What You Think You're Good At
I recently led a writer's workshop for a local conference. There were six talented, aspiring
writers in my group and I was impressed in different ways by each manuscript. But what
interested me at this workshop was a conversation I had with a particular writer. I talked to her
about what seemed like an excessive focus on beautiful language and how I felt it was getting in
the way of the story itself. What she said was that she had always been given a lot of positive
feedback for her beautiful language, so she didn't want to lose that. I have been thinking a lot
about this ever since.
When I was a kid, I got a lot of positive feedback for the poetry I wrote. Here is a sample of one
of my poems, written at age 8:
My dear little mother,
Was much like the others.
Though she was like them,
She didn't have lots of men,
No, she only had one,
Cause that one she won.
He is my dear father,
Named Evan of daughters.
At the beginning of the closing,
I want to say they had little clothing.
Now tis the end,
Of this little men.
Maybe I was better at writing poetry than all of the other eight year olds in my class. I don't
know. But this poem is what I use as an adult to prove to people that bad writing as a child
doesn't mean anything, and that you can grow up to become a professional writer whether or not
you showed "talent" in writing at a young age.
Sometimes we as writers get feedback from those we love and trust about one area of writing
that we succeed at. It may be description. Or great villains. Or incredible world-building. Or a
great magic system. Or great scientific realism. Or a great main character. Or a perfect climax.
Or anything. You get the idea.
Writers get little enough feedback that I suspect we are more likely to listen to and repeat it to
ourselves than other people. And that can be a problem. If we hyper-focus on one area of writing
to an extreme, it can cause us to believe that this one area of writing matters more than any other
When I was an aspiring author, I remember getting feedback on a particular manuscript about the
beautiful language in it and when I revised that manuscript, I focused on the beautiful language,
trying to make it even more perfect. The result was a manuscript that had almost no discernible
plot and had language that was so overwrought I later purged it from my computer files in
Now I wish I hadn't done that, because I would love to be able to quote it now to show people
what I mean when I talk about my tendency to over-write. It is so much easier to make fun of
myself than to make fun of other people. I do remember one particular line from this manuscript,
which was called "The Shepherdess' Daughter." The line went something like this: "She was a
shepherdess without a single sheep." I was so in love with the alliteration in that line, and I liked
so much the metaphysical idea of shepherding without actual sheep that I could not see the
ridiculousness of it, nor the fact that I was taking myself too seriously.
I eventually gave up the manuscript and moved on to writing novels in which things actually
happened and people weren't metaphors for anything, but simply real humans with flaws and
virtues who regretted doing some things and had ambitions to do others. But the lesson remained
with me, such that it bothers me to this day when reviewers or literary critics remark on my
beautiful language. Even my publisher will occasionally market my books as having "lush
language," and I twinge a little because I don't aim for lush language. I aim for what I think of as
a transparent style, that is, a style in which the reader does not notice that there is a narrator, but
experiences the story with as little intervention as possible. If there is beauty in my words, it is
only because the story itself is at a beautiful point. But I do not want my language to get in the
way of my story. I don't want readers to think that I am trying too hard to be beautiful.
But a hyper-focus on beautiful language is really only one example of an imbalanced writing
style. I think all writers have to work to balance their writing in one degree or another, no matter
what they originally excel at in terms of craft. Some writers I have known spend years and years
doing meticulous research for a historical novel or a historical fantasy. And then struggle when
the time comes to actually write the novel because they have learned so much information that
they don't know how to figure out what parts will be the most salient to the plot or most
interesting to the reader. By the same token, I have seen writers who outline to the point that
their plots are great but their characters seem like cardboard cutouts, designed only to fill the role
of the plot. And I have seen writers who spend months writing character sketches and back-stories for characters that will never see a page of print because it doesn't have to do with the
story at hand.
Sadly, we can all end up discovering that our supposed talents are actually a stumbling block in
the production of a story. If you have a particular talent that you think is sure to get you
published, reconsider. Perhaps it is actually getting in the way of the story you are trying to tell.
Or perhaps you are simply putting so much emphasis on it that you are not allowing yourself to
learn other skills that are necessary to write a complete novel.
If you have rejection letters that praise one writing skill over and over again, but you aren't
selling anything or aren't getting the agent you want, consider taking the advice that I gave to
this writer at my recent workshop (and to myself, years ago). I told her that she needed to go
home and rewrite the novel without any of her beautiful language at all and see if it was still
worth writing. Were her characters interesting without the beautiful language? Was her plot still
interesting? Was every scene still worth writing?
I will make a triathlon analogy, as I did at the writing workshop. It is often the case in triathlon
that an athlete will come to the sport with expertise in one of the three disciplines: swimming,
biking, or running. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is great to be able to rely on
something that comes easily and "naturally" (or at least naturally now). On the other hand, there
are many triathletes who begin as runners and continue to spend a disproportionate amount of
time running rather than spending more time swimming and biking. This makes sense when you
consider the positive feedback loop that comes with running. Since you feel good running, you
have great technique, and you know you are good at it, why not keep running twice as much as
After all, swimming is so technique-heavy, and in many ways requires you to think while
working out. Swimming motions are sometimes the opposite of running motions. And as for
biking, it is so reliant on the right equipment, and uses different muscles. A sleek, running body
isn't always the best body for biking. You need to develop larger thigh and quad muscles for
biking than for running -- and surprise, surprise! -- your running may actually have to slow
down in order for you to become a better cyclist. This is also true of swimming, which will build
shoulder and arm muscles that aren't necessary for running and again, can slow you down.
But if you continue to train like a runner for a triathlon, you are never going to get any better at
swimming and biking -- or you will only get better very, very slowly. In fact, what you probably
need to do to become a better triathlete (an all-round athlete rather than a specialist) is to put
much less time and energy into your running, which you are already good at, and divert twice as
much time into learning to swim and bike. You may lose some of your running speed and feel
while you are doing this. It may drive you crazy as you feel this happen. But if you don't do it,
you will forever be hampered in your swim and your bike.
A novelist is an all-around athlete rather than a specialist like a poet. If you want to become
better at things you aren't good at now, you may well have to stop doing the same things you
have done for years that you are good at. You may get worse at them. You may have to spend
twice as much time and energy getting good at other things. And yet you have to do this in order
to balance your writing. You want to be good at character and plot. You want to be good at
description and gripping scene writing. You want to write great beginnings and great endings.
And that means spending equal time on all the areas. Don't let yourself become so good at one
thing that you forget the others, because it will probably end up taking over your writing and
giving you a writing "injury," where one muscle has become so imbalanced in size that you trip
over yourself trying to get where you are going.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison