skill vs. talent

Reprinted from the author’s blog, originally published on Copy. Edit. Proof., April 21, 2012

by Camille Gooderham Campbell


I’m not making this up.

From Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.[1]

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others” (p. 1127).[2]

I have no doubt that this interesting effect applies to every area of life, but I was particularly struck by its relevance for writers.

Above all, for your own sanity, try not to spend a lot of time thinking about how your abilities stack up against everyone else’s.

Given the grey area where formal grammar and creative license intersect, and the degree to which each reader’s perspective colors the reading experience, there’s no objective and measurable way to define what constitutes “good” or even “competent” fiction writing. We tend to “know it when we see it”, and when we read the work of others — especially published work or in the context of a critique group — consensus can validate our impressions. Even then, there’s debate: select your choice of wildly-popular novelist reviled and sneered at by at least half the writers you know on Facebook… is everyone who loved those books wrong, or is it a matter of taste?

I’m not saying that all fiction is good if you just look at it right. Mediocre-to-poor writing does exist. But would you recognize it, if it were yours?

When it comes to assessing one’s own writing for quality and skill, there’s no grid or checklist to apply; even writing-class “rules” are only general advice and current fashions. Killing all the modifiers and avoiding the passive voice doesn’t automatically produce great writing, and being structurally on trend for 2012 doesn’t guarantee popular appeal now or in the long term. So is that glowing feeling of I-just-finished-writing-the-most-awesome-thing-ever the satisfaction of a job well done, or the Dunning-Kruger effect?

Mediocre-to-poor writing does exist. But would you recognize it, if it were yours?

Apparently Dunning & Kruger and some other psychologists did some further research, and came up with this (again from Wikipedia):

They conclude that the root cause is that, in contrast to high performers, “poor performers do not learn from feedback suggesting a need to improve.”[4]

So, first, find some feedback. Join a serious writing group/critique circle (not a mutual-praise-and-smoke-blowing club).

  • Pay a reputable editing/critique service to assess your work.
  • Submit stories to publications that provide editorial feedback.
  • Participate in a workshop or go on a writing retreat that includes an instructional/critique component.

Then learn from the feedback. Don’t be That Writer (everybody knows one) who refuses to hear anything but praise, argues with editors about why a piece was rejected, takes offense at suggestions for improvement, and generally thinks every last comma and modifier and dialogue tag was divinely inspired and embodies perfection.

Above all, for your own sanity, try not to spend a lot of time thinking about how your abilities stack up against everyone else’s. Writing is a solitary pursuit — in the dark hours, it’s easy to project imagined levels of competence (or lack thereof) onto one’s perceived competition, and assess one’s own skills accordingly.

The good news is that if you’re about to burn your latest manuscript on the assumption that you’re totally outclassed, you’re probably wrong.


In addition to the many hats she wears for Every Day Fiction and Every Day Publishing, Camille Gooderham Campbell is both a copywriter and a full-time mother, and she also writes her own fiction under a pen name. She has an Honours B.A. specializing in English Literature from the University of Toronto, where she was privileged to study creative writing with Professor J. Edward Chamberlin. Read more by Camille on her website:

by Erin Entrada Kelly

When it comes to complicated relationships of self-love and self-loathing, few groups can compete with writers. We are a strange and complex collective. One minute we’re convinced we’ve written the next Gatsby or Caulfield; the next minute we’ve decided that every word we’ve ever written, uttered or scribbled is pointless drivel that should never see the light of day. We seek reassurance through publication credits, agent offers and book deals, only to discover that while each of these is validating and triumphant, it doesn’t necessarily quell the chiming voices in our heads that tell us we suck.

I’ve heard people say—more times than I can count—that fiction is subjective and talent can’t be taught. While I agree that fiction is subjective, that doesn’t negate the fact that there’s a stark difference between Good Writing and Bad Writing. There are plenty of books packed with Good Writing that I don’t want to read, but there are few books of Bad Writing that anyone would want to read. Is the goodness subjective? Yes, to a point. But then there’s just bad writing.

So: How do you know when you’re Good?

Before I published my first short story, I looked to family and friends to tell me I was “good.” (Or “bad,” which is what most writers secretly suspect that they are). Naturally, family and friends always thought I was a Good Writer, but I was convinced they were humoring me—which family and friends usually do in these types of situations. So I sought validation through writing colleagues. They agreed that I was pretty Good. But that chiming voice was still there. I decided I needed a publication credit to quash it, so I got one.

That worked. For about fifteen minutes.

I got more publication credits. I got offers from agents. I got a two-book deal. And yet that everlasting voice is still there, ready with a string of Yes, buts.

I’ve finally learned to accept that no matter how many hat-feathers come with the traditional ideal of what it means to be a Good Writer, the secret doubtful voice will always be there. Oftentimes that secret doubtful voice is one of tortured inspiration, pushing me to make sure that what I write is Good, even if I’ll never think it actually is.

So what are the hallmarks of a Good Writer? Is it someone who knows where to place all the commas? Partly, if we’re talking technique. But if we’re talking nitty-gritty, I’d say that Good Writers are those who write because they have to—it’s a need more than a choice. Good Writers constantly strive to quell the doubting voices in their heads, because they know that even if they write well, they can always write better. Good Writers read and are inspired by lots of Good Writing; it’s something they can’t live without, like water or air. Good Writers understand that even if talent can’t be taught, skill can—and simply having the talent isn’t enough.


Erin Entrada Kelly is staff editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction has been published widely in places like Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer National Fiction Prize and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. Her debut novel is forthcoming from HarperCollins’ Greenwillow Books. She currently works as a freelance fiction editor and is represented by the Jenks Agency. Read more at Find her on Twitter here. Find her in the P&W here.


From the archives, reprint from May 15, 2009

by Gay Degani

I am not a patient person. Never have been. And when in the past (a rolling, long-ago past) I couldn’t master something immediately, I assumed I had no talent and no skills and I gave up.

No talent. No skills.

These are two distinct attributes. Having talent is terrific and it certainly makes following your passion rewarding, but talent is only half the formula.

Having skill is absolutely necessary (watch American Idol if you don’t believe me). But getting these skills isn’t an immediate process. And if you’re talking about becoming an expert at anything, you’re talking YEARS of practice. That’s where patience comes in.

Robert McKee (the writing coach whose book STORY is an excellent resource) said that all we can do is to “take out our little bit of talent,” push it around every day, apply our hard-earned skills and hopefully, that will result in something worthwhile. I’m sure I don’t have that quote exactly right, but you get the gist. It takes both talent and skill to become good at anything and skill takes patience.

Last night when I went to bed I was miserable. Things at the end of my current work-in-progress were not working out. The whole thing felt stupid and, heaven forbid, CORNY. In the old days, I would have felt doomed. I would have thought of quitting. I would believe to the depths of my being that my writing sucked. And I sucked.

But this morning, I remembered I have developed a skill-set to help me solve the problems in my story. Hmmmm. Imagine that!

I read about two or three pages in the middle, did a little editing, and suddenly I knew how to solve the story problem at the end. My mind was asking questions that only an “expert” would know to ask.

I moved away from the computer and started to scribble notes of what exactly had to happen for the whole story to make sense. I was so shocked at how easy it was, I started doubting it would work. But in typing the notes, I’m sure it does work. And it isn’t corny. Maybe a little corny, but I still have time to fix that. Wow, it’s working!!!

I’m not saying here that what I do is brilliant or even interesting to anyone else. But it is to me. To see that I will allow myself to make mistakes, to go on tangents, to think I suck, and then get back to work. To take out my “little bit of talent” and my years of practice, and actually be able to have answers, know what comes next, delight myself with a surprising ending, that for me, is success. And when I discover the NEXT problem, I will have skills to solve that too.

This idea of having patience–and I suppose, FAITH IN THE WRITING PROCESS–is a gift to me. A gift I’ve given myself over the years by focusing on learning the skills I need to do what I want, and letting my little bit of talent take care of itself.

I’ve gone off and expanded this topic at my blog, Words in Place.  To read more, click here.


Gay Degani has been published in two mystery anthologies, in THEMA Literary Journal and on-line at Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Tattoo Highway, and Salt River Review. “Spring Melt” was a finalist for The 2nd Annual Micro Fiction Award and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  “Monsoon” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2007 Fiction Open and “Wounded Moon” was short-listed for the 2008 Fish Short Story Prize.  Gay is the editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles. She blogs at Words In Place.

by Erin Entrada Kelly

The thesaurus is a ferocious enemy of the novice writer. The adverb has long held the nemesis position, but I offer the thesaurus as a worthy contender.

Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that novice writers who choose to invest their creativity on a thesaurus are often defensive about it.

Below is an excerpt of a YA manuscript that I recently edited for a beginning writer:

Samuel’s nine-year-old body moved as fast as it could as he took off running down the block. It was a game of chase, and Maria was behind him. She ran with great precipitateness.

There’s more than one problem with the above excerpt, but since we’re focusing on the evil thesaurus, I’ll only pull out the most obvious peeve buried in these thirty-three words: the word precipitateness.

I saw “precipitateness” and suddenly I was no longer running with Samuel as far as his nine-year-old body could take him. Instead I’m going: Huh?

Yes, I know that precipitateness is a word. I even know what it means. But why is it sitting in this paragraph? A word as clunky and awkward as this should be living inside a medical journal or the Oxford English Dictionary, not in Samuel’s game of chase with Maria, unless they’re chasing bad writing technique.

I marked the word and explained why it didn’t work. In true defensive fashion, the writer mounted her defense—one that I’ve heard before when writers defend high-dollar words in otherwise casual prose. She said that I wasn’t giving young readers enough credit.


The trouble is she wasn’t giving herself enough credit. But it can be near impossible to explain such things when you’re battling against the comfortable weight of the thesaurus.

I have trouble understanding what writers don’t understand about the value of using the right words—and by “right words” I don’t mean words that a typical American adult would flunk on a spelling test. I’m talking about the real right words.

In my quest for understanding, I’ve broken down the various arguments I’ve heard from novice writers who are determined to keep a thesaurus within arm’s reach. I’ve offered logical counterarguments. At least I hope I have.

  • I don’t want to keep using the same word. This is the most common defense against poorly used dialogue tags. Writers get tired of saying ‘he said’ and ‘she said,’ so they cleverly insert substitutions, like ‘he howled,’ ‘she screamed,’ ‘he growled’ or ‘she whispered.’ Here’s the problem: They aren’t clever. They are the opposite of clever. If you’re writing good dialogue scenes, you won’t need clarifiers like “howled” or “screamed” and if you do, then you aren’t writing good dialogue scenes.

  • I want the writing to stand out. Writing doesn’t stand out because of the individual words you use. It stands out because of how you use them.

  • I don’t want the writing to be simple. Unfortunately when you substitute simple words with complicated ones, you come off as simple. It’s ironic, I know. But it’s true. Imagine you’re having dinner with someone you just met. Instead of saying “I love this restaurant. I hear it has the best food in town. I suggest the fish,” the person says, “I have great adulation for this establishment. I’ve apprehended information that it has preeminent comestibles. I adduce le poisson.” What are you going to think? If you’re anything like me and most other people, you’re going to think two things: 1) Why is this person talking like that? 2) What’re they trying to prove? The answer to the first question is that they have taken the easy road rather than the creative one and all that has been proved is that they don’t trust themselves enough to have a compelling conversation without relying on fancy words.

  • I read Great Expectations or [insert laborious novel here] and it had big words that I didn’t understand. Don’t compare your work to other writers, especially if they are widely considered to be one of the greatest novelists in literary history. Just because James Joyce wrote a 265,000-word novel doesn’t mean that your WIP is the next Ulysses. You can’t break the rules unless you know what the rules are.

I wonder how much creativity would come from the minds of writers if they didn’t rely on crutches. We all have them. Thankfully mine isn’t a thesaurus. I learned long ago that more often than not, a dollar-fifty word is worth less than a penny.


Erin Entrada Kelly is staff editor for Flash Fiction Chronicles. Her fiction has been published widely in places like Keyhole Magazine, Monkeybicycle and the Kyoto Journal. She was short-listed for the Eric Hoffer National Fiction Prize and the Philippines Free Press Literary Award for Short Fiction. She currently has two novels under representation with the Jenks Agency and works as a freelance fiction editor, as well as assistant editor of Thrive Magazine. Read more at

by Aubrey Hirsch

The other day on Facebook, my cousin posted a note about her first ever college writing class. The students were asked to bring in a piece of writing they admired and three of them brought in this poem by Charles Bukowski, called “so you want to be a writer.” Here’s how it begins:

if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.

Thinking about the beginning writers in my cousin’s class absorbing those unbelievably discouraging words from a celebrated literary figure sent me into a blind rage. Once I recovered my sight, I typed out a quick rebuttal to let my cousin know that it was okay (more than okay!) to work hard. I’d like to expand on it here, just in case anyone out there is still buying into the myth of the unedited genius.

This poem is very Bukowski. His work is free-flowing and unedited. His words and distinctive style resonate with a lot of writers and I can admire that. The content of the poem, however, is a load of crap.

For most of us, our work is hard work. I know this is true for me. Sometimes I’m incredibly frustrated with my own writing. Sometimes I’m bored. Sometimes I’m anxious and struggling. Sometimes it’s easy, but even then, I’m suspicious. The hard work doesn’t worry me, nor does it worry most of the writers I know. We want to work hard, push our own limits, earn it.

Nothing bothers me more than writers who want to play games like “Who can be the most inspired” or “Who can create a masterpiece in the least amount of drafts.” This is all posturing around the fantasy of the solitary genius writer, to whom writing is like breathing, to whom the words just come. In my mind, these people are bragging about the wrong thing. In real life, the game is more about “Who can stay at the keyboard the longest,” “Who will keep going back to work on the tough scenes,” “Who wants it most even when it’s hard.”

I want to say that it’s okay for it to be hard. Sometimes it’s hard! So is waitressing, so is advanced mathematics, so is heart surgery, so is HVAC repair, so is sculpture. It’s hard so that you’ll know when you’re growing, so that you’ll know when you’re doing something important, so you’ll know where your limits are so you can destroy them. If it’s too easy, it means you need to work harder. You think you’re a genius? Fine. Show me.

But most importantly, in my humble opinion, anyone who tells you “don’t do it” for any reason can go fuck himself. Writing is all about “doing it”, no matter what. The people who “do it” become writers. The people who don’t, don’t. I want to tell you: Do it.


Aubrey Hirsch is a native of Cleveland, Ohio. You can find her work in journals like American Short Fiction Third Coast, Hobart, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, PANK and Annalemma. Her first book, Why We Never Talk About Sugar, a collection of short stories, will be published in the spring of 2012.  Her posts appear regularly in this spot the first Monday of every month.



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