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Assess Your Writing Skills—Turn Weaknesses to Strengths

April 18, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 20, 2013

For quite a few years I was involved with dance—as a student, a performer, a choreographer, a teacher. And I noticed something in the dance world that’s true in the writing world as well. Dancers—and writers—have individual strengths and weaknesses.

Well, of course they do.

As a dancer, I knew there were movements I hadn’t mastered, techniques I couldn’t pull off. But when I taught, I also learned that dancers not only have individual strengths and weaknesses, but that dancers as a whole often share strengths and weaknesses. Thus you can teach an entire class, students of a certain level, and not bore a handful because they might be ahead of the others. Instead, with classes, you can group students by ability so that you teach to what all of them don’t know and not only what a single dancer needs to work on.

But when you teach to a group, you sometimes forget about individual quirks.

That’s not to say you don’t help a student with areas that challenge her. But you often teach to the class, helping them all with the basics that every dancer needs to learn, and have little time for problem areas of a single dancer.

Teachers have strengths and weaknesses too. In one studio where I worked, a highly competent teacher focused on arm placement. Getting fingers and arms just right is tough for dancers, especially young ones. The mission for this teacher was to train students to hold their arms correctly. But who wants to work on hands and arms when flashier and more fun leaps and turns are there for the learning?

This teacher understood that students would get the fun stuff, but they might not get schooling in the proper use and positioning of arms. So each year her students spent a lot of time working their arms and hands and fingers.

Was it exciting for them? Probably not.

Did they learn anything? Definitely. Their correct arm positions made them stand out as dancers. They got the fun steps, of course, through many other teachers. But they also got training that would serve them well should they pursue dance into their teens and beyond.

Through repetition after repetition, they learned how to hold their arms and upper bodies. They learned what proper form looked like and how it felt from inside their own bodies. The muscle memory they developed would be theirs for years.

For them, there was a plus to getting a teacher who was a stickler in one area. She took what she knew well and used it to create better dancers. She put her strength to work to bring that same strength to others.

And most teachers do the same. They have strengths and areas of interest that naturally draw their focus and attention.

Students have strengths too. Back in the day—way back in college—I danced with one girl who could instantly pick up combinations. Only took her one or two times watching a combination of steps and she had them cold. During auditions she smoked the rest of us. We’d be stumbling and fumbling, trying to look good doing steps we couldn’t remember, while she got to concentrate on her movements because she wasn’t trying to remember the steps at the same time.

I’m not saying she did everything else perfectly, but in those few minutes, she outdanced the rest of us. Because she had a skill that others lacked. And she put it to work where and when it did the most good.

Writers have personal strengths and weaknesses too. What one writer nails every time, another might struggle with again and again.

Writers have two options for producing better works based on their knowledge of strengths and weaknesses. They can either play to their strengths, featuring the skills they do well as they craft entertaining stories. Or they can turn their weaknesses to strengths by working on those weaknesses, whittling away at them until each time they write, they nail that issue that used to give them fits.

They can work on a problem area—as those dancers did with their arms—until the problem is no problem but a polished skill in their writer’s toolkit.

Perfecting a skill may take a while. It may take a long while. And it may not be fun, that repetition and practice and boring effort. But the focus on eliminating a weakness and making it not only a neutral element—something that won’t work against the writer—but a strength—something that actually works for the writer—will serve those writers for years. Why limit yourself to a few skills you’re comfortable with and know you manipulate well when you can also learn new skills and better position yourself to meet new writing challenges?

Identifying your weaknesses
Don’t know your weaknesses? Pay attention to critiques, especially when several readers comment on the same element.

If your dialogue doesn’t work, you’ll hear about it if you’re letting others read your stories.

If failure to plot tightly is your weakness, spend time learning how to plot.

Learn more than the basics. Stretch yourself.

Now is the time to go beyond what you can learn in the classroom, a classroom where the instructor is teaching to the group’s weaknesses and not necessarily yours.

Learn the importance of character arcs. Learn how to weed out clichés. Learn how to make use of setting, how it affects characters and tone and pacing. Face up to your limitations rather than hiding them.

Learn and practice and overcome your personal weaknesses one by one.

I know writers who can plot intricate stories that leave readers amazed by the twists but who fail to use words that will engage those same readers.

I know writers whose characters are highly entertaining but whose grammar and punctuation could stop all but the most determined reader.

I know other writers whose grammar and punctuation are flawless but who don’t know how to write a character with flaws.

Individual strengths and personal weaknesses—all writers have them.

Any combination of writer strengths and weaknesses can be worked and finessed to produce an entertaining book, but weaknesses can overburden a story. And they can tax a writer so much that he doesn’t develop a story the way he should. Most of us don’t want to spend time on difficult tasks that promise little pleasure or minimal reward for the effort.

_________________________________

There are so many areas to consider that it’s not hard to see why no writer is perfect at everything. Writing skills are of different types. Some require imagination, others attention to the pickiest of details. Some require looking out, to see how readers might be affected rationally. Others require an inward focus, working at elements that can touch the reader’s emotions.

A writer doesn’t start out as an expert in every skill.

A partial list of elements a writer can be weak in or excel at—

plotting
characterization
chapter-ending hooks
dialogue
description
conflict
word choices
pacing
sentence construction
resolution
foreshadowing
subtext
action

Can you say that you’re an expert at each? What about the skills I didn’t mention? Are you as equally skilled at every task required for writers to produce entertaining and engaging stories?

If not, why not work on one of your weaknesses, actually follow a plan to improve your writing? Why not become skilled at just one writing element that gives you fits? (And after that, take on a second element that needs work. But I don’t want to overwhelm you. One skill at a time works just fine.)

Look to your own training. Discover your weak spots. Attack those weak areas in a systematic way. Don’t rely solely on what instructors would teach to a class. Yes, attend classes—I’m certainly not counseling against that. Get both the general knowledge and specific skills they teach. But once you’ve learned what the group learns, take time to work on those areas that are problems for you.

Don’t imagine that just because an instructor didn’t cover a topic that you don’t need to work on the skills involved with that topic. Remember that instructors have their own interests and emphases. They will focus either on what the group as a whole needs or on their own strength areas. If your needs are different, you need to add another class or work on the problem area on your own.

Books and the Internet and writing groups are wonderful resources. Tap into them. Make use of available tools to perfect your skills. Turn weaknesses to strengths.

Don’t settle for being a writer; strive to be a better writer. Better than you were last year. Better than you imagined being. Better than just good enough.

*******

I did have a dance skill that served me well in my college years. I might not have been able to pick up dances and combinations as quickly as the dancer I mentioned, but I could remember dances once I had them.

A good memory was helpful when student choreographers forgot from one week to the next a section of a dance they were creating.

Also helpful when a dancer broke a leg and another dancer had to step in.

Yes. Learned a dance one day and performed it in concert the next three days.

Fun? Of course. But nerve-racking too.

But I had a skill I could call on at a specific time for a specific purpose.

You’ll want your writing skills to be available to you in the same manner. Ready for use. Available at a moment’s notice. An intrinsic and reliable part of your writing self, as a dancer’s muscle memory is a part of hers.

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2 Responses to “Assess Your Writing Skills—Turn Weaknesses to Strengths”

  1. I’m in this exact position, as I improve last year’s manuscript with skills I’ve since studied and mastered. Strengthening our weaknesses is the only way to make each manuscript better than the last.

    The improvement is one of my favorite parts, not just due to the pride and satisfaction that comes with hard work and mastery, but because it continues to bring me closer to my writing goals.

    Thanks for a great post!

  2. Great points, Emily, saying that improvement brings both satisfaction with our efforts and success with the writing goals themselves. I think that’s one of the reasons writers love what we do. The work is hard, but the satisfaction is tremendous and comes on different levels. What’s not to like?

    I hope you continue to improve and enjoy every moment of the learning and the writing. Good luck with all your projects.

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