Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Hey Writer, What Are Your Strengths?

The other day at my critique group, one of my writer friends brought in an article published in The Rumpus by poet David Biespiel. It's a long article, but worth the time. After all, it's titled "Follow Your Strengths, Manage Your Weaknesses and Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys." FULL TEXT HERE.

Broadly summarizing, David Biespel argues that in workshops and critique groups we tend to focus on trying to improve each other's weaknesses, in the process paying hardly any attention to each other's strengths (I mean, they're strengths, so they're working, right?), and end up by reinforcing our writer's negative self-talk. As an example, he tells the story of his son's report card. His son came home with 3 As, 1 B, 1 D,and an F. As Biespel puts it "Which grades do you suppose we discussed for an hour? Of course! We talked about how to bring his weak grades up to the strong grades, the A’s. We talked about his need for improvement. We talked about: you can do better if you work harder. We talked about how to make his weakest results equal to his strongest results. We did not talk about the A’s except to say, don’t let them slip." (As the father of a high school junior, I totally empathize, Mr. Biespel.)

Biespel goes on to give many examples, including the example of himself, of people who fixated on trying to improve their weaknesses to the ultimate detriment of their strengths. What we really all should be doing is working on making our strengths even stronger which will, Biespel argues, help us to manage our weaknesses. Here's Biespel again:

You’ve got strengths and you’ve got weaknesses. What I want to say to you is, follow the strengths and manage the weaknesses. Better yet, get assistance with your weaknesses, but for your strengths…make that the study of your life. 
For example, you’re not good at dialogue. Be like the shoemaker who is great at making shoes but not great at marketing or collecting bills. He hires a salesman, a marketing person. You should “hire” a dialogue guy. Better yet, befriend one! Show him your piece and say, “don’t worry about the plot or the imagery. I’m good at that already.” Just read for dialogue. Help me manage that. Help me fix that. So I can invest more of my time developing my talent for plot and description (which I love doing and enjoy more!)—and less time focused on a weakness that, in the end, risks making me feel bad about my writing, and perhaps not writing at all.

One of the exercises Biespel asks each writer to do is list his or her strengths. "I want to ask you to consider your talents as a writer, honestly, without self-deprecation or self-hatred. But with clear assessment. In a moment I want you to scribble down two of your strengths as a writer and two of your weaknesses."

My critique group is planning to do this exercise next time we meet. It will be interesting seeing if people's self-assessments agree with the assessment of the group. If you are struggling with self-confidence in your writing--and my contention is that each of us struggles with self-doubt at some stage or another--I recommend reading David Biespel's article and doing the exercise above. Manage your weaknesses, but above all follow your strengths!

David Biespel
David Biespel is a poet and the founder of the Attic Institute in Portland, Oregon.


  1. I'm still processing the article cited above, but while I do feel it makes fair points, I also feel he makes too light of self-improvement, it's not always in the vein he describes.

    Just because you focus on strengths doesn't mean CERTAIN weaknesses don't overshadow them.

    It also isn't always possible to "Hire people" to fix your weaknesses. I'm not fab at query letters, but I can't hire someone to do them for me, and I don't just mean financially, but my niche is so sharp that anyone who could."

    Until someone develops a non-profit marketing firm for authors, or we have the luxury of reliable income, there are some weaknesses we can't hand off to others.

    I also have to disagree STRONGLY to the idea that focusing on your weakness is always "DOOMED TO FAIL!"

    It depends, David, it depends.

    There are SOME weaknesses I HAD to address because it was drowning out any strengths I have. That was on ME, not just the company I kept. Though admittedly, I didn't get that "Ideal Counsel" the article suggests until my 20s, so imagine what my childhood was like, David.

    No, I'm never going to have the patience and serenity of a zen master in the most non-stereotypical sense of the term, but I had to learn enough so I didn't kill myself on nonstop impatience of a two year old, and when you're no longer two, it will eat you up inside.

    Sorry if I sound angry, but I can only speak for myself, and I feel he oversimplifies the points he made. That doesn't mean I think he's full of it. But I do feel he has too stark a view of things.

    If I didn't make an effort to better watch how I come off to people (Despite how angry or negative I can sound sometimes) I'd be blacklisted as a flaming little brat. If I had accepted my jerky attitude unchallenged by myself or others, I'd not get far. And I hope as mad as I feel I sound, that overall others get I'm saying all this from a sane, if not always "Serene" place.

    If I didn't care, it wouldn't effect me so strongly, even if it's not 100% positive. It still comes from a place of empathy. Doesn't it?

  2. Taurean, thanks for reading the whole article (wow!!), and for your thoughtful response. Several of those in my critique group had a similar response to yours, in that they believed we are not "doomed to fail" in tackling our weaknesses. I believe the point he was making is that we will fail to CHANGE or weaknesses, although of course we can manage them to the point where our focus on them does not overshadow our focus on our strengths. (I know, I know: semantics). Also, "hire" is probably not the best term he could have used--but you can certainly ask the dialogue whiz in your critique group to give you extra pointers in your dialogue.

    As always, I am grateful for your cogent response to our articles on Project Mayhem, and I salute you for always doing the hard work of being a thoughtful and honest writer (and human being.)

    1. ... that should be "to change OUR weaknesses..." Too early in the morning!

    2. Same here, regarding the morning, though I'm personally a morning person.

      I forgot to complete this thought-

      "It also isn't always possible to "Hire people" to fix your weaknesses. I'm not fab at query letters, but I can't hire someone to do them for me, and I don't just mean financially, but my niche is so sharp that anyone who could."Is already dead..."

      i know there is danger for dwelling too much on your weakness, but you also have to admit that we don't model alternatives enough either, whether for kids or adults, especially the more corporate-oriented careers. At least in my experience.

  3. When I critique a manuscript, I always point out everything I loved. Especially anything that makes me laugh, or cry, or pump my fist in excitement, even if it's just a great turn of phrase, and not a specific plot point of action by a character.

    Does it help improve a manuscript as much as pointing out shortfalls? Maybe not, but it's still important.

    1. I'm the same way regarding critiques, Matthew.

      I don't think you have to break people's spirits to tell them what might help make something better. As much as we need to know what's making the reading experience boring and frustrating (For example, a lot of my critiques for my own work is the battle of too detailed or not detailed enough) I also think it's important to know what we're doing right. We could accidentally get rid of something that the story needs just to address a potential problem. I once axed a scene I needed, the problem was it read too long, but in cutting it out, I also took out a part that needed to be there. It just had to be shorter. Eventually I fixed it so the scene read tighter, but had the details the reader needed to avoid the "Huh?" factor.

      I'm more afraid of readers being confused most of all, so I have to work at holding back and trusting the readers more. It's because often what I'm most insticual about, is often the parts beta-readers find the most problematic.

      That said, it's not like I want to hand-hold the reader like some paranoid freak either! Because I write animal fantasy, I have to face this a lot, and often I feel adults have more issue with something than the potential young readers will, which is why I have hard time knowing at times if the comments I get are a legit plausibility issue or just a perceived one.

      Sometimes I think the current push for nonfiction, common core not withstanding is

      Either that, or I had some rotten luck with my early feedback for my debut novel Gabriel of it being read by adults who NEVER watched cartoons or read anything not based in scientific fact.

      Well, we can only do what we can, right? I'm just glad I found beta-readers who did get (And RESPECT) what I write. I'm not in a regular critique group now, but I'd like to soon. I had a great one, but had to leave when I could no longer keep up with the rigorous schedule we had.

  4. You're da bomb, Matt. (I make sure my critiques have their fair share of smiley faces.)

    1. Eh, I'm nothin' special. I just call it like I see it.

  5. This is really interesting and echoes a few interviews I've heard recently that also talk of focusing on strengths. I'll admit to swinging between wanting to avoid my weaknesses all together (though I guess I couldn't really write a coherent book this way) to forcing myself to study ways to make them stronger. This is an interesting approach in that allowing for your strengths to shine and asking for direction on specific weaknesses your focus (and writing) can benefit. It's a kind of "backseat" approach that trumps my all or nothing mindset.

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  7. I agree with that idea in concept but not in the specific application of being a novelist. In the larger picture, if I'm a good writer but poor at math, yes, I should focus on writing and not at trying to make my math skills the equal of my writing skills. Or vice verse. However, if you are going to be a novelist, you need to be well versed in all aspects of writing just like you would need to be good in all areas of math if you were going to be a mathematician. You can't just say, "Well, I'm great at everything except division, so I'll get someone else to come do all of my dividing." It doesn't work that way. If you can't write dialogue, you need to work on it, do some kind of writing that doesn't require it all (not be a novelist), or give up on writing. If you are saying, in truth, "I can not write dialogue," you are saying, "I can not be a writer/novelist." You learn how to do it (like learning division) or you decide writing isn't your calling.
    Or you invent the novel that has no dialogue... Hmm... I wonder if that's been done?

  8. Michael, what a wonderful post. There is a lot of really great food for thought here. As a teacher, a parent, and a writer. I so appreciate you passing this along.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!