I write this blog with deep humility in the face of the incredible talent I have seen in our business and knowing my contributions to growing that talent have been far less than perfect or consistent. Sometimes, talent seems to grow of its own accord. But I have been asked, so I am going to answer the difficult question: How do you grow talent?
First, we must assume you’re working with awesome raw material. This person has a natural inclination toward the creative field and writing in particular. This person has high intelligence and a high commitment to the culture of the business. They have talent worth developing. So here we go:
I give as many assignments as possible, even ones that may not see the light of day. The more writers write, the better they get. It takes approximately a gazillion hours to become a master in the field. Give or take a few zillion. Who knew writing could be a numbers game?
Variety is more than spice.
Some writers do not want to write about something as humble as sewers. Others thrive learning something amazing about an overlooked part of our everyday lives. Some writers do not like the infinite possibilities of creative work. Others want nothing else. I give new writers a variety of assignments to see where their natural talents lie and what areas they’d like to develop. I ask everyone to experience all kinds of writing to stretch their creative muscles.
Write before talking.
Too often, people talk about writing instead of writing. Talking releases the pressure to write, like loosening the valve of a faucet. When I hear writers talking about what they’re going to write, I cringe. Don’t tell me what you know or how you’re going to write it. Write it first, while you can still feel the pressure. We’ll talk about it afterward.
Experienced writers in our office may write for six or more hours a day. That takes an incredible amount of brain power and sheer discipline. I warn new writers they will need to develop stamina, just like runners. Don’t try to run the marathon on the first day, but do challenge yourself to stay at it for longer and longer stretches. Take a break every hour or so and go sit in the beanbag chair.
Quality first. Speed second.
Creative agencies like ours essentially sell time, so speed is closely related to profitability and keeping client costs as low as possible. However, when we have a new writer, I will gladly take a financial hit and not bill their time in order for them to work on their craft first. Once they have the skills and understand our expectations, speed (and profitability) will naturally follow. It’s nearly impossible to get better and faster at the same time or at least at the same rate.
Editing is not for wimps.
Using Word’s built-in tools like “track changes” and “comments,” I edit writers heavily when they first start and carefully explain my edits. I expect the writer will look at any changes and learn from them before “accepting” them into the document. If I need to point out an issue or problem, I often leave it to the writer to solve it in the next draft, rather than simply rewrite it. They get better by figuring out a solution for themselves and maintain ownership of the piece. This is admittedly time-consuming and, frankly, tedious, so I reserve this process for the most promising talent. Learning is the whole reason for this exercise, so I expect to see some pretty quick progress.
Point out what’s right.
Editing is far more than fixing what’s wrong. That just tells the writer what not to do next time, which is surprisingly unhelpful when facing a universe of possibilities. It’s far more important to point out what’s right. When my artist friend Gary was a student, he painted a giant canvas for one of his classes. When his favorite teacher reviewed the work, the teacher honed in on one small corner of the painting and said, “This right here is really, really good. Do some more like this.” It was a breakthrough, and Gary spent most of his career essentially duplicating that success. In a similar way, writers develop their talent when they understand what parts of their work are really nice. They can duplicate that. In fact, pointing out what works may be the single most important thing you can do to develop their talent.
Make a safe place.
Nothing kills a creative learning process faster than pressure and judgment. Writers need to feel secure enough to experiment and free to voice their ideas. Most writers I know are introverts, which means they would prefer to keep their awesomeness to themselves. To develop talent, you have to encourage its free expression. Negativity has no place here.
Talent development is for everyone
Talent development is not only for new writers. I believe one reason writers are so passionate about their work is that it defies mastery. Each of us is constantly striving to write better than the last time we approached the keyboard, to better express an idea, better explain a concept, better capture an image. I often ask the team to give me feedback on my own writing, and I encourage them to work with one another as well. We each learn when we help others. So while I have the privilege of developing the talent of new writers, I also get to develop my own abilities at the same time. I may very well get the best end of this arrangement.