On Knowing Your Writing Weaknesses
I think one of the biggest challenges facing a writer is figuring out her weaknesses. After all, who wants to dwell on weaknesses, which most of us can easily equate with negatives?
But the only way to effectively battle weaknesses is to acknowledge you have them. That’s the first step, anyway.
Once you acknowledge them, then you can set about trying to address these writing weaknesses in your prose. Over time, and with practice (and depending on what the weakness is), you might overcome the weakness. For example, if you struggle with punctuation, you can buckle down, take some courses, and edit for particular punctuation marks. With other weaknesses, you might never overcome them fully, but your awareness makes them less of a critical concern.
My biggest weaknesses? My vocabulary and my descriptions. As for the vocabulary issue, I’m aware of it — and honest about it. (And try not to beat myself up too much over it.)
I constantly look up words I don’t know (many of which are words I should know). I subscribe to “A Word a Day” and I do my best to commit new words to memory, although that has proven harder with age. And some words I just can’t remember no matter what I do (ask me how long it took to remember what “feckless” means — we’re talking YEARS, and even now, I question myself whenever I come across the word…and yes, given its various definitions, including “weak” and “ineffective,” the irony is not lost on me).
All that said, I tend to be a fan of writing (in general) that’s simple and clear. So fewer $100 words. Because a story littered with impressive words can be as much of a distraction as overused words. You don’t want your readers constantly turning to the dictionary or having to rely on context to understand most of what you’re trying to convey. At least, I don’t feel this is the best strategy. The quote below from A. A. Milne sums up this sentiment (and shout out: today — January 18 — is his birthday).
As for descriptions, this will be a lifelong struggle, because it’s a matter of craft. But I don’t think of this struggle as a bad thing. It’s more like a great challenge. As a reader, I so appreciate apt descriptions and metaphors. And when I come across someone I think is particularly brilliant at it (I’m looking at you, Gillian Flynn and Lionel Shriver), I try to stop and figure out how they did it. And I try to carry over what I’ve learned (or what I think I’ve learned) into my own prose.
The risk, however, is that I could easily tip in the other direction — going overboard with descriptions. I’m aware of this, so I don’t think it happens often. If anything, I probably hold back too much (on this last go-round with my manuscript, one of my beta readers kept saying, “OK, you need more description here”).
For 2016, I made a resolution to write a description a day. I’m posting these descriptions over on Tumblr as part of this thing I created called “The Description Project.” If you’re on Tumblr, consider checking it out (and participating if you so desire).
How about you? Have you gotten friendly with your writing weaknesses?