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July 9, 2020

How to Level Up Our Storytelling with Self-Awareness

Numbered floor buttons inside an elevator with text: 5 Habits to Level Up Our Writing

Last time I mentioned that I usually have several hundred tabs open in my computer browser at any one time. When I don’t have time to read or take action on information in a link right away, keeping the tab open reminds me to check it out later. Today’s post is an example of how my organized disorganization works—at least for me. *grin*

Back before the pandemic threw our lives into chaos, I’d opened an article about the five habits of self-aware people…and then the tab promptly got buried by COVID-tracking stuff.

Yesterday I finally had the chance to review the article, which then prompted several insights into how strengthening our self-awareness can help improve our storytelling ability. Let’s take a look… *smile*

Writing: Conscious or Subconscious?

For most of us, writing is both a conscious and a subconscious activity. While much of our brainstorming might happen on the subconscious level (especially for those of us who write by the seat of our pants), we also want to be conscious of our words:

It’s often easy to write in a halfway “lazy” style, typing the first idea or sentence or word that comes to mind. If we instead aim to write with more intention and awareness, we’ll be able to avoid more of the issues above (as well as the dreaded clichés and formulaic writing that can result from lazy writing too).

But avoiding those problems isn’t the only reason it’s good for writers to develop a level of self-awareness. In fact, the skill of self-awareness can help us as writers in many different ways.

The 5 Habits of Highly Self-Aware People

As shared in the article, just like our characters, we tend to build up “emotional armor” to protect us from pain. But also like our characters, we have a chance to grow if we learn healthier ways of dealing with our vulnerability beyond whatever wounds or false beliefs we might have.

We can help our growth along if we develop the habits of self-awareness. (And obviously, all this can apply to our characters as well.)

According to Nick Wignall, self-awareness is a skill that we can strengthen by practicing five habits:

  1. Listen more than talk.
  2. Be curious about our own mind.
  3. Look for emotional blindspots.
  4. Ask for feedback (and take it well).
  5. Reflect on our values.

How Can These Habits Help Us as Writers?

Now let’s take those five habits one at a time and explore how practicing that self-awareness skill might help us as storytellers…

Habit #1: Listen More Than Talk

We’ve probably all heard about (or known) the stereotypes of people who endlessly talk, usually about themselves. The idea behind this stereotype is that the talker comes across as arrogant or, at the very least, annoying.

What are 5 habits that can help us be more self-aware (and better writers)? Click To Tweet

Maybe they’re convinced they’re more interesting than anyone else. Maybe they don’t care to get to know others. Maybe they’re convinced they don’t need to learn anything from others. Or some other reason along those lines.

But to be a good writer, we need to have strong empathy. Our characters will be more believable if they seem real and three-dimensional, and that requires us to be able to place ourselves within our character’s thoughts and emotions.

In other words, we need to truly understand others who are unlike ourselves. And to do that, we need to do a lot of listening so that we can deeply empathize with others.

As I’ve mentioned before, I follow a ton of authors on Twitter who come from diverse backgrounds and cultures. However, I don’t talk to them 99% of the time because my job is to listen and learn.

The more we listen, the better we’ll be able to identify and overcome our biases, understand struggles of those unlike us, and write all types of characters with more empathy. And all that helps us be a better writer. *smile*

Habit #2: Be Curious about Our Own Mind

Like empathy, curiosity is an important trait for storytellers. Curiosity helps us notice story ideas all around us, giving us endless inspiration for our writing.

In addition, curiosity about our own mind—why we think and feel the way we do—helps us understand not only ourselves, but also others. Like, oh, say, our characters. *grin*

For example, are we able to notice the patterns we (and others) fall into? How do we react when faced with X or Y? What might cause us to react differently? How do we feel in that situation? How do we feel about those emotions (such as feeling guilt about a sense of pride)?

Understanding more about psychological patterns and ourselves, such as our strengths and weaknesses or the scope and structure of our emotional armor, can help us grow and improve. At the same time, the better we understand how these mental and emotional mechanisms work in ourselves, the better we’ll be at portraying reluctance, epiphanies, change and so forth for our characters.

Habit #3: Look for Emotional Blindspots

As Nick explains in his article, emotional blindspots are areas of our lives where we don’t recognize the emotions we’re experiencing. For example, we tend to lump unpleasant emotions under an umbrella term like “upset” or “stressed.”

Can we dig deeper into our characters' emotions by better understanding our own? Click To Tweet

However, that lumping can often get in the way of us fixing the negative emotion. After all, if we can’t see the anger we feel toward our boss, spouse, or kids, we can’t work to improve the situation.

Our blindspots can also prevent us from fully understanding the emotions of our characters. We won’t be able to dig deep into their emotional portrayal if we internally label everything they feel with vague emotional labels. An emotion wheel chart might help us dig beyond the superficial words and find a more precise emotional state.

In addition, the better we understand this simplifying and/or ignoring tendency in ourselves, the better we’ll be at recognizing this behavior in our characters. And as a bonus, our readers might learn something about themselves and their blindspots if we’re able to lead them through this recognition process along with our characters. *smile*

Habit #4: Ask for Feedback (and Take It Well)

As writers who often hear about feedback, we probably find this habit a bit of a no-brainer: No matter how much “mental effort” we put into trying to think our way to improvement, there’s a limit to how much we can improve on our own.

Here are 5 ways being more self-aware can help us…and our writing Click To Tweet

For example, there’s a difference between how much our writing can improve with only self-editing vs. how much we can improve with others’ insights. There’s a reason writers often pay for quality editing and/or work hard to find beta readers. Good feedback can push us beyond what we know and help us “level up” to a new tier of writing quality.

As for the “and take it well” aspect, we’ll never improve if we think we already know everything there is to know about writing (or whatever). Defensiveness is an understandable reaction to criticism, but it gets in the way of improving ourselves.

To be able to take feedback well, we need enough humility about our skills to see that there’s always room for improvement. The more we’re aware of our potential for improvement, the better our chances of actually being eager for helpful feedback that pushes us to improve. (“Yay! It’s level-up time!”)

This same idea applies to improving our empathy and understanding of others. If we can manage our defensiveness, others will come to trust us with their vulnerabilities and pain, so the more we’ll learn about other perspectives.

Habit #5: Reflect on Our Values

As I’ve often talked about when it comes to goals, we greatly hurt our chances of success if we don’t know how we define success. We might follow the wrong kind or irrelevant advice, we might pick the wrong “virtual mentors” to emulate, and so on.

To reach a destination, we have to know what that destination is. It’s as simple as that.

Yet day-to-day living and surviving can get in the way of thinking about the big picture. Unless we sometimes step back and analyze the path to our destination, it’s far too easy to just follow the flow and end up somewhere we didn’t intend.

This habit falls along the same ideas. We’ll have a better understanding of where we are, where we’re going, and what’s holding us back if we occasionally ask ourselves a few questions.

  • What are our goals?
  • What are our priorities?
  • What’s important to us?
  • What’s going well in our career?
  • What aspects of our career need work?
  • Can we take additional steps to make progress toward our bigger dreams or stretch goals?

That practice with seeing the big picture can also help us with our storytelling skills. With our stories, we often want to be able to step back and get the 10,000-foot view of how the pieces of our plot and characters are working well—or not working well—together.

Final Thoughts

If we can develop the habits that will help us become more self-aware, we can benefit in many different ways:

  • We can become emotionally and mentally healthier people, with a better understanding of ourselves and what’s holding us back from improving even more.
  • We can create more realistic characters, with a more accurate and empathetic portrayal and a deeper understanding of their mental and emotional strengths, weaknesses, and issues.
  • We can become better storytellers, with more tools in our craft toolbox for understanding our characters and their perspective.
  • And as mentioned at the beginning of this post, we can also better avoid issues with unaware and unintentional writing (accidental rule-breaking, sticking with biases, missing foreshadowing opportunities, unintentional subtext, inconsistent character portrayal, etc.).

Even if we think we’re not capable of more self-awareness (or that we aren’t any good at it), it’s important to know that it’s a skill, and that means we can improve with practice. Practicing these 5 habits will strengthen our skill of self-awareness and help us—and our writing. *smile*

10 Year Blogiversary Reminder!

My blogiversary is coming up next week, and that means 2 things:

As I announced a few weeks ago, after 1000+ posts and ten years of publishing articles every Tuesday and Thursday, I’m giving myself the gift of an irregular schedule. So this is a great time to make sure you’re signed up for my blog-post newsletter so you don’t miss any of my new scheduled-when-I-feel-like-it posts! 😉

My blogiversary also means that it’s time to enter my 10th Annual Blogiversary Contest! The more comments we get on that post, the more winners we’ll have. 😀

How would you describe your level of self-awareness? Does it make sense how being more self-aware could help our writing? Which of these habits are you best with? Which do you struggle the most with? Do you have any questions or additional insights?

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Tamera Denman
Tamera Denman

Jami,
I think that in order to write effectively, we must be more self-aware. How can we write with great conviction and truth if we do know ourselves, and be able to recognize traits in others. This knowledge will help us to more fully develop our characters.

E J Randolph

Insightful article.

Eila Jameson-Avey

I completely agree with all that you have said. It has been an emotional journey for me since I began writing in earnest but my writing has improved because of it. Thanks so much for your accurate insights, as usual! *smile*

Sieran Lane

Hey Jami, About people who talk more than listen, and talk mostly about themselves (or their interests), it’s not necessarily because they think they’re more interesting than other people, they don’t want to learn from others, or they think they’re superior to others. I used to talk a lot more than I listened (unless the other person was the talker, in which case I would listen more), and I would talk mostly about my interests, whether this interest was about myself or about some subject that intrigued me at the time. Yet, I didn’t believe that I was better or more interesting than other people were, nor did I feel that I had nothing to learn from others. One reason why I talked so much, was because it was a habit I had somehow cultivated—perhaps because I was an only child? Another reason, was that I would naturally talk at length about something that intrigued me in the moment, whether it was about myself, my projects, something I learned from class, some social phenomenon I noticed, something I noticed in my friends’ stories, something striking that I heard a classmate say, etc. It didn’t occur to me until I was older, that if someone is silent, it doesn’t mean that they are interested in what I was saying; they could just be bored and disengaged from my conversation. A third, very important reason for the focus on myself, my interests, what I discovered, what I heard, etc., was simply because…  — Read More »

Dawn

This is an insightful post. It’s something I haven’t thought much about but makes a lot of sense. I’ve been learning to be more self-aware of my emotions. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I’m getting there. My husband can tell you I’ve been better at handling stressful situations. 🙂

The next one I have a hard time with is taking feedback well. I don’t go off on the person who gives feedback or even argue with them. I don’t handle it well internally. If I get particularly bad feedback, I internalize it to the point that I don’t feel like writing. After a few days off, though, I can go back to the feedback and take it much better. Sometimes I can see the feedback as more of a personal preference rather than a problem. But mostly I can see the person giving the critique made a good point that I can learn from and improve my writing with.

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