September 5, 2017

What Are Your Writing Strengths?

Man hanging upside down while bouldering with text: Do You Know Your Strengths?

I’ll be sharing Part Two of Jeff Lyon’s writing myths guest post on Thursday. Until then, I wanted to share an insight I’ve had during this latest surgery recovery.

We’ve probably all heard the quote attributed to Albert Einstein (even though there’s no record of him saying it):

Everyone is a genius.

But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree,
it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.

That’s a great quote for many reasons. One insight it offers us is that it’s all too easy to focus on what we can’t do and discount what we can do.

What Happens If We Focus Only on Our Weaknesses?

In situations where we want to improve—such as writing—we might spend all our time analyzing and putting energy into our weaknesses or shortcomings. And yes, that focus is absolutely necessary to identify how we can reach the next level of expertise.

But at the same time, that focus ignores our strengths or natural talents. If we fail to recognize our strengths, we might suffer in several ways, such as:

  • We might feel as though we have no strengths, which can make us question whether we’re qualified or kidding ourselves about our abilities.
  • We might discover a skill that we have zero strength for and give up, forgetting that many aspects of writing can be a team effort (with editors, cover artists, marketing help, etc.).
  • We might see the daunting list of areas we need to improve and feel discouraged by where we are on the learning curve, ignoring the big list of things behind us that we’re already good at or have accomplished.
  • We might fail to build on our strengths—making what’s good about our writing even better—because we don’t even see them there.

Balanced Growth Is Healthier Growth

In contrast, balancing our efforts with different paths of growth might help us become better (and mentally/emotionally happier and healthier) writers. If we’re balancing our focus, then…:

  • We’re not going to let our new knowledge on one skill overwhelm our strengths in another—such as letting our new focus on grammar stifle our strong, natural voice.
  • We’re going to see all the progress we’ve made and remember all the ways we’re good at this writing thing, and not be discouraged just because we’re struggling with some areas.
  • We’re going to have a better idea of what strengths to look for in our writing-process partners (critique partners, beta readers, editors, etc.) for where we need more help—and just as importantly, we’ll know how to weigh recommendations for partners if they have the same strengths we do.
  • We’re going to push our strengths to improve too, so we can take good to great, and not let a lack of attention on those aspects make us forget to apply our strengths to our writing.

In other words, by keeping our strengths in mind, we might be able to fight back against the natural discouragement of a big learning curve, keeping us happier or less overwhelmed. We might also be able to improve our writing in other ways by building on those strengths.

What Does It Mean to Discover Our Strengths?

Before we can find a better balance, we first have to recognize our strengths. Some of us are good at that. We know our characterization is great or our voice is unique. Or we’re confident in our ability to write by the seat of our pants rather than plot our story in advance. But most of us don’t know our strengths—at least not in specifics.

This brings me to how I happened across this topic. While in the mental no-go zone of all my health issues, when I couldn’t write or edit or do much useful at all, I was frustrated enough to bring out my oldest piece of writing from adulthood.

I came back to writing about 10 years ago (after being discouraged by teachers and family in my teenage years) when I had an idea for a Harry Potter fan fiction story. At the time, I told my family that if I ever had an idea for my own characters, I’d want to write their story because I’d rediscovered my love of storytelling.

(Spoiler alert: As I’m now a published author, I obviously did come up with an original idea a few months later. *smile*)

I never posted that fan fiction story anywhere, and it has many, many issues, so I have no plans to share it. However, as I discovered a few weeks ago, when I decided to reread it, it also has a lot of surprising strengths.

Despite the fact that I hadn’t written fiction in decades before then, and despite the fact that I hadn’t yet read any books, blogs, or workshops on “how to write,” not every aspect of the story is awful. *grin*

By looking at my completely raw and uneducated writing, I discovered my natural (perhaps intuitive) strengths:

  • my storytelling was better than my writing craft
  • my main character (Harry Potter) had a mostly formed arc, including a few thematic elements
  • my story structure was flawless—no unnecessary tangents, hit every beat, included rising stakes, goals, motivation, conflict, etc.

What Can We Do with Our Strengths?

As I mentioned above, we can work on our strengths to take them from good to great. So while I focused a majority of my subsequent writing-improvement effort on craft issues such as grammar, rhythm, point of view, showing vs. telling, dialogue, etc., I also learned everything I could about storytelling.

I’ve studied the different types of arcs (character/internal/emotional, plot, romance, story, etc.). I’ve learned more about incorporating themes, why story structure works the way it does, when it’s important to bring goals or motivations forward out of the subtext, the different types of stakes, etc.

Bringing the subconscious into consciousness—where I could use it with more skill—helped my writing (hopefully taking it closer to great). Knowing our strengths might also help us with branding, such as coming up with a tagline. Or if we know we’re naturally strong at developing characters, we might know to focus our story planning on plot development (or vice versa), streamlining our planning process.

Knowing our strengths helps us push our writing from good to great. Click To TweetAs a bonus, pushing those strengths toward the level of great helps me help others. Everything I learn goes into topics here on my blog, and sure, today I’m known for story structure, beat sheets, and the like, but again, this fan fiction story was written before I’d ever heard of those things.

In other words, in addition to the improvements in my own writing, I built on my strengths to help others who didn’t have that intuitive understanding.

Others could do the same. Our strengths could point toward where we might be able to guest post with confidence, where we could mentor writers, or even where we could make money by offering workshops or services.

How Can We Discover Our Strengths?

So how can we learn what we’re good at, either because we have natural instincts or because it’s already behind us on the learning curve?

  • Like my experience, we can look at some of our rawest writing, when we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Whatever we’re good at when we’re not “trying” is a natural strength.
  • We can request feedback, asking what elements of our story or writing feel the most polished or compelling. If it’s something we struggled with, it might not be a natural strength (but being able to edit to greatness is a strength too!). And if it’s something that flowed off our fingers without much conscious thought? Definitely a natural strength.
  • We can enter contests that provide feedback, especially those with good score sheets that encourage positive feedback too. Any positive feedback is a gift, providing insight into how others see our writing.
  • We can analyze what categories most negative feedback focuses on and think good thoughts about the other categories. For example, if we’re published and no one picks on our grammar or sloppy writing in reviews, that’s a good sign that’s a strength. *smile*
  • We can look at what elements come out when we fast draft, as that might indicate what aspects of writing come to us more naturally, when we’re not thinking too hard and just going with the flow.

If we know our strengths, we have more opportunities. We can push ourselves from good to great. We can focus our branding and processes. We can build on our strengths to help other writers. And we can keep ourselves mentally and emotionally balanced by seeing our progress on the learning curve. These are all good things. *smile*

How well do you know your strengths? How did you discover them? Does knowing your strengths help you in any way? Have you done anything to grow or take advantage of those strengths? Do you have other ideas for how we can discover our strengths?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Terence Park

I was drawn here by ‘7 methods for handling point of view’.
Years ago I sucked at the teat of New Wave Science Fiction. When I started writing, I had imagination but struggled in just about every other area. It’s fair to say that as I’ve picked up, my zest for writing has declined. The learning process for me was editing, rewriting and restructuring my first novel. When I tired of this I had it professionally edited. Feedback suggests a general improvement since then (2013) which I put down to engaging in that editing process. Dialog has probably improved most.
Though I do experiment in other genres (YA, Fantasy, Noir, Historical), I’ve not been attracted by fan-fiction. I’m told my SF draws in readers who have no connection with the genre.

Donna L Hole

My strength is characterization: the characters seem to appear to me fully formed, and I am able to draw reader empathy. I’ve been able to hone that strength to write concisely and evocatively. No, if I can just keep that strength going thru a great plot, I’d have an awesome story to sell.

I’m consistently reading articles (not books anymore) on craft. Story development mostly. I don’t think I can ever learn enough, and of course trends change so quickly its impossible to keep up on everything in just one book or author series.

I think I’d be scare of a tree-climbing fish, lol. Something about that image is just wrong 🙂

Have a good week Jami.


Good article. As in many other articles, you go for the essential.

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

Hey Jami! I like that you added concrete tips on how to discover our strengths (e.g. reading our “rawest” stories). You know, I always find it strange that people would get discouraged by a huge learning curve…Isn’t the fact that there is STILL SO MUCH to learn exhilarating? If there is no more knowledge to be gained in our writing, that would feel horrible, and writing would be a thousand times less enjoyable… To address the actual topic of the post, in my opinion, my strengths lie in writing vivid, complex characters, and also dialogue. Note that I only see them as “my strengths”; I am not implying that I’m better than other people at these things! I’m only comparing these skill areas with my other skill areas. A number of people also said my writing is clear and easy to read, but that’s for nonfictional essays and papers; I’m not sure for fiction. My most notable weakness is scenic description–I’m so unmotivated to describe anything beyond the bare minimum in the first place ^_^. Though Mary Buckham’s Writing Active Setting books were quite inspiring. If we look at my more “raw/ beginner” stories, I think the best thing about them is their emotional depth and intensity. As for positive feedback about those stories, several readers say my writing (the language) is strong, though some other readers thought it was too fancy. (I was heavily influenced by the 19th century writers at that time.) A memorable compliment I got for…  — Read More »

Deborah Makarios

It’s always encouraging to look back down the mountain sometimes, to see how far we’ve come.
As for strengths, I think plotting is one of my strengths – it was a happy day when I realized pantsing wasn’t the only way to write! Also a wide and curious vocabulary, although some would no doubt consider that a flaw 🙂

Glynis Jolly

I think what I need to find my strengths is some feedback. Easier said than done though. I am going to have to go searching on this one.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Good for you!


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