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The Grit Scale: An Aptitude Test for Writers

Kaze and I have written much at 317am about the travails and temptations of those attempting to write fiction – the virtues of seat time and regular patterns of writing versus the distracting allure of social media, sports on TV, looking out the window, and a thousand necessary little household tasks. For some accursed wannabe writers, there’s always, at any given moment, a good reason not to write. It often seems as if writing fiction boils down to two innate traits: talent and persistence, and not necessarily in that order.

These thoughts arise from a provocatively titled piece in the New York Times, “What If the Secret to Success Is Failure?” by Paul Tough. The aptly named Tough is writing about a trend among educators – the theory that character is more important than IQ in determining academic success for both prep- school and inner-city students. As Tough writes after interviewing Dominic Randolph, the headmaster of Riverdale Country School, a top NYC private school:

The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained as we sat in his office last fall, is character — those essential traits of mind and habit that were drilled into him at boarding school in England and that also have deep roots in American history. “Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,” he said. “Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Photo of Angela Duckworth

Angela Duckworth, deviser of the Grit Scale.

Tough also interviews Angela Duckworth, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former charter-school teacher, who once wrote about the school-reform movement:

The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Hmmm. If we substitute the word “writing” for “learning” and “writers” for “students” in the above paragraph, we may be onto something. The back stories of great writers are dominated by tales like those of the prolific novelist Anthony Trollope, who wrote 1,000 words an hour as he rode the trains of Ireland during his job as a postal inspector, or the equally prolific cops-and-thugs novelist Elmore Leonard, who began his writing career by rising at 5:00 am each day to get his writing in before he went to work in a PR firm.

Photo of Elmore Leonard

Gritty writer Elmore Leonard.

Then there’s the contemporary novelist Stewart O’Nan, who in a piece called “Finding Time To Write” once recommended:

Very simple things like keeping the manuscript with you at all times. Always keep it with you. That way you can always go back to it. Doesn’t have to be the whole manuscript. Another way to do this is to bring only the very last sentence that you worked on–where you left off, basically. Bring it with you on a sheet of paper or index card. Keep it on your person so that if you’re running around the building where you’re working, you take that five seconds to pull it out and look at it and say, “Okay, oh, maybe I’ll do this with it. Maybe I’ll do something else with it. Maybe I’ll fix it there.”

So how do you know whether you have the right stuff – that is, sufficient character – to be a real writer? Thankfully, Duckworth has devised a quickie little test called the Grit Scale to show where you stand on this matter of stick-to-it-tiveness. Now like all self-administered tests asking you about your state of mind, it’s quite subject to subjective manipulation. But still – if you try to answer honestly, it may tell you something about yourself that you were not fully aware of.

Here’s the test. Go ahead. Give the Grit Scale a try to find where you stand on a 1-5 scale from “not gritty at all” to “extremely gritty.”

What if you get a low grit score? Is improvement possible or should you give up all thoughts of the writing life? Generally speaking, the positive psychology movement says you can work on your character by raising your consciousness about your weak points and devising strategies to reprogram your habits. I have my doubts, but it’s a start.

Photo of small football player in mud

The grittiest of us all? #75, a 120-pound nose guard.

For the record, my grit score is 4.1 – maybe grittier than the average person, possibly gritty enough to sustain a blog like 317am, but I’m pretty sure lacking the true, world-class grit of a Trollope, Leonard, or O’Nan.

10 Responses to The Grit Scale: An Aptitude Test for Writers

  1. Caroline Altman Smith Oct 18, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Great post, Ras. I had missed that Paul Tough article, so thanks for the tip- always enjoy reading him (including his last book, “Whatever It Takes”) and learning about the amazing educators he profiles. Elmore Leonard and I go to the same incredibly well-stocked suburban Detroit library (http://www.baldwinlib.org/)- that guy is definitely gritty, no question (as are all Detroiters). I am too embarrassed to take the Grit Test because am worried about how low I will score- fear of failure!

    • Thanks, Caroline. Wow, Elmore Leonard in the flesh in your local library – they don’t offer that out in the libraries of the burbs of DC. He’s a great writer and, most impressively, has been able to keep up his productivity after age 80.

  2. 3.8 for me. But I’m not buying the test, which seems to assume that the opposite of grit is irresoluteness, which doesn’t strike me as exactly right. If grit is about fearlessness, and I think it probably is, then it’s not rational, and what are the implications of that for a writer?

    • Perhaps my use of an image from the movie True Grit threw everything off. I think “grit” has two distinct connotations – persistence and fearlessness. This “test” does emphasize the former, but in my book (the one I’ll write some day) persistence has more to do with becoming a real writer than courage does.

  3. Will you shoot me if I tell you I ‘gritted’ 5?
    Yet, if I follow your two distinct connotations of ‘grit’, I think it’s pretty much me. Kaze would call me ‘Tough Cookie’.
    (long pause)
    Heck, why be almost ashamed of a 5? A bit like looking in the mirror and saying you look like hell, while you know you’re looking pretty darn jazzy for a change.
    OKAY: 5 (gritting teeth)

  4. The grit test did indeed lean heavily on the “persistence” aspect of grittiness. I felt like I was taking an Adult ADD screening test. My score was 2.9 and with a little Concerta, I’ll have that YA novel finished by 1/1/11!

    • May the Concerta be with you, Robanne. I salute anyone who manages to finish a novel however it happens. And thanks for teaching me a new word.

      • Concerta is a trade name ADD medication…wish I was that clever. May be a stretch to call product naming a kind of writing, yet when you think about coming up with a name, especially for pharmaceuticals that encompasses the Gestalt of illness, treatment and outcome in one label – that’s a tall order. In comparison, it makes twitter seem like a epic novel.

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