There are writers whose characters jump off the page to live in your head. Lyrical writers can make music on the page that goes straight to your heart. And writers of intricate plots with twists and turns that thrill and delight. Every writer, no matter their experience, has strong skills in at least one area. Every writer also has skills that are weaker. It’s up to you to discover your writing strengths and weaknesses so you can develop more powerful writing.
Why Do This Exercise?
Your strengths are those things that take less energy to do and do well. You can use your strengths to seek opportunities and work more efficiently.
It’s scary to admit you have areas where your writing is weak.
Often we think weak is bad. It’s a problem when we focus so much on our weaknesses that it disempowers us. If we focus on our weakness, we lose self-confidence and enthusiasm. As a result, our performance goes down, which reinforces our negative feelings.
Weak doesn’t mean bad. It simply means that skill takes more of your energy and focus to use. That part of writing is not a thing that will help you stand out from the crowd.
Don’t try to “fix” your weaknesses, but don’t ignore them either. Improving your weakest skills will improve your work overall. Improving your strengths will make your work shine. But before you can improve, you must discover your writing strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, you may not be the best judge of your own skills.
Know the Basics
You can’t recognize your strengths and weaknesses if you don’t understand story structure and genre. There are books and courses all over the internet that can teach you story structure.
Not every post, book, or course will resonate with you. That’s okay. Keep reading until you find those that speak to you and that you can use. Most importantly, don’t read or follow one way. Learn about many techniques so you can choose what works for you.
It’s helpful to deconstruct shorter works while studying story structure. The Christmas Carol is an example of a story with excellent structure as discussed by Janice Hardy on Writers in the Storm.
Finding Your Strengths
Start by looking at what comes easiest for you. Trusted first readers can tell you what they like best in your manuscripts even if they don’t use story structure terms.
If you have a trusted mentor or writer’s group—discuss your strengths with them. Be prepared to set aside your immediate and emotional reactions and listen. Listen to what they say and to how it makes you feel.
If you’re published, and you’re able to read your reviews without imploding, your reviews may reveal your strengths and weaknesses. A word of caution: individual reviews are not helpful. Look for a pattern among multiple reviews. If better than 50% of them like something, that is probably a strength of yours. If the majority mention something they don’t like, that may be a weakness. (Caution: “pile-ons” are not reliable indicators of either strength or weakness.)
Remember, strengths energize you. Yes, it takes energy to write. But when you are writing from your strengths, it gives back, too. Those are the skills that are your best.
Finding Your Weaknesses
What is the most difficult for you in writing your story? What is missing from your first drafts? Description or dialog? What do your first readers point out as problematic? What is that niggling little doubt you have?
Remember, you aren’t looking to “solve” your weakness. You can improve them, but you are unlikely to turn your weaknesses into strengths.
Try to avoid writing stories or genres that rely on skills where you are weaker. Why make it harder on yourself?
Make an Improvement Plan
Your strengths and weaknesses will be different as a newbie than when you’re a mid-lister and different, or at least more sharply defined when you’ve got a dozen or more books published. Not only that, every book you write may challenge your strengths and weaknesses in different ways.
Whatever your level of experience, make an improvement plan. Don’t try to improve in all areas at once. That’s the way of madness or career burnout and destruction.
Focus on one, or two related, skills. Choose a method for learning. Make a specific, measurable goal. Something like, “I will study using conflict in story by reading and doing exercises from James Scott Bell’s book, Elements of Fiction Writing: Conflict & Suspense, during the next month.”
Resources for Improvement
Create an inspiration file (or three) of examples of strong writing. Never copy another author’s exact words, but you can parallel their construction with your own choice of words.
Deconstruct books you admire. Identify the strengths and weaknesses in those books. You can take the book apart looking at one skill or all of them. Try to figure out why the author chose the words, characters, settings, plot twists, etc.
Some great topic-specific posts:
- To improve your understanding of story structure, read Story by Robert McKee, or Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, or Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder (Trust me, it helps!)
- Need to learn more about conflict aka story stakes? Look no further than James Scott Bell’s Elements of Fiction Writing – Conflict and Suspense. Or, deconstruct conflict-heavy stories by Agatha Christie, or other successful thriller and mystery writers.
- Is characterization one of your weaknesses? Check out Creating Character Arc: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure by K.M. Weiland, Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction by Jessica Page Morrell, and Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Or deconstruct the amazing characters in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series (books, not the television adaptation).
- Improve dialog with Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee.
- To explore the use of theme or voice, you can study works by Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, or Neil Gaiman, among others as examples of voice.
Peer-approved classes such as those offered by Margie Lawson’s Writers Academy are also valuable tools for improvement.
Discover Your Writing Strengths and Weaknesses
Don’t be ashamed of your weaknesses or feel you cannot write because of them. Having weaknesses doesn’t mean you can only write at your skill level. It also does not mean you cannot write stories that rely on your weaknesses. But do so understanding that you will have to work much harder to be successful.
Knowing your writing strengths and weaknesses means you can use both to your advantage. You can level up your weaknesses and your strengths.
Your growth will be sporadic. Sometimes in great leaps and other times you measure it in inches. Challenge yourself to discover your writing strengths and weaknesses, work on improving them, and be proud that each book you write is better than the last one.
What do YOU consider to be your biggest writing strengths and weaknesses? Please share and discuss in the comments.
This post has been updated since it first appeared on the WritersintheStormblog in October 2021.
Top photo purchased from DepositPhoto.