Writing To Your Strengths
Writing To Your Strengths
Nobody is perfect. As writers, it is important for us to recognise both our strengths and our weaknesses. When we write to our strengths, we maximise our ability to show off what we’re good at and minimise the extent to which our weaknesses are exposed. So, how do we go about identifying our strengths and weaknesses?
There are many different ways to conceptualise writing ability. However, I like to break writing ability into two broad categories: technical proficiency and creative proficiency.
Technical proficiency relates to the more technical aspects of writing. In other words, it is related to how well a writer has mastered the mechanics of writing. Grammar and punctuation are both part of a writer’s technical proficiency. Perhaps the most important part of technical proficiency is composition. Composition is all about putting together engaging and compelling prose. Dozens of things go into good composition (e.g., vocabulary, sentence structure, sentence length variation, etc.), but almost every reader can identify good composition when they see it; it just feels right.
A writer with a high level of technical proficiency is skilled in the mechanics of writing. Their writing will read smoothly and clearly and will avoid many of the more common pitfalls of less technically skilled writers (e.g., excessive wordiness and poor sentence construction).
Creative proficiency relates to how well a writer is able to perform the creative tasks associated with writing. For writers of fiction, this includes things like creating engaging characters, developing an intriguing plot, and providing an interesting setting. It also includes the themes and ideas that drive a story.
One of the easiest ways to identify a writer with a high level of creative proficiency is to look at how memorable their characters, plot, setting, and ideas are. A more creatively proficient writer generally produces more memorable characters, plot, setting, and ideas.
No writer is perfect. It is usually the case that a writer is stronger in one of these areas (technical or creative proficiency) than another. The truly great writers (and the truly great stories) feature a combination of both technical and creative brilliance.
Consider Tolkien. His place atop the mountain of fantasy fiction is secure largely because his exceptional creativity (see e.g., the history of Middle Earth) is coupled with a magnificent command of the English language. Now consider George R. R. Martin. His creativity is certainly worthy of praise. His characters, plot, and setting are all memorable and compelling. However, his use of language, although certainly good, is not at Tolkien’s level. This is not a slight on Martin – he is a very, very good writer. Tolkien just happens to be a great one.
Given that no writer is perfect and that most writers tend to be better at one aspect of writing than another, it makes a reasonable amount of sense to play to our strengths. For example, a writer who specialises in the creative side of writing would be best served by writing a story that can fully showcase their talents in that arena (e.g., an epic fantasy). In contrast, a writer who is technically gifted would likely do better with a story that promotes those qualities.
When you are writing to your strengths, you need to honestly reflect on your writing and determine which aspect of writing you are best at. Then you need to find a way to leverage that strength. Are you brilliant at creating compelling and engaging characters? Then perhaps you should focus on a character-driven story. Are you great at weaving complex and intriguing plot lines? Maybe you should look at writing something with a strong mystery element. Is your writing exceptionally tight and fluid? Then perhaps thrillers or action-oriented stories are more your style.
If you want to write to your strengths, then you cannot afford to let hubris get in the way of honest self-reflection. Only when you understand what you are good at can you use those strengths to your advantage. Lying about what you are good at (e.g., claiming you are perfect) is only going to get you into trouble. Readers don’t care what writers think of their abilities – they will judge a story as it is, not how a writer thinks it is.
Accurately assessing our abilities also gives us the chance to minimise our weaknesses. If we know which aspects of writing we are weak at, we can tailor our writing to reduce how badly those weaknesses are exposed. For example, if you have a problem developing complex plots, it may be worthwhile pursuing a simpler plot and relying on your technical proficiency. Likewise, if your writing is not quite as crisp as it could be, you could focus on putting together a story that engages the reader with its creativity (e.g., through unique and memorable characters and settings).
This doesn’t mean we should ignore our weaknesses. I’ve learned over the years that ignoring my weaknesses usually ends with them getting shoved into my face. Weaknesses are something we should all try to address – but that is more of a long-term goal. Within a particular story, it often makes much more sense to write to our strengths. Writing to our weaknesses – that is, making a conscious effort to remedy our weaknesses – is something that often takes place across stories.
In my follow up post to this, I’ll be taking a looking at some of the ways we can address our weaknesses. Improvement requires not only an honest assessment of our skills but also a concerted effort to attack those weaknesses. If you’ve found this post helpful, you may want to look at some of my other posts on writing here.