As a writing teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time helping students improve. Because of this focus, burgeoning writers tend to want to know what they’ve done “wrong,” or their weaknesses.
I’m going to posit that this is the wrong approach. Instead, writers should focus on improving their strengths.
Before I explain, take a minute and list three skills when it comes to writing that you’re really good at. What do YOU love about your writing? What positive comments do you hear about your writing?
Think of all the elements that go into writing a well-crafted piece: plot, character development, internal conflict, external conflict, dialogue, voice, setting, point of view, description, imagery, figurative language, or showing. Or maybe it’s something even more specific like you write really great villains or use magical fantasy elements in unusual and surprising ways.
Whatever it is, write it down.
Now, write down your weaknesses. What do you struggle with when it comes to your writing? Write down three elements that you have a hard time developing in your writing.
Stuck? Let me give you an example. Say you’re pretty good at creating believable characters with strong voices. You write pretty solid dialogue so readers can “hear” your characters. They are unique and likeable, but they also have their flaws that they need to overcome.
But, you struggle with descriptive details and setting. Your awesome characters sometimes seem to be floating in a void as they have their witty conversations.
Most writers would say, “Okay, I seriously need to work on developing my setting.” I would say, sure, work on it a bit, but really, your focus should be on character development. Make that the part of your writing that sparkles and shines.
Are you wondering why?
Let me give you another example. Say when it comes to setting, you give yourself a grade of a “D” – not great. But, when it comes to characters, you give yourself a “B+.” You could spend hours and hours working on skills that go into developing a setting and you might bring those skills up to a “C” or maybe a “B-.”
Or, you could spend hours working on your characters and dialogue. Now, you’ve got an “A+” in that skill. Which is better? A whole bunch of average or bits of true excellence? I would argue that it’s the excellence that you’re shooting for.
Once you’ve got that skill or area completely mastered, then go back and work on your next strength.
Work on what you do best. Think about your favorite authors. You can probably list what you love about them. I love John Green for his characters and his dialogue. They’re amazing. Sometimes I find his pacing and plotting slow, but read him for the honesty he reveals in his characters.
I read Jodi Piccoult for her moral dilemmas. She puts characters in situations that are tough. Ellen Hopkins is gritty and honest. She tells it like it is in her books, and sometimes I find it overwhelming because it’s so good. Diana Gabaldon writes the most amazing sentences and descriptions. I love how she strings words together, and I admire her vocabulary. She always comes up with the perfect word.
All of these authors are not only good at most elements of writing, but they’re amazing at one or two of them.
What’s your area of excellence?
Focus on that.
And if you’re feeling like you want to give yourself a little humble-brag, share it in the comments.