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The Writerly Skills Test

[1]This week I handed eighteen writers a list of skills – from dialogue to structure to imagery to ability to take criticism and resilience. The writers scored each of their perceived abilities on a scale of 1-10. They weren’t comparing themselves to literary giants, just their own limitations. [Click here to see the list and score yourself. [2]]

Granted, it seems a bit cruel, forcing writers to be both a little cocky while having their weaknesses laid bare.

Here’s why I did it. As writers, the model for improvement is criticism on the page. But rarely is someone looking for overall weaknesses, rarer still is someone creating a plan to attack those weaknesses.

Couple this with moments of positive feedback. A note on beautiful setting or deep characterization and what happens? Well, too often, the positive swells in the writer’s mind. You like it when I write setting? I’ll double down on that. You think I’m good at deep characterization? The next story is all deep characterization.

We lean into what we’re good at and we avoid our weaknesses.

This doesn’t usually happen in other fields. If you’re a talented young soccer player – a leading scorer – but you can only strike with your right foot, you’ll find that, by the time you’re twelve, someone is drilling you on shooting with your left. If no one does, you’re not able to compete when the speed of play picks up in high school. It’s over pretty quickly.

We fear our weaknesses. I get it. But if you’re naturally fearful – most writers are – you might enjoy my take that fear is a good sign. It’s an indicator that you’re pushing the work beyond your capabilities, which is a sure way to stretch those capabilities.

But you shouldn’t be passively, vaguely fearful of your weaknesses; be aggressively, actively fearful. Know your weaknesses and attack them.

As an undergraduate, none of my stories had dialogue. I didn’t know how to write dialogue. I’d never been taught.

Problem solved: my characters wouldn’t talk.

I realized that this probably wouldn’t work, long-term. So I took a playwriting class where we wrote a one-act and a 75-page full-length play. I got over my fear and love writing dialogue.

I continued to look out for my own tells. If I’m writing lush language, it’s often a cover for the fact that I really don’t know what my characters want and fear in a scene. I go soft on my characters; I’m sweet on them. I’m weak when it comes to the passage of time, as well as spatial understanding of landscapes. I attack these issues in rewrites.

I’m always surprised when emerging writers tell me things they don’t do. “I don’t write in first person. It just doesn’t work for me.” My answer is, “Write exclusively in first person until you get to know it, intimately. What does offer? What does it deny you?”

And I’m also often stunned by the limitations that established writers place on themselves. There’s the idea of building a brand, I get it. But too often, it’s not about their audience, but who they are and what they fear.

Lean into fear.

I once thought up the most awful game ever. A group of published writers get together – writers who’ve followed each other’s careers over the years — and they tell each other their true weaknesses, what’s really holding them back, their fatal flaws. Fight Club, for writers. I never had the guts. I couldn’t decide on the guest list.

It’s also like a number of writerly cocktail parties I’ve been to – though less obvious, parties I didn’t like.

It’s ugly to look at weaknesses. But it’s crucial.

After filling out the sheet, scoring their weaknesses, the emerging writers already felt a shift.

Once they saw that they’d only given themselves a two in a certain skill-set, they had to reckon with it. Why was it a two? Why not challenge that two? Why not create a plan of attack? Naming their weaknesses was a first step.

As writers, we’re called to dig deep into the human experience, which is unwieldy, dark and lush. To really get at, we need to sharpen every writerly tool we can get our hands on.

When we hear doubt in someone’s voice, we’re often a little anxious. But what if we should actually feel comforted by doubt? Two weeks ago, my seventeen year old was in the hospital for a blood infection. At one point, things went badly. The doctors doubted their first assessment and went backwards to make sure they weren’t missing anything. I was worried about the turn he’d taken but relieved that the doctors were doubting themselves. We needed to regroup. My son is recovering well, but what I realized was that doubt actually saves lives. In a world of chaos, confidence is something to be suspicious of.

For writers, doubt’s a given. In fact, self-doubt is often the thing that keeps people from writing.

But, when we are writing, doubt is still there and, even when we’re not aware of it, doubt has one hand on the helm.

Once upon a time in the early years of most writers’ stories about how they came to be a writer, there’s someone who told them they were good at it. And as they progressed, more people weighed in, more specifically, about what kind of writing they were good at, what skills within the craft they did best.

Because writers are often natural doubters and since much of what we do is based on critique, we tend to cling to praise. And praise is crucial. It’s what keeps our heads bobbing in the stormy seas.

But what I see too often is writers who double down on what they do well. You like how I write setting? I’ll do more of it! You think I’m stronger at character than plot, well, I’ll begin to argue that plot is an artificial mandate and character is all any real writer needs. You want a pretty sentence, here’s twenty pages of pretty sentences. You get dinged on dialogue and you start writing stories without it.

Doubt is what keeps us writing what we already know we do well.

When we hear criticism, we’re often defensive. But what if that’s the moment our defenses should come down?

Thoughts? Feel free to share them, and your own post-test insights, in comments.

About Julianna Baggott [3]

Julianna Baggott [4] is the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of over twenty books. Her novels Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders and Pure were New York Times Notable Books. She writes under her own name and pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode — most notably, The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, and, for younger readers, The Anybodies and The Prince of Fenway Park. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Best American Poetry, and on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Here & Now. She’s the creator of a six-week Jumpstart program to get writers generating new material [5] and Efficient Creativity: The Six-Week Audio Series; listen to the first episode is available, for free, on SoundCloud. [6] Learn more about Julianna and her books on her website [4].

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