Ryan Boudinot’s article about teaching writing has been ruffling a few feathers. There are those who approved of his frank assessment of writing ability (you either got it or you don’t), and those who found it obnoxious. Here’s what it says:

"Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don't. Some people have more talent than others. That's not to say that someone with minimal talent can't work her ass off and maximize it and write something great, or that a writer born with great talent can't squander it. It's simply that writers are not all born equal." 

Chuck Wendig does not agree. In fact, he’s angry.

Like, Chuck, I felt the flames on the side of my face. Let me see if I can break it down.

  1. The “born talented” idea is not well established in psychological research.
  2. It sort of suggests the whole education system is a waste of time, because people are just born knowing how to do stuff. 
  3. I guess it’s some sort of coincidence that almost everyone who is born knowing how to do stuff comes from a privileged background with superior educational resources. 

So let’s look at the science aspect of it. Since I’m a school psychologist by day, I’ve been waiting to write a post about the cognitive correlates of writing for a while.

First of all, no one is born a writer. We did not evolve as a literate species. We evolved from non-writing verbal primates, which is why there are dedicated regions of the brain for receptive and expressive language (e.g., the wernicke’s and broca regions). Literacy itself is a late addition to our history. The first known examples of writing are from 5000 years ago--a recent fad in evolutionary terms.

When people read or write, they use a fragmentary patchwork of neurological regions to convert ideas to words and words to text. Which regions are used vary by culture depending on the visual demands of the written language, and even within a culture they vary from one person to the next. There is no “writing” part of the brain like there is for language.  It’s simply not possible to be born a talented writer because writing is a an acquired skill, just like math or science proficiency. 

Writing requires the synthesis of a number of different cognitive skills: working memory, verbal ability, executive functions, multi-tasking, and theory of mind—just to name a few. The talent idea comes down to an argument that some people are born smarter than others. Like anything else, genetics is likely to play a role in intelligence, but environment does as well. No one knows the exact nature/nurture breakdown, but unsurprisingly, the hardcore “nature” fans tend to be privileged guys with an unfortunate fondness for eugenics.

In addition to traditional cognitive skills, there is also the crucial trait not measurable by IQ tests: perseverance. I’ve tested students with genius level IQs who gave up easily on academic tasks because of low frustration tolerance, and students with lower IQs who achieved much greater academic success because of that old chestnut: practice. The psychologist K.A. Ericsson has made a formidable career out of studying the importance of practice in achieving “expert” status.

While I can accept that there is a nature component—for example,  some people are born with learning challenges—focusing on innate abilities places the emphasis in the wrong place. It’s a mindset driven by the need to establish hierarchies of worthiness. Focusing on the environment and practice is something we can control, which is why we blow a lot of money on education—because it works. Massachusetts has the highest spending per pupil, and some of the best educational outcomes in the world.

I have no idea what he's doing there.

I have no idea what he's doing there.

The emphasis on talent is a dangerous concept for both people who believe in themselves, and those who struggle with insecurity. Those who believe they were born with super writing powers are less likely to listen to constructive feedback, because they believe that they are special snowflakes. And those who are struggling with self-doubt are more likely to give up easily instead of persisting with the crucial task of skill acquisition through practice.

Finally, I’ll end with a quote from KM Alexander:

“Success doesn’t just come to people. It is a fight, and you have to go out every single day and punch fate in the mouth, and you have to keep working a it. And that is the hardest challenge.”

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