How to Refine Your Raw Writing Talent

Discouraging, isn’t it?

You write a few blog posts and friends shower you with praises. You dream, Maybe I’ve got what it takes to score a publishing deal.

But then the music screeches to a halt.

You receive a scathing critique by an agent, an editor, an author.

And the storybook ending fades.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen it over and over.

Writers ask me for feedback. I believe they want real input, but when I fill the page with red marks, their faces fall.

They hoped I would say, “Where have you been all my life? How has a major publishing house not found you yet?”

They weren’t looking for help—they were looking to be discovered.

You might have a boatload of talent—enough to tell a compelling story in a fresh way. But if you think that means you don’t need to refine your skills, you’re wrong.

I’ve written and published more than 190 books, including 21 New York Times bestsellers, yet I still need fresh eyes on my work. And I’ve had to become a ferocious self-editor.

Writing is a craft.

That means you must build your writing muscles and learn the skills.

Regardless how talented you think you are, writing takes work. Many talented athletes never make the pros because they believed raw talent would carry them.

That doesn’t have to be you, as long as you cultivate your skills.

3 Effective Ways to Hone Your Talent

Read, Read, Read

Good writers are good readers. Great writers are great readers. Mediocre writers are mediocre readers.

Writing in your favorite genre? You should have read at least 200 titles in it.

Read everything you can get your hands on. You’ll begin to notice patterns that’ll inform your inner critic about what works and what doesn’t. And you’ll see a noticeable difference in your writing.

Write, Write, Write

Don’t expect to grow as a writer unless you’re in the chair doing it.

Write short stuff first. Articles, blogs. Learn to work with an editor. Learn the business. Get a quarter million cliches out of your system.

Welcome Brutally Honest Feedback

The fastest way to shave years off your learning curve is to seek real input from someone who knows.

But prepare yourself first. Your ego is likely to get a bruising.

Yes—the red pen hurts. During my early years in the newspaper and magazine business, my editors tore my work apart.

But it made me the writer I am today. Without that scrutiny I don’t know where I’d be.

Being heavily edited just means you can get better. So take advantage of every opportunity to grow. Assume there is always room for improvement—because there is.

I am still learning and sharpening my skills, after over 50 years in this game.

Tell me in the comments how you plan to act on this advice this week.

Related Posts:

How to Become an Author: Your Complete Guide

How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps

How to Write a Memoir: A 3-Step Guide

  • Susie Bowers

    I have a manuscript that I have rewritten ten times. It was accepted by Tate, but will not be published now.It is etched in my brain. This week I believe I will write … again….with fresh words to see if all that I have learned in the past fifteen years will make a better story!

    • Good for you, Susie. But don’t pay to be printed when you could be paid to be published. A book isn’t really “accepted” by a publisher who expects you to pay one dime for its release.

      • Susie Bowers

        Thank you. It’s so hard for an unknown to break through. I will not lose hope! I truly believe this is a story that God gave to me for our children!

        • I know. I was once unknown and unpublished, as were all the other authors whose names you now know. :)

  • Elaine Durbach

    I’ve been writing for 40-plus years, but I’m new to fiction, and it is a rollercoaster. One day I’m elated by the glorious reactions from friends and family, and the next I’m floored by the deadly silence. I think I need to reread what you’ve said here every morning and evening.

  • I am a religion columnist for my local newspaper, but my editor never sends me feedback. She prints everything I write and this bothers me more than the red pen of death. I don’t feel I’m growing. Im currently working on my memoir that I’ve written and re-written several times. So I have ordered, “All Over but the Shoutin” and Stephen King’s “On Writing” based on your recommendations of them. Because I need to read more.

    • I read those both because Jerry recommended them and they were great! Good luck to you.

    • That’s a great attitude, Peggy. You could feel really great about your stuff, except you know that even the best need editing. I’ll be eager to hear how you like those two books.

  • Marley

    I get the standard rejection letter or nothing at all — my article isn’t published. That’s actually what encouraged me to finally join your guild. I have writer friends who will give me the red ink, but even then the article is rejected. I recently purchased an audio CD of “Writing Creative Nonfiction” through the Great Courses to listen to on my rides to and from my errands and appointments and already know what to do with those articles. I also watched the Master Class with Dr. Hensley on finding the time to write. Learning about writing ignites the desire within me to create. Oh, and Peggy Kennedy, you won’t be able to put down Stephen King’s “On Writing.” It’s memoir and writing instruction in one.

    • Thanks, Marley, and you know there’s a lot more stuff archived at the Guild that should help.

  • I take your advice to heart every time, Jerry. You have been such an inspiration to me and your books are fabulous! I was just looking through The Christian Writer’s Market Guide two days ago. Thank you for investing in the next round of writers. We appreciate it more than you know and the Guild has been incredible. My fifth book just released for pre-order and I owe so much of it to you! THANK YOU! MarieWhiteAuthor.com

    • Oh, and by the way, Chris Fabry did the same to my first draft. There was red all over the place, but the next draft was better! LOL

      • Ask him to tell you how I taught him. :) Thanks for your kind comments, Marie.

  • Karen Crider

    I have done most of the things you have detailed. And I am published. But life means struggle and writing is part of that. For me, writing is a passion, so I don’t view it as a job, as a struggle, as an upward climb, because if I did it would not be a passion. The words themselves jolt me into a higher voltage. One that’s capable of knocking you on your backside. Words are powerful. They carry weight. They take me to a higher plane. How can I not write? How can a puny rejection slip send me into a spiral? It’s not going to happen. Only words can do that.

  • Lawrence Hebb

    Jerry
    This reminded me of basic training in the Army!
    Nine weeks of pushing to the limit, no ‘feelgood’ feedback, just brutal honesty, yet at the end a more confident person and better soldier!
    I ‘self edited’ with the first novel, and it was good, but could have been better!
    The second one I’m working with a proofreader who’s also doing some editing, this one will be better.

  • Glenda

    I will ask my editor to use a blue pen and then welcome her feedback. :)

    • Blue is easier to take, isn’t it?

      • Jamie Jenkins

        I agree! :)

  • marissa

    What should I do if I am unable to afford an editor for my novel? I am a college student

    • Hey Marissa! I don’t know if you’re a member of Jerry’s Guild, but if not, you might start looking around for a writer’s group. If you are a member, aside from joining one of the many writers groups there, you can learn a ton from the Manuscript Repair & Rewrite sessions.

      Once my novel is done I hope to pitch it to a traditional publisher who would cover the cost of editing, but no publisher will accept it unless I’ve “ferociously self-edited” it on my own. I think I’ve heard Jerry say enough times that it’s best to learn to write well enough that people pay you, not the other way around.

      Hope that helps! God bless :)

    • Don’t pay to be printed (or edited) when you could be paid to be published. :)

  • LakePeter

    Useful practical workaday hints. Always doing the read, read, read stuff and writing, writing, writing stuff, and editing, editing, editing stuff. Never, never, never give up as well.

  • Sure is nice to know I’m not the only one who was secretly hoping to hear the “Where have you BEEN!” line, only to be grounded by red-inked reality.

    I’m profoundly grateful for your flattery-bereft critiques – even in a setting like this comment thread. Clear, concise correction by someone who knows what they’re talking about – surely you know how rare that is. I have some idea how hard it is to give, and I really appreciate it.

    Aside from finishing listening to your Precinct 11 series, this week I’d like to finish a blog review of Jack Barsky’s upcoming release from Tyndale, Deep Undercover, as well as at least one magazine article for submission. It’s a tall order around here, but a girl can dream… :)

    • Keep dreaming and writing, Rebekah. :)

    • Glenda

      You go, girl! Write On! :)

  • Leola Wright

    I needed to hear this advice. Recently, I’ve invested the majority of my time on reading and very little time on writing and editing. Starting now, I am writing and refining my Bible Study lessons. Thank you Jerry!

  • Greg

    I joined Jerry’s Guild. And I’m working on drinking up the content like a fire hose. Thought you might enjoy this blog post on my brand-new author website: http://dgregscott.com/talent/

    – Greg

  • Dane Fowlkes

    I appreciate the honest statements and suggestions as to how to improve my writing. I just published my first book through Christian Faith Publishing, but rather than finding satisfaction in seeing my work in print, I am motivated to keep writing and work toward honing my skill and moving outside my comfort level and into more challenging depths of written expression. danefowlkes.com

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Good, Dane! Always strive to make the next piece better than the last. CFP looks like a reputable firm, but I’d love to see you exhaust your efforts to be paid to be published before paying to be printed.

      • I appreciate your response more than you can know. I sincerely desire to take my writing to the next level, and all possible ones after that, but lack a coherent plan for doing so. I would greatly appreciate any direction on how to move decidedly forward. Thank you for your time.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Start by getting a copy of The Christian Writers Market Guide 2017 (http://amzn.to/2m2SyVf) and looking up traditional publishers so you can shop your new work to them. And to get your writing to the next level, consider joining my writers guild–registration opening again later this year. http://www.JerrysGuild.com

          Guild Features
          I would urge you to get on the notification list, at least, as there’s no obligation, but the team WILL let you know when the registration window opens. The stuff already archived on the Guild site alone will be worth way more than a one-month registration.
          • A Live Online Workshop (with 1 per month already archived since January, 2016)
          • A live Office Hours session (where I answer members’ questions for at least an hour and guarantee an answer in the Forum on our site if yours doesn’t get answered during the session)
          • Manuscript Repair & Rewrite sessions, wherein I have recorded myself editing a member’s first page, along with rationale for every change (the most popular feature we offer)
          • A monthly Master Class, a recording of my interview with a publishing expert, asking all the questions you would ask
          • Free access to two of my courses: Fiction Jumpstart and Nonfiction Jumpstart—each worth $149 alone
          • Lots of Bonus Material (manuscript proposal examples, etc.)
          • A Forum where members interact with each other daily and occasionally with me; already people have found writing partners, formed virtual critique groups, etc.
          My goal is to make it a ridiculous bargain, and as I say, all those things listed above already have archived versions since January, and you would have 24/7 access to dive into those.
          Meanwhile, my blog site (www.JerryJenkins.com) is always free, of course.

  • Brian

    Jerry, the other day during my writing time, I was reading a part of my first draft that I wrote from the previous days, and I was so disappointed and down in what I read that I thought about giving up completely because I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of my writing. I currently private messaged you a copy of some of the draft and when I saw how you greatly reduced it down to one sentence, I was greatly disappointed in myself in regards to what I wrote. I’m wondering if I truly have a talent to write or whether I’m deceiving myself. I’m currently taking the rest of the week off from writing to read some more and watch videos in the Guild. But do you think I should take a longer break or continue next week? I dont know what to do, especially in the melancholy stage that I feel right now.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Brian, attitude is everything. Rather than being discouraged (naturally, heavy editing or cutting bring a bit of a sting), if you can recognize the value of the advice and see these as a-ha! moments, you’ll become a better and more ferocious self-editor. In the piece you refer to, you’d fallen into throat-clearing, on-the-nose writing, and a bit of writtenese. I can tell that at the back of your mind or the tip of your tongue is the real heart of the story. Readers have short attention spans. There’s a place for detail and dialogue and description, but it’s WITH the story. Get that engine started. Cut to the chase as my suggested opening does. Everybody knows what it’s like to search the want ads for a job, so if you thrust your character into the heart of it, getting off the train with the newspaper job listings under his arm, all that previous stuff is impressed upon us immediately. He’s been searching the paper for job possibilities, he must have narrowed them, and now he’s pursuing them.

      I still write passages like the one you wrote. I think on the page. And when I read it over the next day, I see how quickly I can say it. One sentence? Great! Get the story on stage.

      • Brian

        I don’t know whether I should just take a break from writing for a while and continue reading and learning the craft more thoroughly.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          If you need a break to come back fresh, take it.

  • Christal S. Bae

    To be honest, I’m not a great reader. But I plan to be one! I’m making a list of the books I want to read in a particular genre for which I’m interested in writing.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Yeah, you’ll want to remedy that, Christal. For a writer not to be much of a reader is akin to a dentist who’s not really into her own dental hygiene. :)

      • Christal S. Bae

        Haha, thanks. You are right.

  • Pam Richards Watts

    A friend recently inspired/challenged me with her year-end update on all the books she had read in 2016. I was impressed to learn she’d finished FIFTY–after setting herself a “reach” goal of 100. “How is it possible to finish even one book per week, let alone two?” I wondered. (Her secret? She watches very little TV!)

    Something about her bold declaration got my competitive juices flowing. I figured if she could do THAT, then surely I could do MORE.

    I soon learned the secret wasn’t just reading more, but finding more/better books to read beyond our tired family library. So now I devote more time researching new titles and genres. I’m finding more creative ways to stretch my book dollar, such as trading in outdated volumes for credit at the half-price bookstore, and making more use of my local library. And I’m much more determined to FINISH those books I do pick up.

    I also keep two lists on my phone, “Books to Read” and “Books I’ve Read.” Keeping track of titles that interest me and titles I’ve finished is great for keeping that momentum going.

    While I’m not sure I’ll get through even 50 books this year, I am certainly going to be reading much more, period!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Great idea, Pam. And as for your friend who apparently prefers reading over TV, we all make the time to do what we really want to do, don’t we?

  • Maurice Armstrong

    I practice reading every thing that displays printed words. Even candy bar labels. I’ve purchased several books on writing including the novel Riven. I’ve read somewhere you said “If I can learn to write one sentence like Rick Bragg” so I bought, All Over but the Shouting by Rick Bragg. The book that continues to inspired me the most is An Introduction to Christian Writing by Ethel Herr– recommended by an editor, who is also a graduate of the Jerry Jenkins Guild.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks for your kind comments, Maurice. I too tend to read every word I see. Some days it’s a hassle. :)

  • Janie Franson

    @jerryjenkins, I plan to read more, of course! Jerry, I am so busy but try to write or study writing at least an hour a day. I listen to audiobooks traveling to and from work, but that is all the fiction reading I do. I’m wondering if you feel that much is gained from listening vs. reading?

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      I do indeed, Janie. I LOVE audio books.

  • Karen Crider

    The only way to be a better cook, is to cook. The only way to be a better dancer, is to dance. The only way to be a better writer, is to write. You can go to college, take workshops, go to conferences and it helps, but to advance in anything means, getting in the trenches and work. I have taken a bushel basket full of courses and worked till the cows came home. I have learned you never arrive. Isn’t that wonderful? Talent is a God send, but work and prayer sends you to whatever avenue you need to be on. This much I know, even when there’s so much more I don’t know.

  • Cynthia Treis

    I never pictured myself as a writer, but this story chose me, so here I am five years later and beginning the third novel in the series. After this, I’m done! LOL I’m determined to make this story work with the help of an independent editor and many advice givers along the way, such as you, Jerry. Is it odd to keep plugging away at the same story, that’s evolved into three separate books? I’ve not written anything else, other than a newspaper article here and there. There are times when I am just sick of the story and have to step away. It’s like watching the same movie over and over in your head. I’m truly sick of editing, but I’m going to get this into the best shape it can be, then whatever this is that has compelled me to write it, will hopefully leave me alone! What a journey it’s been. I’ve met so many people I never would have met otherwise and it’s been awesome.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Being a dilettante can be fun, can’t it, Cynthia? That word is often used pejoratively, because part of the definition includes amateurs pretending to have more knowledge than they really do. But you don’t do that, so I mean it only in the best sense.

      • Cynthia Treis

        I never knew how much work good writing takes. I realize that the more skilled you become, the easier, more instinctual it becomes, but still… Geee!

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Success! If you learn that alone you’re strides ahead, Cynthia. However, if a writer really cares about quality and continuing to learn and get better, while certain things become habit, it never really gets easier. I want each book to be better than the last, and I’m writing my 193rd. See what I mean? :)

  • Nancy Gee

    Hi Jerry: I’ve read two Karen Kingsbury books and Fast Fiction guide by Denise Jaden.
    I’m writing prose and poetry on FanStory site. Thanks for your tips. nancy

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      That’s a good start, Nancy. :)

  • Julie Ann Dibble

    This message helps me to be thankful again for my critique group. I am sad we only meet once per month. It seems one of the best ways to keep your mind and heart open to feedback..is to receive it! Blessings, Julie

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Exactly, Julie.

  • Tom Strickland

    Jerry, I know what you mean by being flexible. An author friend of mine, Jenny Martin, said she has seen grown men cry because they couldn’t handle the pressure of people and their opinions. A thick skin is what people need if they are going to succeed in being an author.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Tough but true, Tom.

  • Tanith Sunny Rice-Harris

    Any suggestions on where I can get some real, honest, knowledgeable feedback? I appreciated this piece.

  • Preston Brad Rentz

    Jerry, great reminder. Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well said that the way we write is more important than our message. Us newbies think it’s the other way around. I didn’t believe him initially, sounded counterintuitive. I now know he was write, as are you. I’ve come to love and respect the craft, and want to learn it well.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Great, Preston. Thanks.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    I’ve been guilty of not reading enough lately. I have a list of books I want to read, so now I need to get busy and read them. Other than that, I’m just going to keep remembering that writing gets better with time and not be discouraged because it isn’t perfect at first. I find that my writing being critiqued is a lot less painful now than it used to be. I just have to not take it personally.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      It’s not easy, but you’re right.

      • Jamie Jenkins

        I agree. If I don’t keep the right mindset, I find myself slipping back into my old defensive mentality. But I’d rather have someone be honest with me, even if it hurts.

  • Mary Graham

    Thank you so much for your emails. As a rookie of your writer’s guild, I am soaking in
    all the advice I can get. I’m reading, writing, editing and then I do it again.

    Thanks, Jerry!

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks, Mary! Great to have you.

  • I remember when I first started writing articles. The editor would correct my mistakes without pointing them out. I just figured it’s what happened. Then I asked her to show me instead of just making the corrections. That was a sobering day, but without knowing, I would never have gotten better. I welcome critique. I may not always be smiling on the inside when I receive it, but I know it will help me to grow as a writer and that’s what I want. I look forward to a day when I can get a critique from you, Jerry.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Members of my guild get my critiques frequently, Anne. Check it out: http://www.JerrysGuild.com

      • Some day Jerry. Some day I will.

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Would love to have you, Anne.

  • Susan Tackitt

    I’m just going to pick up where I left off and stop comparing myself with those who are miles ahead of me.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Susan, my first book released in 1974, and I’m working on my 193rd. What you said above is what I remind myself to do every day.

      • Susan Tackitt

        It is a struggle more than I imagined ~ maybe it’s adjusting to a life not dominated by my current job. I seemed to have fallen into a wasteland of decreased brain activity (that’s awful, I know, but I can’t think how else to say it). I’ve watched more TV this week than I had in the last year. Brain numbing, not to mention the damage it does to my back. :(

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          You’re learning from the adjustment period. Relax, regroup, and get the idleness out of your system (I enjoy it for a season, then quickly tire of it. You will too. Sounds like you’re almost there.)

          • Susan Tackitt

            Thank you so much for your encouragement- I actually got my notes out and did some pre- editing. I love the potential this story has!

  • Snehal Soni

    I honestly need someone who can give me brutally honest feedbacks for my writing..
    My friends or colleagues do not criticise my writing at all..
    And I feel its not correct.. I cannot be soo good. That people are not noticing my mistakes.
    Thank Jerry Sir.. Your guide is helping me alot

  • Jerry this is a great post full of all the Callie, pull yourself together-don’t be afraid to get in there and get your hands dirty kind of encouragement I need!

    Very practical steps on where to start! As far as the brutally honest part I love this quote:

    “The person who loves you the most will speak the most truth to you and they will do it in the most direct way possible.”

    Like our Father in Heaven corrects those He loves, I appreciate you caring enough about us to show us the error of our ways!

    God bless you!

  • Dianne Davidson

    Dodging your specifics, I’m getting the picture: (…*sigh*) another page of sandpaper rounding off splinters of my ego.

  • Nicole Richeson

    Hi Mr. Jenkins! I’m a fresh writer. Been blogging for a while now and not many people even know I blog except for a few followers. And my mom. Not gonna lie reading has been a sore spot for me. I love to write and love that I’ve written. But I’ve been told before that if I want to write, I need to read, a lot. My blog is pretty much a self help and inspirational blog I guess you can say. So do you have any recommendations of some great authors to start off with, including you of course? (Brown nosing in its finest) lol I’d appreciate your suggestions.

  • Cheyenne Olson

    I found this encouraging, as I am on the right path. However, I know I need to read more. I like green pen. It pops out without carrying the stigma. Green to me show vitality, life, and growth–but that could be my inner horticulturist talking.