Thursday, December 15, 2016

Hey Writer, What Are Your Strengths?

As the year comes to an end, we thought we'd run an "oldie but goodie" here at Project Mayhem. This post first ran in 2013, but it is always a good reminder to follow one's strengths and manage one's weaknesses!

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


  1. A true statement if there ever was one. I was not good at high school Math and forcing me to focus on it more weakened other subjects I was actually great at. Yes it was important to improve but all lessons need to be managed properly and not mess up what you are already great at. Yup, that whole 'grade talk' thing is exactly what too many go through. My writing weakness is deep research which is why I'm in no rush to write historical fiction. Why torture myself? Merry Christmas guys!

  2. Very true. We should always focus on what's being done well alongside the things that need improving.

  3. Fantastic advice! I like Sheena-Kay's math example--been there, done that. I need to be better about embracing the wisdom here. Thanks!


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