In fiction, weaknesses are things to exploit. A main character might look for a villain’s weakness so he can defeat him, and vice versa. The very idea is synonymous with vulnerability, something that can be used against someone. There are times, though, that what one character thinks of as a weakness, another character thinks of as a strength, and it can be a wonderful clashing of ideals that shapes the climax of a story.
Out here in the real world, things are often more complex than fiction, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be the heroes of our own story.
Writers, I’ve found, are an odd mix of bravado and narcissistic confidence side-by-side with plagues of doubt and insecurity. Outside opinions often shape a writer’s self-perception of their abilities. If a writer is told that they’re great at dialogue, or description, they often repeat it back to themselves and to others as though it was gospel. On the flip side, when they receive criticism rather than praise, the same aftereffect occurs and they can find themselves clinging to the negative perception of their writing.
In the path to becoming a successful writer, it’s important to be able to form opinions about your own work critically, with input from others but without blindly listening what they have to say. Keep in mind that, in a first draft, it’s perfectly acceptable to do things right by accident, and it’s also more than okay to miss the mark. It’s later drafts where getting things right needs to be more deliberate, and missing the mark should happen less or not at all.
For stories in any genre, there are five key elements to a presenting a story that readers will stick with until the end and leave them wanting more. Doing a single one of these poorly can ruin a story. Doing one exceptionally well can transform a reader into a fan.
- Are they memorable?
- Can readers identify with them? Do they seem real?
- Does it move the scene forward?
- Can you tell your characters apart?
- Goldilocks Rule: Not too much, not too little.
- Is it vivid? Can a reader ‘see’ the important things?
- A balance between action scenes and growth/development scenes.
- At a scene level, do things move too quickly? Too slow?
- Do you have a story map that includes what your reader knows? What they don’t know?
- Will readers be satisfied when they reach the end? Or confused?
The goal shouldn’t be to do all of them exceptionally, since that often boils down to opinion. Your goal as a writer should to do all of them deliberately. For instance, Tolkien’s descriptions are long, deeply complex, and staggeringly detailed. He did this on purpose, to immerse a reader into his world. Some readers find it boring while others think it’s brilliant. But it’s what he, as a writer, wanted to write. (See, weakness can simultaneously be strengths, just like in fiction.) In the same story, though, he also has brilliant characters, intelligent dialogue, pacing that has intense action scenes as well as those long descriptions, and intriguing revelations as we find out more about what’s at stake and what will happen if the heroes fail.
In order to form your own opinion of your writing, you’ll have to finish a story, let it sit, and then come back to it like you were reading it for the first time. (I covered some ideas of how to do this in the Self Editing Strategies post.) It’s also important to have other people read your work, but be cautious on accepting the face value of praise or criticism. Ask for feedback that centers on the five elements discussed in this post.
Sometimes things aren’t straightforward, either. Are the descriptions really too long, or did you just read them on a day where your attention was easily distracted? Were your characters really laugh-out-loud witty, or did that exchange seem out of character, or the humor misplaced? Did you forget to mention the blue necklace the love interest was wearing before it was found by the main character while he was looking for their kidnapper, or was it actually green?
If you’re having trouble identifying your writing weaknesses in a single story, try writing something new. Then, compare feedback between the two. You might be surprised about what stays the same and what is different, but either way you’ll have a clearer picture of what you do well and what writing muscles you need to exercise.
Have you ever received feedback that genuinely surprised you? Does criticism stick with you more than praise? Do you find it easier to point out room for improvement in others than in your own work? The comments are always open.