Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 26, 2022

A Strengths-Based Approach To Writing

by Jenny Hansen

Does anyone else here do that thing where they worry about their weaknesses too much? I've noticed a worrisome trend in the writing world, and sometimes in my own psyche. It's a disturbing phenomenon that occurs in creative types (especially writers). These creatives seem to think they have to be good at everything. Or that, because they have weak areas, they're not good enough at their jobs.

I have a question for you perfectionist writers out there:

Why is it acceptable for multiple attempts when learning to ride a bike, or dance the tango, or knit but it’s an “epic fail” to write a few books before you get good at it?

Lots of first novels remain unpublished for a reason. They were practice for the other books. 

I don’t get why it’s expected to take years to learn a musical instrument but it’s not acceptable to sit down at the writing page and have less-than-perfect prose fall from your fingertips. I don't get why that so often makes words like hack, imposter, what-the-hell-am-I-doing come to mind.

(If you're still in doubt about this, read Laura's Dust Bunny Books post, or watch my favorite pep talk video below.)

Let's Get To Those Strengths

Let me tell you a story about the best job I ever had. Before motherhood, I was a corporate software trainer for almost 20 years. The #1 requirement was the ability to be ON each day in the classroom.

It didn't matter whether I was up all night with a screaming baby or if my best friend and I had a fight. Nobody cares about those things when they come in for a day of training. Those students are focused on what they need to learn and it was my job to deliver.

There are personality types who would hate that type of work. They’d get tired by all that “on” business. I saw it a little differently. Every day that I walked into a classroom, I knew:

  • All my problems would get checked at the door.
  • I was going to provide a service.
  • I'd meet new people.
  • I’d have a fun day.
  • I’d experience the utter joy of watching people learn, and light up over what they learned.

Do you see a trend with perks I listed above? It was me, me, I, I. Training was a vacation from my own busy head and a chance to focus on other people. It worked for me because it played on some of my innate strengths.

How do I know my strengths?

I went to a training conference several years ago that changed the way I see the world, especially the creative world. The keynote presentation -- “Building a Strengths-Based Organization” -- shined a bright light on another disturbing trend:

Society, starting with our schools and continuing through our workplace management teams, puts a mighty amount of focus on "improving our weaknesses." They use words like shore them up, compensate for them, overcome them.

After hearing some speakers at that conference, I started thinking crazy thoughts....

What might happen if those organizations put the same amount of energy in developing peoples’ strengths?

What kind of mountains could we move as writers if we applied our efforts toward being stellar at the things we’re good at, rather than focusing all our energy on our “faults?”

I’m not talking about turning into a bunch of narcissists who can do no wrong. I’m talking about making it a primary goal to discover your innate strengths and spend more time playing to them.

A Quick DIY Strengths Test

We did an exercise in the conference pre-session where we listed the things we were good at – we had 60 seconds to scribble them down. The first ones that came to mind - no deliberating. We were directed to find the skills we’d always been good at, for as long as we could remember.

Go ahead. Grab a piece of paper, set a timer for 60 seconds, and scribble yours down. We'll wait.

Don't think. Just start scribbling a list of the things that are easiest for you, whether they have anything to do with writing or not. You can do a writing-specific one later if you want.

Now stare at that list and be honest with yourself about how much focus you put on those talents.

It's interesting to me that most people don’t see their innate skills as anything nifty or unusual. In other words, they don’t see their own "specialness."

Just to give you an example, my innate strengths, in no particular order, were:

  • Writing
  • Teaching
  • Motivating others
  • Making friends
  • Doing hair
  • Learning software and languages

I felt extremely lucky when I looked at my list. Life pushed me early into a job I am uniquely suited for. Except for the “doing hair” part, my innate strengths describe the perfect software trainer. No wonder training always felt so easy…it draws on nearly all of my innate strengths!

Back to the conference...

The abilities people came up with in that session were amazing. There was tons of talent in that room. And you know what made me sad? The majority of it was not being used in the workplace, where everyone spent at least 50% of their waking hours. So many of those really cool and rewarding abilities were being relegated to the "someday I'll devote time to this hobby" side of the fence.

My Personal Epiphany

I did that hobby thing with my writing for years. Put it on the back burner...didn't make it a priority...downplayed my talent because words came easily to me. And I did that dumb thing I talked about up at the top of the post...I spent the majority of my time working on my weaknesses, both at work and on the page.

And then I went to that conference and those speakers turned my thoughts around enough for my personal epiphany to sneak in:

It doesn’t mean you’re a slacker just because you like to do the things that come naturally to you. 

In fact, I’m going to take this further and issue you a challenge: Pay attention to the things that are easy for you and try to do them more often. I personally think the easiest way to bring your “A” Game to your writing life is to play to your strengths.

The Need for Perfection

I'm going to use a baseball analogy for this next bit.

A quick primer for the the non-baseball peeps: US baseball has two different leagues - National League and American League. The two have slightly different rules, which we'll discuss below.

In American League Baseball, the rules allow for some weak spots. For example, pitchers are not expected to also be great hitters and they get a pinch hitter. Other players who can't hit the ball for whatever reason are also allowed to use a pinch hitter. They then have to leave for the rest of that game, but for a player who is tiring, this isn't a bad deal. Ditto for a slow poke or hurting player who uses a pinch runner.

Why can’t we do a little of that in our own writing groups? It's a smart strategy to mix up the talent so we have help when we get tired or slow. I've shared some examples of my friends who rock various talents below:

  • Pinch World Builder (Fae Rowen)
  • Pinch Steamy Scene Pro (Monica Corwin)
  • Pinch Description Writer (Laura Drake)
  • Pinch Grammar and Structure Queen (Julie Glover) - she is also a sassy dialogue pro
  • Pinch Theme Builder (that would be me)

When you get a crew like that together, it doesn't matter so much if you have weak points. As I mentioned above, a strategic writer might build their critique groups or editing groups around a mix of strengths like the ones above. Most writers trade time or pages with each other. Other writers pay an editor. (I'll be interested to hear what our WITS readers do.)

Know Your Weaknesses

Just because you know your own weaknesses doesn't mean you have to dwell on them, even though a lot of us do. Mine drove me bonkers for years, until I went to that conference and got some perspective on my ridiculous need to be good at everything.

Laura Drake finally got through to me with her profound observation on writers: "No one gets it all."

My list of writing "weaknesses"

Here's my list, just to make you smile.

  • Writing scene transitions. I've had it take me an entire page to get my characters from an elevator to the front door of a building. (Yeah, it's embarrassing.)
  • I want to cover my eyes when my characters’ clothes come off.
  • I can’t figure out how to build a space world.
  • Fight scenes give me fits.
  • The thought of writing a full-length novel makes me sweat. (See my solution in this post.)

Do these weak spots make me a crappy writer? No. It just means that my strengths lie elsewhere. Sometimes I have to go to my A-Team to get my “A” Game. And that’s OK.

I want to know when the Writing Police decided that we have to be great at every single aspect of our writing.

The older I get, the more that notion seems full of the hooey to me.

Do we need to keep learning and pushing ourselves to be better? Sure. But perhaps some of us perfection seekers can get an early start on next year's New Year's resolutions and stop beating ourselves up over not being stellar at every-darn-thing. Who's with me??

What are your innate strengths? I’m not talking about the things you’ve learned to be good at. What were you always good at? Share your uniqueness in the comments section below – we want to hear about it!

* * * * * *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides LinkedIn coaching and copywriting for accountants and financial services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

Top Photo by Ryan Wong on Unsplash

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25 comments on “A Strengths-Based Approach To Writing”

  1. First of all, great post! What you say about how organizations need to play to strengths is so, so true, esp regarding schools. If you have ANY experience with the special ed system, you will see firsthand the damage that the "compensating" model does to kids. My 28 yo son is still struggling to this day with feeling competent about anything. It's very sad. In school, I escaped that system because I was uncannily good at...you guessed it...English, language arts, etc. Band, too. But my guidance counselor had no idea what to do with me, LOL. I had crappy grades (except in those subjects)and no real affinities aside from writing. Journalism was not encouraged for a variety of reasons. I told him I liked the idea of working with animals, so he put me in an agriculture class in which I got an F because I wouldn't go the butchering/processing plant. Anyway. Believe it or not I did end up with a college degree in psych, because I am a perceptive and intuitive person. And I love kids, and they respond to me. So that led to early childhood ed jobs. Circle around to the present, where I just self- published a short story collection whose themes are filled to the brim with all I learned over time: the importance of friendship, dealing with loss, the brutalities of the education world, etc. Basically, the very things that dogged me early on (daydreaming, obsessing about life and world philosophies, zoning out in math and science, reading novels in exchange for doing homework) have ended up helping me to be a better writer in the end. If we could just switch viewing traits from neg to pos (stubborn vs. persistent, oversensitive vs. empathetic) our society would be so much better off

    1. I'm so happy you had the strength of spirit to find your way through all that. I do not like this about the school system. I get that they don't have the bandwidth to accommodate all the variations of kids and tweens and teens but they shouldn't be penalizing so heavily either for the kids who don't fit the mold.

  2. This post is VERY liberating and I agree that corporate/office environments always focus on an employee's weaknesses and what to do about them, glossing over what the individual is good at doing. I would like very much to take your advice and lean into my strengths, natural abilities, etc. but DARN IT I cannot identify them.

    1. You can identify them, Lisa. Clear you mind and imagine yourself as a young person. What did you love to do? What ability of yours did your friends covet? What did you want to spend time doing instead of your homework? Sometimes it goes back that early. For example, I've always wanted to touch people's hair, trim it, style it. From my earliest memories.

  3. Jenny, there is so much good stuff to unpack here! One of my greatest strengths, which I was blessed to use for most of my career, is creating experiential learning experiences (sorry for the redundancy--one of my weaknesses at this point in my life is word retrieval!). Although I'm very proud of my memoir, which will be published next May, writing is not an innate strength. I have to work incredibly hard at it, so much so that it's often not enjoyable. I'd love to find a way to use my experiential teaching strength going forward after my memoir is published. You've given me great food for thought!

    1. I hear you Tiffany. I hear you. I used to have a complex because "training didn't feel like work." How dumb is that? Worrying about it instead of just being grateful. Sheesh.

  4. My high school did an exceptional job of — derailing my life for the next thirty years. Well, sort of. Over those wandering years I accumulated the experiences that make me a better writer. At the time, though, my guidance counselor applied the "I can't be bothered" school of thought to my future (I don't have a single good memory of that man … he was jerk). Based on my ACT scores, he concluded I should be an accountant. I still have those scores. He was clearly wrong even though I was a mass of contradictions. Given no one else cared, I was cast off after high school, excellent grades and all, with the baggage that was bad advice.

    As I mentioned, I was both a mass of contradictions and always searching for the experience that would point me in the right direction. There were all my life experiences, but then there was returning to school in my 30s for my bachelors and some wonderfully helpful teachers. Later, I discovered I was an INFJ personality type and it all fell into place. By then, I was in my 50s.

    Now I know that my contradictions make sense, they also feed my writing. I'm a creative organizer, which is perfect for worldbuilding and writing fantasy. I excel at themes and dialogue (if people heard me reading aloud they'd believe ten people live here). My superpower is spotting plot holes. I'm also prolific. No running into writer's block for me. I have a score of weaknesses, all of which were repeatedly pointed out to me during my childhood, but I've learned to cease obsessing over them. I have yet to find those who compensate and, in truth, I've given up on that after trusting the wrong people. I'm also determined, which is why I kept going when I was cast into the negativity forest. I knew I had worth and if I kept going I'd find it — and I was right.

    1. "Derailing my life for 30 years" boy... can I relate, LOL. At least we can say we did manage to navigate. Eventually! Hidden gifts in all that struggle, for sure.

      1. Absolutely. Those thirty years are like the before and after that movies often skip over. Rather than a fall, they were more like a slippery slope where, upon finding more solid footing, we realize just how much time has passed. Then we conclude we should just burn those years and forget about them. The thing is, for a writer, they turn out to be a gold mine. Before that period I had difficulty coming up with good stories to write. I finished almost nothing. Since, I've been prolific beyond my wildest dreams and found my genre, fantasy world, and heroines that've become dear to me.

    2. I've been thinking about your comment for days, Christina. I know what doesn't kill us makes us stronger and all that, but it still sucks. I'm sorry you went through that, and so happy that it built your strong spirit (and your writing!) so you can thrive now.

      I'm so proud of you!

  5. Great post, Jenny! My strengths list is not as long as I'd like, but what's there is darn good--creative writing (wild imagination), organization, deeply curious about EVERYTHING, some other stuff. As for writing, I'm good at prose, character development and world building but suck at plotting!

    Like you, I have a diversely talented and supportive crit group. Jann Audiss (w/a Jann Ryan) is great at plotting and can spot what's not working in a heartbeat. I had beta readers early on (thank you Fae Rowen). In the end, before I sent out any queries for my first fantasy romance The Witch Whisperer, I ran it by a final professional developmental editor and tweaked a few areas she suggested, like adding even more magic and character motivation. I then contracted this book with The Wild Rose Press, release date TBD.

    Don't think you have to do it alone, and wallow in your weaknesses. It can take a village.

    1. I think your strengths is list longer than you think. Your enthusiasm and your steady work ethic has done so very much for you in these last several years, and it has helped you nurture and build a great writing community. 🙂

    1. EDITS MADE! Thanks for the rules refresher - it's been a while since I looked and I'm a National League girl (Go Cardinals and Dodgers!!). One thing I do like about the American League is that they allow for those weaknesses. It's so lovely and forgiving. 🙂

      And Show Don't Tell is definitely a hard one. Deep POV is tough for me too. But I am absolutely with you on dialogue. It is my most favorite thing.

      *fist bump*

  6. Thanks for this post, Jenny. It comes at a time when I'm struggling with imposter syndrome. I needed to hear this! I think my innate strength is to be a supportive friend.

  7. What a great post, Jenny! I had high school teachers who had a lot more faith in me than I did in myself, but I still didn't manage to "find" myself for over thirty years. My strengths in writing would be character development and plotting, but like you, I have trouble with those open-door love scenes! I wish I could find someone to write them for me, lol. I really needed to read this today, so thank you.

    1. I'm always happy when I hit the spot for someone who needed to hear a particular message. And you CAN have someone write your love scene for you. Monica Corwin gets hired for that more than you'd think!

      It sounds like you're exactly where you need to be, so you "found" yourself after all. 🙂

  8. So much fun! For me, I think coming up with creative story ideas may be a strength. Seeing connections between things that are not connected is another. LOL Obviously, I love playing with geeky things.

    My weakness is remembering details! This weakens my world building if I'm not paying attention.

  9. I love how you wrote this essential and informative article in a light-hearted, earnest style. I'm sharing this with my children, who are forty-five and fifty years old. We're never too old to understand the critical concept of jumping in and failing.

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