February 24, 2011

What Creates Good Writing: Instinct vs. Skill

African Lion

I’m still in the deadline cave and self-banned from Twitter, but I wanted to post about something I’ve realized through this revision process.

It’s probably safe to say we all want to get better at our jobs, whether that’s writing or something else.  But how much of what we do is instinct and how much is skill?  And are those things more related than they seem?

What Is Instinct?

A common definition of instinct is an innate impulse, or just knowing something, without having to learn it or be taught.  Much of animal behavior is considered instinct.

When we start a new activity, we often hope it requires more instinct than skill.  We want to be good at things without really trying.  We want to have a natural talent and have people say how brilliant we are for reaching the level we have so quickly.

In other words, instinct seems like a shortcut to greatness.  The danger with this approach is that if we don’t excel right away, we might give up, convinced we’re no good at it.

What Is Skill?

On the other hand, skill is acquired through training and practice.  Lots of practice.  Skill seems like the hard way.  The way that if we knew how much work it was going to take, we wouldn’t have started.

But once we’ve started on the path of learning a new skill, we often hope it requires more skill than instinct.  After all, we’ve already put so much time and energy into this thing we want it to be something that we can get better at.  We’d hate to go through all that effort only to discover it can’t be learned.

We also tend to value something more if it takes hard work.  If it was easy, anyone could do it and our job would be less meaningful.  Hard work is often what makes something worth doing.

Is Good Writing Created from Instinct or Skill?

I think some aspects of writing seem like instinct, but they’re really skills.  Think of a musician who has studied beats, rhythm, and composition.  Many of those same skills can be applied to writing.  So if a musician takes up writing, they might seem like they have a natural instinct for the rhythm of prose, but in reality, they’re just transferring their knowledge to a new activity.

Others might be better at plotting, and maybe that’s because they spent hours on internet forums analyzing how they would have fixed the plot holes of a blockbuster movie.  Still others might have studied psychology, so they’re able to weave complex characters without batting an eyelash.

We learn many things without realizing we’ve learned them.  This can be good or bad.  It’s nice to know things we didn’t have cram for.  However, it also means we’re not consciously aware of having the skill, so it’s harder to apply.

During this revision process, I learned something about sentence construction thanks to my awesome-dipped-in-glitter (TM) friend Kristen Lamb.  But more interestingly, I learned that I already knew it and hadn’t realized it.  Cool, right?  No, not really.

I knew the writing at the beginning of my story was rougher than at the end, even though I’d edited those early chapters a bazillion times.  I couldn’t recognize what was wrong with them because I didn’t know I’d picked up the skill for creating better sentences sometime during the writing process.

Those sentences looked fine to me.  The grammar was correct, but they lacked punch.  Then Kristen pointed out the issue, and I was immediately able to apply the skill I already had to fix them.

Maybe we can solve this problem by paying attention to the “why” we should do things a certain way.  If we consciously know our skills, we’re better able to apply them.  We’ll be better at our job if we know why we’re good at it.

Otherwise, we belittle the progress we’ve made if we don’t realize we’ve improved.  Or when we do recognize that we’re competent at something, we chalk it up to innate instinct rather than something we worked for. We need to own our skills.

Do you think writing is instinct or skill?  Are there things you’re naturally good at?  What things have you struggled with?  Have you ever had to learn something twice because you didn’t realize you already knew it?

Photo Credit: Sias van Schalkwyk

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PW Creighton

I think it is a matter of instinct that gets you where you need to be but it’s skill that allows you to transform that project into a representable form for the masses. In truth it’s instinct that drives one and through instinct they acquire skill, a refinement of instinct.

Jill Kemerer

Love this post! When I started writing, I didn’t know anything and just wrote. Then a few rejections and many craft books later, I went back to one of my earlier books, certain it would be horrific. I realized I had a natural ability for storytelling, and it surprised me.

I agree with your assessment–good writers have skills from life experience and continue to build on them as they write.


i feel, “having stories whispered into your ears, (in dreams or where ever)” happens because of instinct but writing them in a way they’re appealing is a whole different ball game. that would be the skill part. from thought to a finished story would be a journey from instinct to a great sounding/feeling bunch of words, through skill.

and i came to this conclusion after having gone through various people’s writing ON writing, including yours. thank you

Allison Chase

So true, Jami, a writer needs both! I’ve always loved to write, I was an English major and an avid reader, but I still didn’t quite understand effective writing until I joined the RWA and started taking workshops.

Amanda Bonilla

Instinct and skill are so important. But hard work is the deal maker or breaker. You have to be willing to put in the time, read, study, improve. And did I mention, read? 😉

Laura Pauling

I’d say it’s both. From reading a lot we’ll pick up a lot up about structure and even sentence structure but it becomes skill when we start applying it.

Shellie Sakai
Shellie Sakai

Wow! You and Kristen know what I need to hear before I even realize it myself. Learning is never ending. And I know I have alot to learn. Thanks for letting me see that, yes, I can have the instincts and learn the skills. 😉

Andrew Mocete

I think the instinct is written into your DNA. For example, as a kid I tried to emulate the stories I saw in movies with my toys. This wasn’t how the other kids were playing, but it’s what felt natural to me. At that stage, I knew nothing about writing. I just knew what I liked.

As I got older and decided to pursue writing seriously, I started molding the instinct clay with the skills I was learning. So I think to be proficient at anything you need that little kernel of instinct to get the ball rolling. But without nurturing that instinct with skill, it won’t reach its full potential.

Allison Chase

Jami, in response to what you said about wanting to give people hope, I’ll say that social networking, facebook in particular, really helped me realize that all writers struggle sometimes to get words on the page, even ones on the NYT bestselling list. Nothing comes easily for any of us, at least not all the time.

Kerry Meacham
Kerry Meacham

Insightful post Jami. I think observing the animal kingdom is a great way to look at this.

I was on a little catamaran last year in Choctowhatchee Bay, which is a freshwater bay in the Destin, FL area that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. As we were sailing along, we saw a mother dophin and her calf swimming off to the side of the boat. The captain told us that the mothers bring their young into the bay so they can learn how to fish properly. It’s much easier to do this in the calm of the bay than in the rougher waters of the gulf. So even though you see videos on NatGeo of these amazing creatures as they feed, and it looks effortless because of their natural athleticism and INSTINCTS, they had to learn the SKILL to do it the proper way from others.

We can learn to develop the skills of our craft in the calm waters of reading books, taking workshops, and encouraging dialogue with other writers at conferences and online. Then we can combine this information with our own unique insights, perspective, and instincts to venture out into the rougher waters of putting ourselves out there for publication.

Todd Moody

Hi Jami! Great post as usual! I do think sentence structure and wordsmithing can be learned, but I do agree with some of the other posters here, that the desire and natural ability is innate. I’ve been dialoguing in my head for decades before I ever put pen to paper. Some people seem to have great ideas just ooze out of their pores (Stephen King). But they still need to put in the time and energy to get the story just right.

Thanks for your thoughts and good luck on your deadlines!

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I’m a day late, but I’m very glad I came! What a great post.
I had more than one Ah,ha moment reading your words, and when that happens, I’m thrilled. I don’t get too many of those so it’s nice to learn something new.
I suppose my thoughts on the matter are that novel writing takes both instinct and skill. For some more instinct, for others, more skill. I’m not sure which dominates in my experience. You brought up a fantastic point (one of my biggest Ah, ha moments!) about how you realized the beginning of your novel was choppier than the end. How wise of you to realize it was because you must have learned something and applied it later in your story. It’s obvious now that that must be the case with some of my work, but I didn’t openly realize it at the time.
Writing has always come naturally to me. I’ve been doing it since I was a very little kid, so I suppose my ability began with instinct. Over time I learned, and researched and studied, so I suppose my instinct shifted to skill. But I believe when crafting stories, we all, no matter how much we’ve learned, use instinct to drive the novel in the direction we want it to go.
I really enjoyed reading this post!!
Thanks so much, and stick to that deadline:)
Have a great day,

Suzanne Johnson

I think plot and character are mostly instinct (and I say this as a confirmed, dyed-in-the-wool plotter) while the writing itself is mostly skill. Interesting post! I subscribe to your blog but for some reason the email notices of new blog postings don’t arrive until the day AFTER you post. In case you wonder why I’m always a day late (also a dollar short, to trot out another cliche) in commenting 🙂

Trust Your Instincts « Life's A Beach

[…] This is one of my favorite topics, and this blog was sparked through a response to a  blog entry by Jamie Gold, though as I responded to Jamie’s  blog, my comment became so lengthy that I just decided to […]

June Sengpiehl
June Sengpiehl

I think good writing takes both skill and instinct. Skill is really a word which means we’ve learned some techniques and can apply them to our
ideas. Interesting discussion.
June Senghpiehl

Janalynne Rogers

Great post! I struggle with where humor comes from. I think that being funny is instinct and being witty is a skill learned by exposure to clever word play.

I agree with Suzanne on the plotting/character vs. writing. Thought provoking indeed!


Great post–I’ve been thinking of this balance a lot lately. There are definitely places where instinct kicks in and other aspects of my writing where I need to develop and practice. But it’s nice to know I CAN practice and develop and get better.

K.B. Owen

Wow. You nailed it right on the head: “We learn many things without realizing we’ve learned them. This can be good or bad. It’s nice to know things we didn’t have cram for. However, it also means we’re not consciously aware of having the skill, so it’s harder to apply.”

When we’re not using a skill deliberately, it’s not reproducible. Sort of like closing your eyes when the arcade ducks go by and landing a lucky shot.

Thanks, Jami!


I’ve asked myself this question several times. People often say writing is a talent, so its almost instinctual. I have to disagree that you need to be talented to be a great writer. I think with hard work and discipline you can weave a great story even if you lack innate ‘talent.’

Yet after reading The Bourne Identity I find Ludlum-esque wording coming to me much as espionage skills came to Jason Bourne.

At the risk of sounding cliche, maybe you start with a set talent that is enhanced by hardwork. So your instinct is built upon how much you hone the smaller skills.

Gene Lempp
Gene Lempp

Very interesting article! I think instinct sets our opening drives and desires. Every animal desires certain foods and certain environments, these would be instinct as a part of their natural makeup. However, like many others have pointed out above, from those seeds of instinct there has to be skill to utilize it. Imagine being handed a tool you had never seen before. Instinctively, you would know it was a tool and that it had to be useful for something, but until you know what that is, how the tool functions and the proper way to use it, it would be fairly useless.
This is the same with writing. One may instinctively understand that plot is a part of story, but it is once one studies how to use plot that it becomes an effective tool.
My instinct tells me to keep checking your site for great articles. My skill tells me why.
Thanks again Jami, hope you survive the revision process intact and full of wisdom!

Lisa Gail Green

Wonderful post!! I think you really hit the nail on the head. We take skills we’ve already learned and without consciously recognizing it (all the time) we apply them to writing.


Really eye-opening article. I’m one of those instictive writers who can sense that I gathered up writing skills over the years but if you ask me what they are – I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
How to conciously recognize what our skills are? Any thoughts?
Thank you for the article 🙂


[…] she linked to this post of mine.  Cool, […]


[…] lack of conscious effort makes their process look so natural that we might think they have a special talent. However, study after study has revealed that these experts have no greater speed, intelligence, […]


[…] of writing seem like instinct, but they’re really skills,” says romance and fantasy writer Jami Gold. “Think of a musician who has studied beats, rhythm, and composition. Many of those same skills […]

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