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December 1, 2011

What Writing Skill Do You Suck At?

School paper with a failing grade of "F"

That’s right.  I’m asking you to expose your biggest weakness.  *locks the door so no one can escape*  *evil grin*

We all have weaknesses.  I’m one of the biggest perfectionists around, but that doesn’t prevent me from having oodles of imperfections.  It’s only by knowing where we need more work that we can improve.

In other words, admitting our weaknesses is good for us.  *smile*

This is especially true when we have a career like writing that requires a complex skill set.  To be a successful writer, we need skills varying from practical to creative and left-brain to right-brain.  Truthfully, it’s a wonder any of us accomplish anything.

  • We have to be psychologists to analyze our characters and give them depth.
  • We have to be storytellers who know how to spin a good yarn.
  • We have to be craftsmen with words and grammar.
  • We have to be ruthless self-editors to create tension and a fast pace.
  • We have to be able to summarize our story in a synopsis.
  • We have to be organized to meet deadlines.
  • We have to be researchers to understand our agent and publishing options.
  • We have to be business people to understand contracts.
  • We have to be accountants to understand royalties.
  • We have to be marketers to spread the word about our books.
  • We have to write queries and back cover copy.
  • We have to make our bios sound interesting.
  • Etc., etc.  (Seriously, I could go on all day with this.)

It would be impossible for us to be great at all those things.  We’re all going to suck at some (at least one) of them.  Over the years I’ve been writing, some of my weaknesses have changed—and one item has stubbornly, pathetically, shamefully stayed the same.

My Confession

When I first started, my grammar and general writing craft was somewhere between lacking and non-existent.  I worked on that weakness, and now it’s one of my strengths.

Then my big problem was word count.  My first novel came out at 136K words, and I thought I was drawing blood to get it down to 120K.  The more I learned about how to write tight, the more I was able to trim, and now that same story (no cut scenes!) is at 93K.

After that, I tackled my long, passive descriptions.  Now my descriptions are almost too short, and what I have is active and in the character’s point of view.

Next, I had to learn how to include sensory details and emotion.  I still have to consciously focus on that one a bit, so it’s not to the “unconscious competence” level of knowledge like I’ve talked about before, but it’s about 80% there.

So what’s my ongoing and forever nemesis?  Queries.  I suck at queries.

I’m not very good at summarizing my stories for synopses either, but at least they’re not horrible.  My synopses are possibly even mediocre if I write them before writing the story.  (Yay! Mediocre.)  But when it comes to queries (and by extension, back cover copy), I fail with a capital “F.”

If I come up with something decent-ish sounding for a query, it’s invariably the wrong tone, or focuses on the wrong conflict, or gives the wrong impression about the story, or is just plain confusing.  *sigh*

I’ve read—no joke—about a hundred blog posts or articles about how to write queries.  Nothing helps because my suckitude isn’t caused by a lack of knowledge about what should go into a query or anything like that.  No, I just have a hard time boiling down the characters and plot in a clear way without losing my voice and the tone of the book.

My fiction voice naturally uses a lot of subtext, with things implied rather than spelled out.  Subtext doesn’t work in queries, though, because agents skim read them.  Also, my stories always have a unique premise that’s hard for me to explain in a sentence.

I keep plugging away at it though.  Even if I decide only to self-publish, I’d still have to write up something for the book description.  Back cover copy requires the same type of writing as queries, so I need to be able to do this.

Oh yeah, and I suck at titles too, probably for similar reasons.

Can You Confess Your Weaknesses?

Did you notice how I recognized and worked on several weaknesses over the past several years?  If I’d been in denial, I wouldn’t have been able to overcome them.

We usually try to keep our weaknesses hidden, but there’s a benefit to admitting them.

  • We might find others with that as a strength who can help us.
  • We’ll see that we’re not alone.
  • We might discover motivation and/or resources to improve in that area.

On the other hand, we don’t want to focus only on our weaknesses, so let’s end on a positive note and share our strengths too.  As I mentioned above, one of my greatest strengths is the ability to come up with a unique premise for my stories.  Everyone from contest judges to beta readers tell me my story premises are amazing.  If only that didn’t make querying harder.  *smile*

What weaknesses do you have as a writer (like those bullet items above)?  Can your critique partners, beta readers, agents, or editors help you overcome those weaknesses?  What strengths do you have?  Would you be willing to help others here with a weakness that matches your strength?

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What do you think?

69 Comments on "What Writing Skill Do You Suck At?"

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Marc Vun Kannon

We have to be able to summarize our story in a synopsis.

AAAAAHHHHH!

Carradee

I’m not sure if I suck at synopses and story copy, but they are difficult for me, and I don’t think I’m jaw-dropping great at it.

But when you get right down to it, the reason I have trouble with them is the same reason I have trouble with plotting (which is what I generally consider my weak point).

I overthink things. If I work out an entire plot in advance, I’ll have a jump that doesn’t work, I’ll skip something that needs to be there, etc.

I also don’t even think in transitions. That makes it difficult to write transitions. (I’m getting better, though.)

Angela Quarles

Man, we can only pick one weakness?? Seriously though, I guess I’ll stick to where I am right now on my finished WIP and that sounds the same as yours, writing queries and coming up with a great title. Also, I’m now second-guessing my opening and thinking I need to come up with some truly amazing, profound start that ties in with the end and captures the essence of the heroine, ties into the main conflict, grabs the reader by the short and curlies and doesn’t let go and I fear I can’t find that opening. (Mind you this is an opening I’ve already revised countless times). Yesterday I was thinking all day “Who the f#&^% do I think I am? I think I’m a writer??? Hahahahaha… sob”

Murphy

Hi Jami,

Bet you can’t guess what my weakness is? Should I throw a few commas around to show you?

Murphy 😉

Nancy S. Thompson

Ugh, the business side scares the heck outta me, anything to do with money, accounting, or business. I doubt I’ll be very good at that, if the time should ever arrive. I have pretty decent skills in most areas of writing, although, of course, there’s always room for improvement. I wish I handled setting better. And I suppose I could always write more eloquently. But I am pretty good at synopses and queries. I think I finally have a pretty good query, but I’m not satisfied with “think” so I had Matthew MacNish put it up on his blog today, The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment. Though I’ve had some great comments from his followers, I’ll see what Matthew has to say tomorrow and whether he’s ripped it to shreds or not. *gulp*

Daniel Swensen (@surlymuse)

The elevator pitch is probably my biggest weakness. People ask me what my book is about, and I tend to mumble. It’s about these guys, and they do some stuff? The concepts are strong in my head, but I have a hard time boiling them down to a sentence or two. Same reason I’m always having to edit my tweets down, I guess.

I also tend to second-guess myself a -lot- when looking at my plots at a very high level, which sucks.

Kathrine Roid

Ackpth! Pitches! *hides* No, scratch that. I think my bioreaction would be: *runs* Pitches and loglines and anything tiny are my pitfall. I think I think I have finally nailed the query, but those one-sentence hooks…

The problem is more than having a hard time condensing my sprawling, branching novel. I have to actually speak to deliver a pitch. As in open my mouth and make sounds other people can hear and hope they combine to make something that could be called communication. I can’t speak – why else would I go into writing? *sigh*

Heather
Heather

Love coming up w/titles…kinda getting the hang of how to do a good query…but SYNOPSIS/PROPOSALS? What???!!! I just want to say, “just read the book, it’ll be much better than this stinking attempt at a synopsis.” I mean, c’mon. It’s torture to compile 80,000 words into brief chapter summaries, giving away all our cool plot twists and whatnot in the process. So yeah, that’s my Achilles heel in writing.

Marcy Kennedy

Sad as it is for a writer to admit this, I actually struggle with idea generation. It seems to take me 2-3 times as long as everyone else to come up with a good idea for a story. Once I have it, all is good, but finding it can drive me to stress eating 🙂

A couple of old weaknesses that I’m constantly working on are a dearth of description (I tend to write a sparse first draft) and dialogue.

Carradee

Writing a sparse rough draft isn’t necessarily a bad thing—I’ve done it, too—and idea generation comes more easily with practice, in my experience, but I’m still better at coming up with situations than I am at stories.

I’ve found that when the dialogue and description are bland, I’m not well enough in the MC’s head and need to weasel my way in there better.

Gene Lempp

I’m great at everything. Yep. *sigh*

When I came online 13-14 months ago it was because I was an immortal pantser and really getting nowhere. Weakness #1: Structure. I have no issue writing out an idea, a premise or boiling things down just don’t make me put it in any type of format. This is becoming one of my strengths now, but it has been a difficult road.

Weakness #2: grammar; , ! still working on it but improving.

Weakness #3: Emotion. I’m not a highly emotional guy which is great in dealing with a house full of hyper-dramatic female teens, not so great when writing fiction, especially given that I prefer writing heroines over heroes. Working on this one, still. Always.

Strengths: I can come up with a story premise off of just about anything, rapidly with little sweat. Not a mainline idea but something unique and unusual. I don’t generally have much issue boiling the thought down to a one sentence log line or synopsis and indeed this is usually the start of my writing process.

The “either/or”: Perfectionist. This one can be either just depends on how it is used.

Okay, off to work on my grammar. Great post, Jami 🙂

Renee Schuls-Jacobson

Time management. Seriously, I can’t balance everything. Home, teaching, blog, WIP, twitter, Facebook, mommying, wifeying. I understand why many writers are introverted alcoholics. You kind of have to be alone. I am really busy.

Did I mention I teach? And grade?

And that I’m sitting in a car waiting for my son to finish a bar mitzvah lesson? In the dark? Yeah. Time management.

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly
I’ll start with one strength which has helped me improve greatly… I’m good at identifying my weaknesses, building a plan to address them, and sometimes turn them into strengths. What weaknesses am I still working on? I’ve a high quality bar for myself. Perhaps too high. What’s the problem with that? Revising is killin’ me. Seriously, it’s a nightmare right now. I look at the plot, the verbiage, the descriptions and just wanna cry ’cause I’ve so much to do to fix it all, and I’m afraid I’ll throw out 90% of my work, revise, then throw out 90% of that. How am I addressing this? I’m gonna tackle the large stuff first. Plot problems. Then move to smaller things like descriptions. Just like everyone else, I run through a plot, get half way through writing the story and come up with new ideas that make everything I’ve done up to then fall apart. Little things, too. I’m awful at reusing words. I’m the typo queen. Bleah. Fortunately, Scriviner and good beta readers are helping. And, of course, I’m bad at Butt In Chair. I’ve lots going on in life…a day job, friends, reading. Kinda gets in the way. I’ve addressed this by NanoWrimo. I didn’t make it, but I’m proud of what I did. 37,924. Really, I’m blown away. And I really like the story and will push it through to the end. I’m good at dialog, character, voice, description (after I’ve revised), and I’ve been given good feedback… Read more »
Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

Oh, and it is in fact my birthday Dec 20th, 2012.

Melinda Collins

Great topic and post, Jami!

I find that I struggle a bit with fleshing out an idea from a seed into a flower – er, sometimes an oak tree? – which I still haven’t been able to figure out why. But the good news is that I have a great husband and bestie who help me brainstorm so I can get the story flowing along in my head much faster (part of that may be because the characters tend to come first most times).
My other weakness would be descriptions and metaphors/similes. I get so mad at my husband because he can take a chapter of mine and just add all these great descrtiptions and such in one sitting, and I find myself struggling to even get the creative juices clicking enough to bring the scene/picture in my head to life! Grrr…. anyway, like you said, it’s a weakness — or as I like to call it: an opportunity! 🙂

Julie Glover

Weaknesses? Here I go.
1. Using the same words over and over – especially “just” and “then.” Aren’t those two of the most unnecessary words? But apparently, I just love ’em! Thank goodness there is a FIND feature so I can hunt them down and ruthlessly rip them out.
2. Researching agents. Um, what do I need to know? Who do I send to? How do I get a feel for an agent from a short bio?
3. Talking to people. That sounds general, but what I’m actually meaning is research that involves talking to people. I really need to chat up a fire investigator right now, but I practically break into hives to think about cold-calling someone and saying, “You see, I’m sort of, kind of, writing a book, and you know, I could use someone who, um….” See, I suck at that.
4. Remembering names. This isn’t writing-related exactly, but it would be beneficial to remember who I’ve talked to about what and which authors write what and who blogs about what. I need this party to have virtual nametags.
How’s that for a list? (I rock with grammar and punctuation, by the way. Love it.)

Lisa Gail Green

ROFL if I listed all of mine from when I started until now, it WOULD be a book! I agree though, that’s how we get better. By recognizing and working on our weaknesses. Queries are one of mine too. For my nano project I wrote the query before the book, just so I had something to go on later. Of course that’s a HUGE mess, but that’s another story.

Mari

I totally suck at synopses. And the other day I had to come up with a 200 word blurb for a novel I’m shopping – I had to ask for help from three different people, but I think we cobbled together something good. :knocks wood: I think (again :knocks wood:) I finally have the dreaded query letter nailed. Also, according to my writing group, I suck at transitions, although they also report that (with their help and care) I’m getting better.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc
I hate when life keeps me from reading your posts on the day you posted, especially when the post is soooo relevant. Grrr. That being said, I’m here, a day late. I, like you, torment myself in an attempt to achieve perfection. The funny thing is, I’m nowhere near perfect. I am horrible with commas, have no clue where to put them, and even though I’ve tried and tried to remedy this…I still can’t get a handle on those little buggers. I’m also bad grammatically. One of my critique partners is a retired english teacher and she dings me on stuff constantly. She tries to teach me, but it goes in one ear and out the other. Very bad. I’m also wordy. I tend to over word sentences. I’ve gotten better at it with the help of workshops and Crit partner suggestions, so I write much tighter then I used to, but when editing, I still find extras that don’t need to be there. Good for you trimming all those words! That’s not easy. Those are the complaints I get most. I suppose I’m good at world building. I see the images of my story as if they’re playing out in a movie, so I get details in there that help the reader visualize what’s happening. I’ve also been told I write very good sex scenes, one judge actually wrote that she had a great evening with her husband after reading my entry. I can’t really think of anything else… Read more »
Michele Shaw

My weakness is that I like my characters to talk. All. The. Time. Can you say dialogue heavy? I’ve been told my dialogue is quite good and natural, and maybe I like it so much because of the confidence I feel when writing it…or maybe it’s because I’m a yakker myself. (Probably) Either way, I’m trying to balance it better, but it’s harrrrrd to do!

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[…] Jami Gold: What Writing Skill Do You Suck At? We all have strengths and weaknesses. We have to know both to […]

Annalise Green

Definitely sparse first draft, leaving out important descriptions. And sometimes I assume things are completely clear when they aren’t (in both sentences and actual story structure). And I’ve never written a query, but I’m assuming I’ll suck at that too.

Part of the pathos about writing is even that the things that are supposedly your strengths, you won’t nail 100% of the time. Being a writer is pretty much the business of being wrong.

Lynn Kelley

I suck at queries, too. Summarizing our stories into one or two sentences is challenging. I also suck at research (cuz I’m kind of a tech ID 10 T), and terrible at math so put a check mark by ‘accounting,’ too! And business isn’t my bag either. Sheesh! I guess humor is one of my strong points, but humor is subjective, so that’s iffy. Um, maybee grammor an–spelg: und punktuashun: R mi strungths? (yep)thats’ it!

Shari Lopatin

A bold blog post, Jami! My weaknesses? Hmmm … If you’re speaking on the marketing side of writing, which I do for a paycheck, it’s writing SEO (search engine optimization) rich content. If you’re talking creatively, it’s probably plot development. The point A, to point, B, to point C. See, I’m an idea girl. I have great ideas, great general conflicts, but I sometimes struggle with the specifics of how to materialize those struggles into details. I’m not sure how you would categorize that, but there it is!

PW Creighton

I completely sympathize Jami, my first work was 142K now at publication it’s at 93K. I thought I was dying cutting things out but the more I evolved the more I cut without hesitation.

You left out Artisans.. we have to be artists, painting, sculpting and shooting the scene just right. 😉

Kyla

I’m not much of a marketer, but I think I might be able to improve that. What I’m REALLY not good at, without a doubt, is organization. I can’t make a deadline to save my life, I’m a dreadful procrastinator, I can’t organize my life in any capacity, and I almost always fail to meet my goals.

I am probably the most disorganized person I’ve ever seen. My room is always a wreck. My house is always a mess. My book writing is never regular like I want it to be. It’s very frustrating. I was completely gypped when it came to handing out that organizing gene.

On a good note, I’m wonderful at grammar, decent with words, incredibly imaginative, and a natural-born storyteller.

But what good is that if I never get the dang book done? I say that all writers absolutely require three skill sets, which I call the three P’s: Passion, Patience, and Persistence. I was heavily gifted with passion, but I’m not a particularly patient or persistent soul. I have to force myself to be patient, but writing a book takes so LONG. And persistence? Let’s just say that if I didn’t have so much passion, writing would not be around in my life any longer. I would have given up long ago.

Anyway, thanks for the great reminder on what we have to work on, and what we’re already good at. Have a great day and happy writing!

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[…] Jami Gold gives a great look at weaknesses in our writer-selves (everybody sucks at something, right?) and how to turn them into strengths. […]

Rena J. Traxel
Rena J. Traxel

Thanks for sharing! My editing skills need work.

James Curcio

I suck at queries as well, fwiw.

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[…] is no “perfect” pitch, so rather than trying to come up with something brilliant (that I can’t duplicate with my own stories to save my life), I’ll touch on the various pitch-building methods out there.  Some stories might lend […]

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[…] or self-publish, we have to know how to summarize our book. I’ve mentioned many times that I suck at queries and pitching and all things related to this “boiling down the essence” process, so I […]

Joanna Aislinn
Joanna Aislinn

I got lucky pantsing out my first two books, the first of which got published. I want to complete a strongly related part three and at least one (possibly three total ) spinoffs before I call it a day on this series. Among the problems: I make up a character on the spot then suddenly realize said character has enough potential to carry off his/ her own story.

What’s my problema? Actually fleshing out that next story. (So sad.) I’ve learned I suck at generating new ideas. Nor can I tear apart a story and cite the FPP, etc.

BTW brainstorming overwhelms me with so much info, I wind up paralyzed.

Currently, I’m working my way thru Larry Brooks’ STORY ENGINEERING. Maybe once I identify story structure, I’ll do a bit better.

Any and all suggestions welcome.

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[…] I’ve improved at so many other aspects of writing, from grammar, word count, and descriptions to sensory details, emotion, and synopses. Heck, I’ve even been able to come up with titles lately. A couple of days ago, I came up with the title for my upcoming work in progress. That’s two—two!—titles I like in a row. Yay! […]

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[…] those of you who might remember my struggles with writing queries that didn’t suck, this was a problem for my release last week. […]

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[…] no secret that I’ve struggled with queries and blurbs over the years. One issue I’ve run into multiple times is writing something that ends up a […]

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