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Want to Write Better? Know Your Strengths.

Most writers are their own worst critics. We all want to improve our writing, and there’s a LOT of information out there on exactly how to do this—but has anyone ever suggested you begin by looking at your strengths?

I believe that writers who are aware of their strengths have an edge in becoming a better writer.

Think about sports players. I know little about sports so bear with me while I make what’s going to be a very clunky analogy. Every sports player specializes in something. It’s why they have positions. Some are good point guards, others have a killer throw. They become better athletes by getting even better at what they are already good at. They set themselves apart by being known for something, and they build their skillset from there.

Recently, I asked my memoir writing students to tell me what they think their strengths are as writers. They looked back at me with terror in their eyes.

“How do we know what our strengths are if we are just starting out?” one man asked.

I pushed them a little harder, and they pushed right back.

“Yeah, we’re just learning, how do we know what we’re good at?”

“How are we supposed to answer that?”

“How about YOU tell us what our strengths are!”

“How about we talk about our weaknesses instead?”

“I don’t feel like I’m good at anything!”

They clearly were not comfortable discussing their strengths, so I spent the remainder of the class affirming them in what I thought their strengths were. Some of them are fantastic at setting a scene, others are emotionally generous in their prose, and others have developed a powerful structure or a compelling voice. It was easy for me to see what they excel at.

But I also think their feelings are valid. We writers can be a self-deprecating breed, and often our weaknesses are so apparent to us that we are unable to see what we are good at. The act of writing is so agonizing that we assume we suck when in reality the act of writing is agonizing for everybody. The blinking cursor screams at us as we clumsily hurl out our words and in that moment all we can see are the many ways we fall short.

So how does a beginning writer get in tune with their strengths? Or, even an advanced writer? Here are a few ways to start:

1. Show your work to another writer you trust. Tell them you are looking for positive feedback (critique can come later; for the purpose of this exercise, we want to only focus on strength.) Ask them to be as specific as possible. Instead of: “I loved your main character,” you’re going for “your main character is believable because he is nuanced and you’ve done the hard work of fleshing him out as three-dimensional.” Instead of “It’s engaging,” we want “I’m drawn into your opening because your voice is strong. I can really hear you on this page.” It can be hard to find quality readers. Swapping pieces with another writer is an option. Hiring a writing coach is another.

2. Find a community. Check out writers workshops or circles in your area. The library, community college, and independent bookstores are places you’re likely to find them. Writers groups can be brutal places. Find one that is a safe place that focuses on both strengths and areas to improve.

3. Read your work out loud. When you get to a place that makes you feel satisfied somehow, stop and ask yourself why. Why does this paragraph work? What did I do right here? Try to identify what you did well and look for patterns.

4. Take a strengths assessment. I recently took StrengthsFinder, and while this assessment is not specifically for writers, I found it helpful—and even surprising—in understanding my writerly strengths. StrengthsFinder is a test you can take online that claims to identify your top five strengths. For me, Strategic was a top strength. This surprised me because I don’t think of myself as a strategic person. I like to think of myself as more of a free-spirited creative type. But then I thought about my writing, and how I am able to craft story structures that intentionally keep the reader hanging on, and I realized I am strategic and my writing reflects this.

The point of understanding our strengths isn’t to just pat ourselves on the back. The point is to understand them so we can develop them. If I excel at building a story structure, how can I hone in on that strength? How can I practice it so I can get even better? How can I really nail it so that I hook the reader even more?

There is a time and a place for working on our weaknesses as writers. But if we play up our strengths, readers are less likely to notice our weaknesses. And in the long run, a strengths-based approach can elevate our quality of writing overall. Get even better at what you’re already good at, and build your skills from there.

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