by John Briggs
Want to use your writing strengths to reach your readers?
My two greatest strengths as a writer are: I can make you think and I can make you laugh. Sometimes I can do both at the same time. Oh, I’ve been known to make readers cry, or get uncomfortable, or maybe even make them angry, but laughing and thinking? Those are my strong points.
A recent book signing confirmed that for me in a most unfortunate way.
A girl of seven or eight came into the bookstore with her aunt and uncle. She was sad and serious, and I soon found out why. Her aunt asked her to take my book, Leaping Lemmings!, into the corner and read it for a few minutes. She said, “See if you like it and let me know.” As the girl opened the book in a nearby corner, her aunt explained that her father died that week and had been buried just the day before.
She was looking for something to cheer up her niece and hoped this was it. After expressing my sincerest condolences for this poor-yet-dignified girl, I watched her out of the corner of my eye—not out of some morbid curiosity, mind you, but rather to see if she could be happy. Can a book do that days after you lose your father? Her aunt told me he’d been sick for a long time, but does that really prepare a seven-year-old for such tragedy?
At first, she read the book stone-faced; forlorn. But then a smile crossed her face – small, slight, the corners of her mouth barely upturned – but by the end, she laughed a few times, quietly to be sure, little more than an audible sigh, but it was a laugh nonetheless. Somehow, if only briefly, the book had lifted her spirits. It’s no replacement for a lost father, but it might make the book special someday if she remembers just that moment or two of joy.
On my drive home, I thought about her, and realized, “Yeah, I can write funny,” even under trying circumstances. Humor is a writing strength, and it’s why almost all my fiction contains large doses of it.
But how does an author determine his or her writing strength?
- Examine your personality and background. What are you honestly like? I’m not suggesting you take a Myers-Briggs personality test, but are you funny? Romantic? Tough? Intellectual? Do you use big words when you talk, or do you like to keep it simple? Be honest here. We might like to think we’re funnier, smarter, or tougher than we really are. Knowing your personality and the things you’ve done can help you develop a writing style that reflects your innate and natural talents.
- What do you write most easily? When you sit down to write, what do you create without much thought? Funny dialogue? Terse action? Sensual scenes? Cute bunny rabbits perfect for a picture book? Writing isn’t the same as writing well, but you can develop those natural abilities and make them part of your writing strength.
- What sounds natural when you read it? Read your own material out loud. What rolls off the tongue easiest? Then, read something from another book in the same genre or style you use. Does it roll off the tongue as easily? Does it sound just as natural? If it does, stick with it. That style could be one of your writing strengths.
- What do your critique partners and beta readers respond to? Quiz your readers about what scenes and moments they like best in your work. What sounds natural to them? Then, go back and review those pages and see what you did. This shows you where you reached readers and tells you you should do more of that.
- Experiment with other styles and repeat Steps 2-4. Now, try writing something completely different from what you normally do. Does it come easily or feel natural? Do your literary friends like it and want to hear more? Maybe this is an undiscovered strength, or perhaps a now-known weakness. Either way, you’ve discovered a certain quality in your writing that allows you to build your writing strengths.
With enough practice and review, you’ll develop a voice and style that’s all your own, which makes your writing stronger. Before long, you’ll reach readers in a way you couldn’t before but soon expect to. Whether it’s cheering up a distraught girl or making a person see something in a brand new way, you’ll recognize your strengths and use them appropriately.
Soon you’ll no longer be a 98-pound novice writer but a heavy lifter in the literary world. Good luck!
Guest post contributed by John Briggs. John has been a writer for nearly 20 years, starting out in newspapers and eventually spent several years as a nationally syndicated children’s TV critic. His book, Leaping Lemmings, is coming out Sept 6th, 2016.