of effort and practice, but again, this not account for the huge variability of outcomes for talent to be ignored altogether. Readers can appreciate talent on a subconscious level even if it cannot be articulated, and show such appreciation by consuming the works of talented writers. Those who are talented should persist, as bad luck may change, but otherwise the proposition for continuing if talent is absent and only relying on luck or effort, is much weaker.

[0] This includes accumulating a combined 700 points on the MathOverflow/MathExchange sites over the past year, such as providing what was at the time the first and only proof to a difficult recursion/combinatorics problem–something that you would find from Stanley. Years ago someone showed it was true empirically but provided no proof. The following day, a well-established mathematician posted a similar solution following the same approach as mine (recently-answered questions get bumped, so presumably he saw the problem). So my reference point or benchmark of ‘math being easier’ is not something easy or trivial like high school algebra.