Writers do something rather unusual on a frequent basis: they ask to learn more about their weaknesses.
Whether submitting a story to a writer’s group, editor, or contest, writers frequently volunteer to be told what they’re doing wrong. Then they go back and try to improve upon those flaws, with the goal of creating a stronger, more effective story, and eventually, a stronger, more effective writer.
Does the process work? Most would agree it does. Why else would writers continue to follow this path? Personally, I’ve learned a lot from writing critiques, and I’m grateful for the feedback I’ve received.
But—and this is a big but—I’ve learned over the 20 years I’ve been a professional writer that in the midst of all these critiques and edits and focusing on flaws, there’s something important that’s missing.
Without it, many writers never get the chance to succeed as well as they could. In fact, some writers are deeply scarred by going through the “find your flaws” journey when this one thing is left out.
What is it?
A focus on one’s strengths. And not just as a side thought—as a primary focus.
Strengths Should Matter to Writers
I’ve asked a number of writers to name their top three weaknesses. The answers come quickly: “My dialogue isn’t realistic. I have trouble with plot. My pacing is too slow.”
But when I ask them to then name their top three strengths, I get a totally different response: blank looks, frowns, and maybe a hesitant answer or two.
The situation is badly unbalanced, to the point of being dangerous. If you don’t know your strengths—in fact, if you aren’t very familiar with them—your chances of becoming the best writer you can be are minimal.
Bestselling author Paul. B. Brown said, “You are far better off capitalizing on what you do best, instead of trying to offset your weakness. Making a weakness less of a weakness is simply not as good at being the best you possibly can be at something.”
Writers Focus on the Negative
As human beings, we’re wired to focus on the negative. Think about it. Whenever you get a writing critique, it’s likely to contain good comments as well as constructive criticisms. But which do you remember more?
Odds are, it’s the critical comments. Even from an early age, we’re wired to pay more attention to bad news. Scientists have found that infants respond most powerfully to a mother’s negative or fearful facial or vocal cues, compared to her positive or neutral ones.
We’re not born this way. Infants younger than six months, for example, were found to focus longer on pictures of happy faces than fearful, angry, or neutral ones, and to respond more to happy voices than angry or sad ones.
But somewhere between the ages of seven and 12 months, that behavior changed—infants were more likely to look longer at fearful than happy faces, and to respond more to angry and fearful voices.
This negative bias continues as we age. In a 2013 study, Vaish and colleagues noted that adults, when faced with both positive and negative information, to focus “far more” on the negative, using it to guide learning and decision-making. (Source)
As you focus more on critical comments than praise, your energy goes toward fixing the problems in your writing, but meanwhile you miss out on the chance to use the positive comments to get a better idea of what you’re doing right.
This can be dangerous to your writing career. Psychologist Paula Durlofsky, Ph.D., writes, “Focusing on weaknesses while ignoring strengths creates feelings of discouragement, failure, low self-esteem, and can even contribute to depression.”
Writers Must Focus More on Their Strengths Than Their Weaknesses
Who are you as a writer? That’s a deceptively simple question and the answer may take you years to truly discover. That’s okay, as long as you start focusing on your strengths right now.
This doesn’t mean ignoring your weaknesses. In fact, you may find that focusing more on your strengths actually helps you improve on your weaknesses. Writing coach Amy Benson Brown stated as much when she wrote, “I’ve found in coaching writers that…getting clarity on your strengths ultimately helps you improve weaker areas of your writing.”
Focusing on your strengths is a strategy for discovering the unique niche that separates you as an artist. When you focus on your strengths, the following also tends to happen:
- You more easily build confidence.
- You feel more energized and motivated.
- You have more positive emotions surrounding what you’re doing.
- You’re more likely to feel inspired to get back to work.
- You’ll feel less stress and anxiety, and happier in general.
- You’ll experience faster growth as a writer.
- You’ll be more likely to find what’s unique about you and use it to increase your visibility.
- You’ll be more satisfied with your writing career.
How to Zero In on What Makes You Special
Begin by going back through your records and gathering up the positive comments you’ve received over the years. Copy/paste them into one file, and see if you notice patterns. What do people like about your writing? What do they comment on the most?
Next, see if you can write down your top three strengths as a writer. What do you feel sets you apart?
Finally, make it a habit to start focusing more on your strengths than your weaknesses. Remember—all writers have a negative bias. That means if you focus more on your strengths than your weaknesses, you have a better chance of attaining a balanced viewpoint.
Why not get started today? List your top three writing strengths right now. If you struggle to do that, ask your writing friends for help, and then start keeping an eye out for other signs signaling what you do well. When you start looking for them, you’ll be sure to find them!
Colleen M. Story is a novelist, freelance writer, writing coach, and speaker with over 20 years in the creative writing industry. Her latest novel, The Beached Ones, released from CamCat Books on July 26, 2022. Her previous novel, Loreena’s Gift, was a Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner, among others.
Colleen has written three books to help writers succeed. Your Writing Matters is the most recent, and was a bronze medal winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards (2022). Writer Get Noticed! was a gold-medal winner in the Reader’s Favorite Book Awards and a first-place winner in the Reader Views Literary Awards (2019). Overwhelmed Writer Rescue was named Book by Book Publicity’s Best Writing/Publishing Book in 2018.
Colleen frequently serves as a workshop leader and motivational speaker, where she helps attendees remove mental and emotional blocks and tap into their unique creative powers.