Myth 1: Either you’re born with writing talent or not, and if you’re not, there’s nothing you can do.
Many people see writing as a talent and believe, perhaps, that writers are born with full-fledged novels, research papers or business presentations already in mind. Non-writers think writers sit down to the computer screen, and beautiful, clear prose pours forth from their minds. They automatically know where all the commas go and have the perfect synonym for “happiness” at their fingertips. Without this natural, inborn ability, everybody else is relegated to non-writing status, having to struggle with communicating in clear, correct language only when absolutely necessary.
I do actually believe that some people are born with natural writing ability. Their writing is a form of art that others can admire and enjoy but rarely equal. However, almost all of these writers put a huge amount of work into their craft. They spend an enormous amount of time reading the works of others and honing their skills. Most writers not only make a regular practice of writing, but they also put in time revising and reworking their texts until they are as close to satisfied as they can get. I believe that writers become more motivated if writing is something they enjoy and feel confident about, which may be why we perceive natural talent as a phenomenon.
Even people who don’t feel they have a natural talent for writing can become accomplished and skillful writers, though. They have to follow the example of writers considered naturally talented and read, practice, and revise to achieve this. By learning the process of writing and breaking down the often daunting and abstract task of writing into manageable stages, anyone can learn to write. I have seen students come to writing classes claiming that they can’t write because they don’t have a natural talent for it—and I have seen those same students learn to write excellent and persuasive papers and stories.
Myth 2: Correct grammar = good writing
When I have asked students what they think they need to learn most in order to become good writers, the majority respond that they need to improve their grammar skills. While it’s true that readers’ perceptions of writing is often shaped by grammar—more grammatical errors means a harsher critique of the writer—deeper issues are more important.
Grammar is the shine put on a text. Just as it’s possible to have a shiny car that doesn’t run, it’s possible to have a grammatically correct paper that just doesn’t work. A paper that doesn’t have substance, isn’t logically organized, doesn’t provide clear ideas or isn’t interesting can’t be saved by using good grammar. Even if every sentence is grammatically correct, if the writing isn’t engaging, well developed and thought provoking, the text is no good.
Myth 3: Grammar and spelling reflect intelligence.
Grammar isn’t just a superficial issue, though. The rules of grammar provide a consistent framework for communicating in writing. Following those rules is one way of ensuring that ideas are clear and can be interpreted by the largest possible audience. Writers learn most of those rules by reading and by communicating at home and school.
A writer’s knowledge of correct grammar is largely dependent on what is learned, and it isn’t a reflection of intelligence or ability. Different levels of reading, different homes and different schools often provide varied exposure to correct grammar. Unfortunately, a text with a lot of grammatical errors makes the writer look ignorant and uneducated—which means that a lot of great material is overlooked because of this inaccurate judgment. That’s why many writers seek help (see #4).
Grammar used in writing, then is due to exposure to correct grammar and has nothing to do with intelligence; however, any writer can use his or her intelligence to learn grammar and to read over a written text carefully looking for errors that must be corrected.
MYTH 4: If you need help, you’re not a good writer.
Most colleges and universities provide free tutoring to help students improve their papers. Even though the service is free (or actually paid for indirectly from tuition), few students use tutoring labs. In my classes, if three out of 20 students sought outside help, that was bordering on miraculous.
The truth is that all writers need help. Professional writers join writers’ groups and often seek others to read and comment on their works. Just turn to the acknowledgement page of any book and read over the list of names of people who provided feedback to the authors.
Writers need help from readers and editors to find errors that they missed because after reading a text 50 times, it’s difficult see what’s right on the page. They need help finding ideas that need to be clarified and places where more detail and evidence will get a reader to understand better. Writers need help from others just to gain an outsider’s perspective on their ideas. Good writers actually seek this kind of help.
Myth 5: Writing is something people do in isolation.
There is a romantic notion (actually derived from the Romantic Period) of writers isolated in their ivory towers producing work that reflects their individual brilliance—and often troubled and rebellious minds. This notion is mainly a fantasy. It ignores millions of co-authored works, as well as the input writers get from editors and other readers.
Mainly, though, it ignores the fact that most—though not all—writers write for an audience. Their ideas need to be expressed in a manner that will reach that audience and have the effect the writer is striving to achieve.