Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Playing to Your Strengths

I've posted a lot about how to compensate for your writing weaknesses, but not as much about what to do with your strengths. If you've decided to write, I'm willing to bet there's at least one thing you're good at. Very few people choose to do something they're uniformly terrible at. Most writers I've spoken to, in fact, talk about a moment in their pasts when someone complimented some feature of their writing, and they decided from there to make a habit of it.

The thing about strengths is, if you're too busy working on your weaknesses, your strengths can languish. You can unlearn things, and slip back. Or, you can overuse the things you're good at, to the exclusion of picking up new tools.

Here are a few tips to handle your writing strengths:

  • Practice them. You can forget how to do something if you go too long without doing it, especially if your thoughts are crowded with other matters. Keep using your strengths.
  • Hone them. No matter how good you are, know there's room for improvement. My greatest strength when I started out (aside from my leg up on grammar knowledge) was my dialogue. That doesn't mean I haven't learned anything about dialogue since, and that I don't read other blogs for tips on how to improve. On the contrary, I'm always looking for how I might do better.
  • Integrate your new skills into the ones you're already good at. Try to deliberately write scenes that use both what you're good at, and a new skill you want to practice. If you're better at description than dialogue, try to balance them 50/50 in what you're writing. See how the use of the five senses enhances what your characters are talking about. Put some of the description into your well-spoken character's mouth. There's often a fair amount of overlap in writing tools, so being good at one thing often means it translates into another skill.
  • Use your strengths in moderation. Falling back on your strengths is a good way to write yourself out of a tight spot, to shatter your writer's block, or to gain confidence in what you're writing, but focusing on just one aspect of the craft is a poor way to build a story. The best books use many different storytelling techniques well. So, if you've read through what you've been working on, and you find yourself leaning heavily on what you're already good at, you need to deliberately shy away from it. As I said above, my strength is dialogue, but I was often filling several pages with it, to the exclusion of the plot. As fascinating as my characters were to listen to, it served no narrative purpose. I had to curb my impulse to let my characters talk for pages and pages, and instead move on to the action.
Regardless of what your writing strengths and weaknesses may be, you have the capacity to be one of the best, provided you're not content to rely on what you already know. So work on your weaknesses, but don't leave your strengths alone. They're what got you this far, aren't they?

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