How to Spot Your Weaknesses as a Writer

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There’s a question that crops up on writing forums a lot: how do I improve my writing?

And quite often, the most common advice is “read and write lots”. Which is perfectly fine advice. Knowing what’s good and practicing your craft are great ways to imrpove.

But there’s only so far that advice can take you. At some point you’re going to need to follow a third piece of advice:

Know your weaknesses.

By identifying weaknesses, you can work harder on improving that aspect of your writing rather than just practicing everything and hoping for the best.

But not all weaknesses are equal; and not all weaknesses can be identified by the same methods. So I’m going to split this into two: in-text weaknesses and out-of-text weaknesses.

In-text weaknesses

In-text weaknesses are those elements generally discussed in writing threads: characterisation, pacing, description, dialogue and so on. They’re the actual words that make up the story. There are three key ways you can determine whether you fall prey to any of them:

1. Read your work

Looking at what you’ve read and comparing all recent projects to one another will enable you to pick out trends. Does a certain theme keep appearing? Do all your protagonists sound the same? Do you overuse a certain word or phrase?

As well as picking out trends, you need to constantly ask yourself whether or not the story, or some element of it, is working. And if you compare your notes to what you ended up writing, you can work out whether you achieved what you intended.

This will be more effective for older work, partly because you’ll have improved more since writing it than more recent work, but also because you will have forgotten much more of it than your most recent project. For your most recent or active project, it’s a good idea to set it aside for a while before analysing it, so that you can approach it without it still buzzing around inside your head.

2. Read someone else’s work

Sometimes you are too close to your own work. You know it too well, and miss things as a result. Reading someone else’s work allows you to approach something without preconceptions and without sentimentality. At the same time, analysing someone else’s work means you’ve got your critical brain in gear. You’re looking for what works and doesn’t work, you’re looking for mistakes.

The way to take this a step further and to make it useful to you is to think, for every feature – whether good or bad – you identify in the other person’s work, consider that same aspect in your own work. Say what you’re reading has very good characterisation. Consider what makes it good. Look at how the author presents the character. Compare it to your own characterisation. Do you use some of the same methods? How is it different?

And if while you’re analysing someone else’s work you also provide the author with feedback, you’re in a position where you can ask them to reciprocate.

3. Ask someone for feedback

Getting feedback gives you a fresh perspective, a new set of eyes. You’re so close to your own work that there may well be things you can’t see, even when considering it in comparison to another’s writing. What you think works might not; what you’ve forgotten to mention will stand out to a reader who doesn’t know it in advance.

Remember with feedback that it isn’t the be-all and end-all. Different people have different tastes and different skills. The feedback you get is an expression of the tastes and skills of the reader. You are free to ignore their judgement if you disagree. But if several readers all identify the same aspect of your writing as a weakness, you should listen.

Out-of-text weaknesses

Out-of-text weaknesses are things like procrastination, insufficient outlining, fear of starting, overdoing worldbuilding and so on. These are about the way you approach writing, about the confidence you have in your abilities, and your personal skills that aren’t specifically writing related, like time management.

Because they’re not about the words, it can be harder to identify when you have one of these weaknesses. If you struggle with endings because you don’t plan enough, nobody can tell you if all they see of your work is the prologue. Identifying these kinds of weaknesses requires a degree of self awareness. You need to ask yourself “why?” at everything. If you’ve started a lot of projects but not finished any, you need to consider why that might be, for example.

There is a way of determining at least some of these. It comes down, once more, to analysing your work, but this time not just reading it. In fact, you don’t need to read it at all.

Consider your recent works. If it’s easier, create a table. The first column is your project’s title. In the second column, describe the story in a sentence or two. In the third, record the progress you made – in words and in approximate percentage of the story. Finally, in the fourth column write the reason you stopped working on it.

By comparing information from different projects you can identify weaknesses. If all your stories got to about 75% and then you stopped, you might have a problem with endings. If there are several projects you halted before you wrote a single word because you lost passion, maybe you did too much planning, or focused in too much detail on something that wasn’t important. If there are a lot of stories you stopped because of writer’s block, perhaps you didn’t do enough planning. These aren’t the only reasons, merely suggestions; analysing the information will enable you to come to your own conclusions.

Target your weaknesses

Once you know what you’re not so good at, you can create a plan of action for improving those aspects of your writing – or your approach. Now you know what to write, or what to read about. Instead of just writing and writing and having the same thing wrong with every project, now you can target those weaknesses, practice specific elements of writing or improve your planning process.

Of course, if your problem is getting distracted by the internet during your designated writing time, then it might be that your weakness is procrastination.  In which case, all that reading and creating tables might do more harm than good; and in which case, what are you still doing here? Back to work!

What are your weaknesses as a writer?  How did you uncover your weaknesses?

Alice has other articles and reviews available on her website at aliceleiper.com.

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Alice Leiper

Alice Leiper is an eager reader of fantasy and aspires to become a professional writer. She blogs about her experiences, observations and opinions on writing and fantasy on her website, Ally's Desk.

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33 comments
DannyAdams
DannyAdams

"2. Read someone else’s work" One of the best things to ever happen to my writing was reading slush.

efpierce
efpierce

Nobody wants to admit their weaknesses but doing so will make them a better writer. It is very hard to sit down and critique yourself or even to have someone else do it but it is worthwile.

RuthMartin1
RuthMartin1

This is a really truthful article with great ideas and tips on how to improve my writing. I am slowly improving, but I still feel that writing is not my passion or real talent. (And I'm a blogger!) Kinda tough being a blogger when I don't really like to write. So far I have outsourced the bulk of my writing, then I edit and customize the articles to make them have my own personal touch... maybe one day I will enjoy writing :)

GonzoJuano
GonzoJuano

I agree that getting feedback from others is very helpful to identify areas of improvement when it comes to writing.  After you out of college, it's sometimes hard to get this kind of help (unless you are lucky enough to have an editor).  Some areas have roundtable meetings of aspiring writings that meet once or twice a month.  Check your local meetup.com listings! 

Julian
Julian

Struggling with endings always get to the better of me. Sometimes, I can’t even figure out why my story isn’t complete after procrastinating past my deadline.


I really like your out-of-text weakness advice. Thanks!

Ms Henderson
Ms Henderson

A third person’s opinion is one of the most crucial evaluations before your story can be published. It often picks up several errors that I have subconsciously neglected, such as missing out crucial details which affects the setting of the entire storyline. I can’t even believe I could forget them! If someone with a world of different perspective can agree with you, then 9/10 your story’s ready to go out there and win the public’s hearts.

Jorge Kenshin Pimentel
Jorge Kenshin Pimentel

I think faster than I write so when I finish my essay or story it barely makes sense

Lauren Paul
Lauren Paul

Endings. I totally suck at endings. I have ten unfinished novels because I cannot end them.

Matthew Phillips
Matthew Phillips

Improper use if, oh what do they call them... Those things made up of letters.... Words! That's it! And an inability to finish my

James Marcks
James Marcks

the ability to obtain uninterrupted silence for long periods of time.and that means alone time aswell.

Vashwhyssrs
Vashwhyssrs

Besides a little procrastination, my main weakness is the middle of the story. I can easily come up with a beginning and an end, but a lot of the time I have trouble connecting A to C.

penpilot
penpilot

I have no weaknesses. I sit on a mountain of gold both literal and literary. SO I think my weakness is arrogance and overconfidence. But seriously, I think my weakness is knowing how to ratchet up the plot.

skehehdanfdlove
skehehdanfdlove

I'm afraid to start. Afraid that my new ideas aren't as good as my old pieces. On top of that I've been on a Writer's Block since June last year. I fear it will last till I'm 60. Sorry for venting. I'm just scared T_T

theternalscribe
theternalscribe

I am the Queen of Procrastination.  I find the best cure for procrastination is having someone waiting on you to finish something.  For example, I'm serializing my story after editing.  Thus, people expect new entries twice a week.  I don't like people arbitrarily setting deadlines for me but, when I set them myself, it's cool.

On a side note, this website, http://prowritingaid.com/Free-Editing-Software.aspx, can be really useful for when you're too close to your work.  It's an editing software.  It's not perfect but it can help you zone in on things you would otherwise overlook.  Examples, I have problems with using the word "that" and -ly words, sticky sentences (sentences with too many short, choppy words), and using vague language like sort of, kind of, maybe...  This helps me catch them and, in the process, learn from my mistakes and catch them without the software, even going so far as to keep it from ever surfacing in my writing.

terrirochenski
terrirochenski

Procrastination. Yup. That's me.

Critique groups are awesome, but there comes a time when too many opinions can leave you feeling defeated. Let's face it - you can't please every reader every time. They will nitpick your WiP to death. Find a core group, even if it takes a year or two. Beta read with them because you can trust them.


Scott David Murphy
Scott David Murphy

It isn't procrastination as much as it is getting stuck, but what i have found at times is to write on another part or flesh out some of my characters.

MG_Silverstein
MG_Silverstein

Great article! As far as in text weaknesses go, starting a critique group has really helped me spot everything I've done wrong. My group has also helped me learn what I'm doing right! Reading other peoples work has led  to me seeing the strengths and weaknesses in my own. 

I definitely have a problem with procrastination, and fear. I find writing to be a surprisingly overwhelming process. Sometimes I don't want to get swept away. Sometimes I'd rather stay in my own world, instead of getting caught up in one of my own creation. I need to change this.

mariaAsmith
mariaAsmith

Excellent post! Great advice, made me start thinking what my weaknesses are...

Now I need to hatch a  plan to tackle them.

Katie Smith
Katie Smith

Mostly procrastination. However, when it comes to technicals, I find my main weakness is not displaying characteristics through actions or speech.

Anna Fajardo
Anna Fajardo

Sentence structure. No matter how I try to change/vary them, they all sound sing-songy when read aloud.

Alice Leiper
Alice Leiper

@skehehdanfdlove The fear of not being good enough is definitely one a lot of riters can relate to. I think what has helped me most with that is the simple realisation that a first draft doesn't need to be good, it just needs to exist; a bad page can be edited, but an empty one cannot.


Also theternalscribe is right, freewriting is a great ay to get ideas moving.

MG_Silverstein
MG_Silverstein

@skehehdanfdlove I can relate. I think having some kind of support for your writing, helps this. I meet writer friends for coffee every week. We vent, and talk about our stories, and write a few scenes. It takes the stress out of it, and it makes it a lot more fun. 

theternalscribe
theternalscribe

@skehehdanfdlove It's okay.  Have you tried free writing?  Just grabbing a piece of paper or a keyboard and just spilling out whatever comes out of your head?  I have gotten some of the weirdest and most interesting stories that way.  This is an example: The Red Bucket.  It might give you an idea on how to start.  It's just pulling crap out of your subconscious.

And remember, there's no new ideas, no new stories, only new tellings.  Take that to heart.  Sometimes reading is the best inspiration.  And sometimes trying is the biggest block.  Don't worry about writer's block.  Sit down, read a book, go to a park, a coffee shop, observe.  Experience is a great inspiration.  Don't let your fears consume you.  Let them go.  You'll find the inspiration when you're ready.

Alice Leiper
Alice Leiper

@terrirochenski Absolutely, a core critique group is a really great way to get feedback because over time the other writers get to know you and your writing style in a way that strangers on the internet never will, and can give feedback based on their overall experiences of your writing, not just what you put in front of them. Can really help to bring weaknesses to light.


Thanks.

Alice Leiper
Alice Leiper

@MG_Silverstein Procrastination and fear are my own weaknesses right now, I'll admit. Writing that article certainly enabled me to procrastinate @_@

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