What are your writing strengths and weaknesses?

No matter what the field, what the profession, what the skill set, everyone who strives to accomplish specific goals brings to the effort a variety of strengths and weaknesses. This is no less true in the field of professional writing than anything else.

But while it may be lamentable that you are not great at everything you try, this simple truth need not be a source of unhappiness nor a one-way ticket to failure.

One of the most important distinctions between a highly professional writer and a lesser one is that the former recognizes her strengths and weaknesses, while the latter is to some extent blind to them.

Here’s how you open your eyes to your strengths and weaknesses, and begin to incorporate them into your work:

1. Assess

First, the professional writer continually assesses his or her talents, skills, and capabilities. Each new effort, each new finished piece, stands as a milestone from which the professional writer can look back at his or her body of work and try to understand the patterns it contains.

For example, perhaps you can write a snappy poem, but your efforts to pen a political essay often fall short. Maybe you can craft a compelling short story about a young person coming of age, but that novel you’d love to write about an aging couple with regrets over past relationships eludes you. It’s possible you can describe an article of clothing in terms so soaring that you drive sales higher than the designer’s expectations. But that’s no guarantee you can write a meaningful review of the newest video game.

Strengths and weaknesses don’t manifest themselves simply in terms of whether a certain project is easy or hard for you to complete at a high level of proficiency. There are other factors, such as your willingness to work at honing a difficult passage, your satisfaction with your results, and – of course – how other people react to your output.

Most of us want to rely on our own judgments about our capabilities in various styles, genres, topic areas, purposes, audiences, and formats. Fine. Go ahead and make those personal assessments. But it’s helpful if you check your judgments against those of others, at least once in a while, to make sure you’re not just spinning fantasies about your abilities that won’t hold up in the world of impersonal market-based judgments.

2. Map

Consider both your strengths and weaknesses in terms of the kinds of material to which they relate. If you’re great at explaining actions in step-by-step fashion, that’ll be useful in writing “how to” articles and revealing what’s behind the scenes of complex current events. But it won’t be much help in writing dialog in a bodice-ripper.

On the other hand, if characters you imagine instantly come to life in your head and heart, then you’ll find it easier to tell intense personal stories that keep various audiences turning your pages. But you might not find it as easy to cover a news event or write a compelling press release.

By the same token, if you tend to lose track of where you’re going while writing procedural dramas, there’s little point in beating your head against the wall by trying to draft a spec script for “Law and Order.” Yet that deficiency says nothing about your ability to accomplish other writing objectives.

Take time to evaluate the talents, skills, and capabilities that normally go into creating any category of writing that interests you. Then carefully compare what you actually can do best against what you probably need to be able to do if you expect to excel in a specific kind of writing.

3. Execute

All this effort should result in a list of styles, genres, topic areas, purposes, audiences, and formats that feel very comfortable and interesting to you. These are the categories in which you will do best to concentrate not only your writing time, but your efforts to learn your craft.

Make it your top priority to work on the ones that best match the strengths and weaknesses you bring to the table. Those where you measure up less accurately you can relegate to a back burner or earmark for more concentration later, when you have more time or after you have grown as a writer.

If you’re like most of the writers I’ve known and mentored, you’ll find that the closer you stay to your wheelhouse, the easier and better your professional work will become.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.

Some Issues with Contracts

The better a professional writer you become, the bigger and more important will be the contracts people ask you to sign.

But tempting as those financial figures may be (with all those zeroes to the left of the decimal point), you’ll be foolish to sign without applying a little professional savvy to your contract evaluation process.

Here are some fundamental tips to guide you in contract evaluation:

1. “Sign This”

My most important contract advice derives from my very first book deal: I remember sitting in the publisher’s office and chatting amiably about how great was my book concept and how much money we were going to make.

Eventually, the conversation wound down and the publisher looked me square in the eyes. He reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “This is our standard contract,” he said with a warm, friendly smile. “Sign it.”

Instead, I started looking through the pages. Here was something I didn’t like. There was another questionable arrangement. After a few minutes of flipping pages and deconstructing legalese, I looked up and said: “There are some things in this contract I don’t like.”

Without missing a beat, the publisher reached into a different drawer of his desk and said with no trace of embarrassment: “This is our other standard contract. Sign this one.”

2. Watch Out for Claims

This warning may be just as important as the previous item: Most contracts for professional writing come with conventional language warning the writer not to plagiarize, infringe on any rights, defame, or violate any one of a great many laws governing creative work. They follow these injunctions with language in which you agree to indemnify and hold harmless (basically “reimburse”) the publisher for any liabilities arising from your breach of any of those laws and injunctions. So far, so good.

But the lawyers like to sneak another word in here that threatens your entire economic wellbeing. I’m talking about the word “claims”. Basically, most contracts require that you reimburse the publisher for payments made in response to claims that you breached one or more of those laws and injunctions.

Do you see the danger here?

Once you sign such a contract, anyone can make a claim that you violated certain rights, plagiarized, defamed, or did any of a number of bad things, and the publisher doesn’t have to be concerned about whether or not you actually did it. Under the contract, the publisher can simply pay the claimant to go away – and make this payment entirely with your money!

This actually happened to me, once, and I learned my lesson. I have never since signed a contract making me liable to pay for unsupported claims. Instead, I insist on language to the effect that I must reimburse the publisher only for claims “proven in a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Such language is no problem for me because I never plagiarize, defame, or do any of those other bad things.

Once or twice a publisher has been too bureaucratic or hidebound to accept my request for this new language, and so I wasn’t able to make those deals. But I have no regrets; the danger is too large and too real to put myself on the hook for that kind of scam, no matter how lucrative the contract might appear to be.

3. Obligations of the publisher

Contracts generally bind all parties to both rights and obligations. When looking them over, it’s easy and natural – and sensible – to devote most of your attention to your rights and your obligations. But it’s more professional to take a few minutes to consider the publisher’s rights and obligations, too.

For example, I once negotiated a book contract that gave me a wonderful share of revenues from the hardcover version, and less revenue from the paperback version. I signed it. But I didn’t realize until later that the contract did not obligate the publisher to bring out that hardcover edition. Years later, I’m still waiting to see that book in hardcover.

I have to admit I’ve made this kind of mistake twice, not just once. But you can bet your bottom dollar I won’t be making it a third time.

4. Play “What If”

Contracts tend to be written by people who are seemingly paid by the word. They rarely use one word when ten will do. As a result, contract language often gets very confusing and the whole point of what’s required can get lost.

That’s why it’s useful to play “what if” to an extreme, just to see what results from the language of the contract you’re preparing to sign.

Try some of these “what if” ideas, and any more that may appeal to you. What if:

  • The publisher goes out of business
  • The work sells millions of copies
  • The work sells almost no copies
  • You can’t complete the work on time
  • The publisher never publishes the work
  • Someone plagiarizes your work
  • Someone claims you plagiarized their work

The more extreme and wide-ranging the “what if” scenarios you test, the more clarity you’re likely to get regarding the contract.

5. NDA Hijinks

Non-disclosure agreements are increasingly common not only in contracts, but in stand-alone form that someone wants you to sign before you can even begin to learn about a project in which you might want to participate.

But the language here can get very tricky. One potential client asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement that was so strict I discovered – by playing “what if” – that if I signed it I would be forbidden from revealing my own name!

Maybe these kinds of provisions wouldn’t hold up in court, but it’s easier, cheaper, and more practical not to sign such a sketchy contract in the first place.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.