Are you smarter than a fiction writer?

The answer may surprise you.

Tess Gerritsen, one of my favorite thriller writers, has this to say:

Do you have to be smart to write fiction?

Recently I was asked to contribute my thoughts about this topic, for an upcoming book about creativity and intelligence. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is no, you don’t have to be smart – not if by “smart”, you’re referring to the sort of intelligence that’s usually measured by IQ tests. I know a number of doctors and engineers. These are classicaly “smart” people – the straight-A crowd who dazzled their classmates in college and graduate school. They’d probably ace a Mensa qualifying exam. They excel in logic, they’re up on current events, and they know all the nuances of grammar. They know how to spell. Every so often, one of them will write a novel, and beg that I take a peek at their first chapter.

Most of these people can’t write worth beans.

What is about writing fiction that’s beyond these brilliant people? How does it happen that a high-school drop-out can write a bestselling novel, while a PhD can’t even write an interesting query letter?

If anything, it’s been my impression that people who are highly educated in the sciences have a disadvantage when it comes to fiction.” Read entire blog.

Gerritsen touched on several issues involving our perception of intelligence in these first paragraphs.

What is intelligence?
Intelligence is hard to define because there is no universally accepted definition of intelligence, and people continue to debate what exactly intelligence is. According to Encarta, many words in the English language distinguish between different levels of intellectual skill: bright, dull, smart, stupid, clever, slow, and so on.

Intelligence is what intelligence tests measure. Could we find a more circular definition? Intelligence tests are used to verify the existence of intelligence, which in turn is measurable by the tests. Second, many different intelligence tests exist, and they do not all measure the same thing. Finally, the definition says very little about the specific nature of intelligence.

It is easier to define what intelligence is not. Intelligence is not the amount of information that people know, which is a common misconception. The ability to memorize facts does not mean that you are smart.

In the early 1900s, Spearman observed positive correlations among performance in different mental tasks and suggested that these correlations could be explained by a single general factor, the ability to deal with complexity.

Nearly a century later an article in the Wall Street Journal proposed this definition of intelligence: “Intelligence is a very general mental capability that … involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience.

Thus, intelligence is not merely memorizing facts, a narrow academic skill. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings — catching on, making sense of things, or figuring out what to do. I call this skill “with-it-ness.”

As a sidebar:
“Are you Smarter than a Fifth Grader” does not test intelligence, or with-it-ness. The contestants are asked recall questions that do nothing more than test what they know, not their cognitive ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, or learn quickly.

People who are truly cognitively gifted are not people who memorized well and know information. Conversely, such cognitively gifted people have rich, advanced vocabularies and are able to think creatively — outside the box. They do not necessarily do well on routine tasks but can produce amazing projects.

It follows that what we mean by intelligence is general cognitive functioning as assessed from a battery of cognitive ability tests. But, what cognitive ability should those tests measure?

In a 1983 publication called “Frames of Mind,” Psychologist Howard Gardner created seven types of individual strengths to help teachers and students understand the strengths of individuals:

1. Verbal – the ability to use words

2. Visual – the ability to imagine things in your mind

3. Physical – the ability to use your body in various situations

4. Musical – the ability to use and understand music

5. Mathematical – the ability to apply logic to systems and numbers

6. Introspective – the ability to understand your inner thoughts

7. Interpersonal – the ability to understand other people, and relate well to them

In other sources, there may be nine different types of intelligence. The other two that are not included on the list above are:

Naturalist Intelligence “Nature Smart” – Sensitive to living things. (Gardner added this to his original list of seven years later).

Existential Intelligence – the ability to tackle deep questions about human existence such as the meaning of life, how did we get here, and what happens when we die.

How is intelligence measured?
IQ stands for intelligence quotient. It is a score that tells one how intelligent a person is compared to other people over all of the different types of intelligences. The quotient does not separate out the different types of intelligences. It is also a measure of how well a person will do on similar tests. Seen from this perspective, the college degree is not a credential but an indirect measure of intelligence.

The average IQ is by definition 100. Scores above 100 indicate a higher than average IQ and scores below 100 indicate a lower that average IQ. Half of the population have IQ’s of between 90 and 110, while 25% have higher IQ’s and 25% have lower IQ’s.

Is there a correlation between occupation and Intelligence?
Yes. The IQ gives a good indication of the occupational group that a person will end pursue.

Listed are typical IQ ranges for various occupations:
Medical occupations with MD or equivalent: 105-135
College professors: 95-135
Legal occupations: 98-135
Natural science: physical, life, and math: 92-135
High school teachers: 92-125
Creative occupations: 90-125
Finance, insurance, real estate: 88-128
Clerical: 82-112
Mechanics: auto and other: 75-115
Truck drivers: 76-98
Janitors: 73-112

A more complete list of occupational groups ranked by IQ can be found at:

Since the IQ ranges above do not take into account multiple intelligences, it would be better to look at the types of intelligences that drive certain occupations. I found the following descriptions at:

Multiple Intelligences Types

Verbal-linguistic learners have highly developed auditory skills, enjoy reading and writing, like to play word games, and have a good memory for names, dates, and places. They like to tell stories, and get their point across. You learn best by saying and hearing words. Poets, writers, and people who speak a great deal in their jobs (like teachers) probably have a high degree of verbal-linguistic intelligence.

Musical-rhythmic learners are sensitive to the sounds in their environment, including the inflections in the human voice. They enjoy music, and may listen to music when they study or read. They are skilled at pitch and rhythm. Learning through melody and music works well for people with high musical-rhythmic intelligence. Singers, conductors, and composers obviously have a high musical-rhythmic intelligence. Anyone who enjoys, understands, and uses various elements of music probably has a high degree of musical-rhythmic intelligence.

Logical-mathematical intelligence is often linked with the term “scientific thinking.” Logical-mathematical people like to explore patterns and relationships, like to experiment with things you don’t understand, ask questions, and enjoy well-ordered tasks. They like to work with numbers and relish opportunities to solve problems via logical reasoning. They learn best by classifying information, using abstract thought, and looking for common basic principles and patterns. Many scientists have a high degree of logical-mathematical intelligence.

Visual-spatial people work well maps, charts, diagrams, and visual arts in general. They are able to visualize clear mental images. They like to design and create things. They learn best by looking at pictures and watching videos. Sculptors, painters, architects, surgeons, and engineers are a few professions that require people with well-developed visual-spatial abilities.

Bodily-kinesthetic learners use bodily sensations to gather information. They have good balance and coordination and are good with their hands. Learning activities that provide physical activities and hands-on learning experiences work well for them. People with highly developed bodily-kinesthetic abilities include carpenters, mechanics, dancers, gymnasts, swimmers, and jugglers.

Intrapersonal learners are aware of their own strengths, weaknesses, and feelings. They are aware of self, being a creative and independent, and reflective thinker. They usually possess independence, self-confidence, determination, and high motivation. They may respond with strong opinions when controversial topics are discussed. They learn best by engaging in independent study projects rather than working on group projects. Pacing their own instruction is important to them. Entrepreneurs, philosophers, and psychologists are a few professions where strong intrapersonal skills are a benefit.

Interpersonal learners are “people-persons.” They enjoy being around people, like talking to people, have many friends, and engage in social activities. They can develop genuine empathy for the feelings of others. They learn best by relating, sharing, and participating in cooperative group environments. The best salespeople, consultants, community organizers, counselors, and teachers have a high interpersonal intelligence.

Naturalist. The so-called “Eighth” Intelligence, Naturalistic learners are in touch with nature – the outdoors in terms of geography, animals, conservation, etc. They sense patterns and are good a categorization. They are also good planners and organizers of living areas. Naturalistic learners learn best studying natural phenomenon in natural settings, learning about how things work. They may express interest in biology, zoology, botany, geology, meteorology, paleontology, or astronomy – fields directly connected to some aspect of nature.

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3 Responses to “Are you smarter than a fiction writer?”

  1. It’s difficult to find educated people in this particular
    topic, however, you sound like you know what you’re talking about!


  2. Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll
    just sum it up what I wrote and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog.

    I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to everything.

    Do you have any recommendations for novice blog writers?
    I’d certainly appreciate it.

  3. This is a vague blog/essay

    It strays off topic

    The thesis and topic was originally Do fictional (novel) writers have high iq?

    Generally speaking IQ is tied to only the matematical intelligence (general intelligence topic in general psychology, social and occupational)

    The other factors of intelligence have more to do with sociology, social psychology involved but more so toward symbolic interactionist string of sociological psychology and psychological sociology as they relate to formalized organizations (Macroeconomic corporations, general “professions”.

    Anyone can have any version of these said intelligences, but that has nothing to do with writing, creatively specifically.

    In regards to how you communicated people you think have high iq traditionally speaking (colloquially book smart to some) — physicians engineers
    These people could quite possibly have gotten secondary degrees in creative writing after establishing said careers tied to specific occupational university degrees, or left said careers entirely

    IQ Is genetic– tied to chromosomal DNA of each individual , varying by said iq tests according to environmental factors, and psychological states of mind (energy level, under influence )

    Writers have a lot to do with crystallized intelligence (perhaps your interpretation of said high iq correlated with memorization ability) vocabulary wise but also to do with verbal ability as tied to ability to pick up language (use idioms, grammar, punctuation, context, humor, write to different audiences) consistently.

    It deals with iq and eq in general psychology more so toward economics econometrics
    However how creatively writing is valued is subjective
    Many lower iq writers do better publishing wise toward broader audiences simply because most people have less than high iq by definition (high higher than normal and than below normal)

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