Leading Against Your Strengths

Practice is necessary to the development of skills in every field, from work to sports to Metronomeart. Watching Wimbledon this week reminds me of the hours I put into tennis when I was a kid, tossing balls in the air to practice my serve over chalked marks in the driveway, hitting shots against our uneven garage door. Originally my backhand was lousy, but years of leading with it in practice turned it into my best shot. In Jeremy Denk’s fascinating article on his life in piano lessons (“Every Good Boy Does Fine,” The New Yorker, April 8, 2013), he quoted his teacher, the Hungarian pianist György Sebők, as saying that you don’t teach piano playing at lessons; you teach how to practice. Practice is where the learning occurs. Good students know what they need to drill.

Writing is unusual in that the most intense practice happens in the course of writing drafts. Even if we attend classes, keep a journal or follow writing prompts, the real work of improving our writing takes place on the ground. We practice on the very same pieces that will become our finished product. Everything that goes into that – all the brainstorming, outlining, writing and rewriting – is both part of perfecting a particular manuscript and part of learning our craft.

I’d like to suggest that you structure your approach to new work with a view to pushing yourself in your areas of weakness. I don’t mean that you should tamper with what inspires you, whether you begin with a character, a plot, an insight or something else. My suggestion comes at the next stage, when you begin to outline or brainstorm scenes. If you’re great with character but weak on plot, then push yourself to consider the what if’s of plot – to get some ideas on the table. If you’re great with plot, then try to invest some early work in your characters. If dialog is your best shot, then experiment with action and description. If description, then make your characters talk. We all have to deal with our weaknesses when we’re revising: the idea here would be to increase your awareness of those areas at the outset – not only to enrich the manuscript in front of you, but to work on your mastery of writing skills.

Once your manuscript gets going, you’ll naturally play to your strengths. You won’t be able to help yourself from paying attention to the aspects of writing that you love. But if you start by leading against your strengths, then over time your weaknesses should improve in a more integral way, rather than just being something other people always have to tell you to fix at the end.

You know better than anyone else what needs work. Own it. Drill it. Be brave.

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