Being a Better Writer: Finding Your Strengths—and Weaknesses

Welcome back readers! It’s a new year! 2018!

Granted, I’m still running a bit behind on 2017. Patreon Supporters, you’ll have your December post as soon as Jungle is done, by the way. I’m just … so close to having Jungle done it’s a miracle I’m even doing this post. No joke. Jungle is sitting at over halfway through the second-to-last chapter, which means I’ll likely finish it today, tomorrow, or Wednesday.

Am I excited? Yes I am. This book has been the labor of a year now, and is sitting at about 450,000 words. For the record, that’s a third again as long as Colony, which was only 345,000 words. There will be much editing to be had here.

But that’s in the future. See, once Jungle‘s first draft is done, I can sit back, relax, and get started on the publication process for Shadow of an Empire. Which means the new year will begin with some buckled-down editing and lots of happy Alpha and Beta readers (which also means Alpha and Beta readers take note; the time is come!), and then after that, work will begin on Hunter/Hunted!

There’s more to come past that, but for now that bit of news will do. After all, it’s a new year, and most you have been starving for a new Being a Better Writer post for some time now. So let’s get going with the first official topic of 2018!

Finding your strengths, and your weaknesses, and using them.

Unfortunately, I’m betting that many of you aren’t going to like the quick and easy answer. Yes, this is another one of those posts where I am going to have technically addressed the topic in the first paragraph or two of the post, and the rest of it will be devoted to a more analytic breakdown. Because in this case, how one learns their own strengths and weaknesses is fairly simple: lots of writing, and lots of reading.

No, that’s really it. If you were hoping for a quiz of some kind, or maybe an aide that could point out to you as you wrote what you did well and what you did poorly, well … I’ll be blunt, even if you could afford to hire an aide to sit there and give you guidance on what you were doing well and what you were doing that was poor, the only part of the equation that would cut would be the bit about doing a lot of reading. And even then they’d tell you to do the same thing. Plus you’d still have to do all that writing.

Why? Well, because you’re not going to discover your strengths by sitting pondering on what they are with nothing concrete to examine. You’re going to discover your strengths (and weaknesses) by doing, and then by looking back over what you’ve done. Sort of like painting a picture. You can’t sit in front of an empty canvas and say “Well, I’ll bet my color work is off” and have any weight behind your words simply because you haven’t done anything yet. You can look at what you want to paint (or in this case, write about) and say “I’ll bet this will be tricky” but in turn, that doesn’t equate to any sort of actual knowledge or experience in whether or not it will be for you.

So, you want to know what you do best, and need to work on? Sit down, and start writing. Write and write and write, and then start looking over what you’ve read.

Of course it isn’t that simple (I warned you about this). It never is. See, if you’ve been following this blog for long, you know that writing isn’t just an “on/off” equation. Writing is a complex beast, and there are a multitude of different methods, styles, approaches, etc etc to writing a story. There are points of view, show versus tell … actually, I don’t feel like listing the entire contents of every BaBW post as a start, but that should give you a clue right there. A start. Writing is a huge, complex beast.

What this means for you is that if you want to discover your strengths and weaknesses, you need to attempt to write as much of that range as possible to find those strengths and weaknesses. Write comedy. Write literary prose. Write action. Romance. Do first-person. Third-person. Second-person once (and then never again). Describe ancient ruins and modern marvels. Try as much as you can.

This is actually one of the reasons why I (and many other authors) recommend college English courses so often. Because these courses will force you out of your comfort zones and into unwritten waters. A class might require an essay on a topic one week, a breakdown of a type of literary theory the next. And while it may seem like pointless knowledge to the uninitiated, what it’s really doing is giving you a … Well, remember the writer’s toolbox? Well, writing courses (and personal challenge writing) give you not just new tools, but also open up that toolbox further and put labels on things so that you can identify them later. Crud, I’m still seeing benefits of my college English courses from classes I wasn’t even sure would apply to creative writing. And yet they did.

Pulling things back on track, however, you’re going to have to do a lot of writing from a variety of approaches and in a wide range of styles if you want to discover what you’re good at. Harder still, you’re then going to need to go back over this material with a critical eye—not too critical, lest you see shadows where there are none and burn yourself out, but critical enough that you acknowledge in at least general terms what worked and what didn’t.

Now for some people, this is where it ends. Unfortunately, it can’t be. Because at some point, someone else needs to see it and give feedback. You need eyes on it other than your own. Good eyes. Not just any eyes. This step is tricky because we have to remember that everyone else who’s looking at our work is doing so through their own lens. And that lens may be barely formed, smudged with pre-conceived notions, or whatever.  Or we might run into a detractor whose only goal is to mess with our work for their own amusement or gain.

The solution, of course, is to aim for a wide range of feedback. We can do this by posting our work online on related fiction sites, by sharing our work with our circle of friends and family, finding a writing group, whatever. But regardless of where you find your feedback, you’re going to need it. An extra eye on your work.

Now, it’s important to note here that you don’t need at all to inform a reader of your work that you would “like to know what you did best and what you could work on.” For starters, with certain circles, like a writing group, that’s implied. No need to mention it unless someone is only giving you one side of the equation. With other groups, the more feedback you get, the more patterns will emerge, patterns that will in turn direct you toward what you’re doing well and what you’re doing poorly.

Right, time to take a step back. Quick recap: Write. Write a lot. Then get feedback on your writing. Both combined will give you a good idea of where your strengths and weaknesses lie when it comes to your writing capacity. Once you’ve done this, however, what comes next?

Well, once you’ve learned a bit about your strengths and weaknesses, your next step should be applying that to what you write. If you’re really good at something—characters, settings, intrigue—then hopefully you’re gravitating toward writing stories where you can apply those skill sets. Stories that’ll let you make use of what you’re good at.

At the same time, however, we don’t want to forget our weaknesses, or worse, ignore them.

Actually, definitely don’t do that last one. Don’t tell yourself “Well, a romance would make this story better. But I suck at writing romance, so I’ll just skip it.” Acknowledge instead that yes, your romantic interaction do suck … but since a decent or good one would make the story better, it’s something you can work on.

Granted, this means that a story might take longer, because this plays into the old adage “practice makes perfect.” But that’s exactly what you want to do. Practice what you’re not good at. Work at it until you’re at least passable, maybe better. Note that you probably shouldn’t base a whole book or plot line on it (since you aren’t that great at it … but at the same time you can touch on it, practice it, and improve.

Okay, one more thing. Early on in this post I mentioned reading a lot? Well, I’m coming back to that. For one, and we’ve discussed this before, reading a lot is good because we get to see good writing as part of another author’s skill set. We get to see what good writing is for different areas … but we can also learn about it for a weakness of our own.

For example, if I were poor at misdirection and mystery in stories, I’d want to read Timothy Zahn, because he’s very good at giving the reader all the pieces they need to solve the puzzle while presenting them in such a way that 99% of his readers hit the end, see the completed puzzle, and just sit there in shock because it was so obvious. But Zahn is highly skilled at guiding the reader’s thoughts so that when the puzzle piece is given to them, cleanly and openly, the first thing the reader does is turn it sideways so that it doesn’t fit.

So if you were a writer that had trouble with this kind of thing (misdirection), reading a work by Zahn would give you a chance to examine how he pulled of this trick, and then go “Oh! I see how he did that!” By reading authors that have strengths where we have weaknesses, we can examine what they do that works … and in turn find our own lacking points that make our skill lack.

Okay, one final thing to say, and then we’ll be done: This is not an overnight process. This is not a week-long or month-long process. This isn’t even the work of a year.

This is the work of writing. You’re never going to reach a point where you’re not working with your strengths and weaknesses in some way. You’re always going to be aware of them (or should, anyway), and you’re always going to be working with them.

Knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are is a process, not an end point. There’s always going to be room to improve, room to grow, room to expand.

Which is why you need to start as soon as you’re able. Don’t put it off or delay. If you want to give writing, real writing, a serious effort, you’re going to need to get to it.

Write. Read. Gather feedback. Learn what your strengths and weaknesses are, then write the kind of stories that fit to your strengths, while at the same time working to stretch your weaknesses and improve.

And don’t forget, it’s a process. Not a set line in the sand. Just keep at it, keep writing, keep practicing, and keep growing.

Good luck. Now get to it.

Start the New Year off right and Support via Patreon!

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