“So, what do you see as your biggest weakness?”
I don’t know about any of you, but I have never once walked out of an interview feeling good about how I answered that question. If you speak too highly of yourself, you come off as arrogant, maybe even totally lacking in self-awareness. But if you overplay your hand, you make yourself sound incompetent.
One of the reasons I think this question is such a challenge is that we all want to believe we are good at what we do. Isn’t that why you’re in the interview in the first place? Isn’t the whole point so you can prove that you’re better than any other applicant walking through the door?
Creatives probably fall victim to this more than anybody else. How many musicians and performers and artists are just one lucky break away from fame? As writers, aren’t we all just one pair of eyes away from the bestseller list? Even when we call ourselves our own worst critics, isn’t it because some part of us truly believes we’re criticizing ourselves unfairly?
I bring this up because I’m a firm believer that the only way you can get the most out of your writing is if you take ownership of your weaknesses. If you don’t know what your flaws are as a writer, how can you ever address them during the editing process? As I’ve posted more than once on this blog, your writing will never reach its full potential if you’re not willing to edit the hell out of it. But to do so without a firm grasp on your own shortcomings is like trying to tend a garden without knowing the flowers from the weeds.
What follows is a list of what I see as my own greatest weaknesses as a writer. If you follow this blog, you’ve probably already spotted several of them for yourself. If you’ve read Rottweiler, you can also probably name a dozen more that I’m not even aware of yet. Either way, feel free to have a laugh at my expense. And feel free to share some of your own idiosyncrasies, as well.
I’m fairly certain that every post on this blog started life as a single page in my head. And I’m equally certain that while writing each one I had the same oh shit! moment where I came up for air and realized that I was approaching the end of page 3. I have the same problem as a teacher. I’ll sit down to type what I think is going to be a half-page of directions for a homework assignment and the next thing I know I’m shrinking my font and reducing my margins in the desperate struggle to make everything fit on one side of a full sheet of paper.
Even now, I’m staring at an introduction to this post that’s nearly two-thirds of a page long. I sat down thinking I could get my point across in one or two short paragraphs! Worse, Long-Windedness wasn’t even on my original list. The five handy bullet-points I’d planned for suddenly became six. [For your sake, I’m going to cut it back down to five. I’ll save the sixth for another time.]
And, just like that, I’m already on page 2. What the hell is wrong with me?
No, I don’t think it’s the same as number one. Can wordiness be a leading cause of long-windedness? Sure. But is a long-winded piece of writing necessarily an overly wordy one? Definitely not.
By wordiness, I mean simply the tendency to write four words when you only need two. A short piece can still be a verbose one. As an exercise, take something you’ve written recently and try to reduce the word count by a quarter. If that’s too easy, try for a third or even a half. See what happens.
If you’ve ever had to write a 500-word synopsis of your novel for an agent query or – worse – the one-two punch of the 25-word Short Pitch and 200-word Long Pitch for Authonomy, then you already know how much detritus can be floating around unnoticed in your writing.
Meeting those kinds of word limits is the bane of my existence.
To paraphrase Stephen King, the road to hell is paved with adverbs. But I can’t help it. I love the damn things. I have an adverb for every occasion. And the first draft of almost anything I’ve ever written – fiction especially – is lousy with them. I wrote in an earlier post that I cut 40,000 words out of the first draft of Rottweiler. I would die to know how many of those words were adverbs.
For inexperienced writers, adverbs create the illusion of eloquence. When it comes to quality writing, though, more is rarely better. I teach tenth-grade honors students, and this is a lesson I have to beat into their heads every year. Eloquence is all about choosing the BEST words, not using the most. Economy is king.
As a general rule, an adverb is a sign that you simply need a stronger verb (or modifier). It’s rare that an adverb is really necessary. Not that they don’t have their place, though. Sometimes they’re unavoidable. And sometimes a strategically placed adverb can go a long way towards making a description pop. But they do need to be used sparingly.
4. Starting Sentences with Conjunctions
And and But, specifically. If you’ve been following this blog, you know what I’m talking about. All I have to say in my defense is that you should see my rough drafts.
The problem here is similar to item 3. Opening a sentence with an and or a but can create an illusion of flow. It can also create a false sense of gravity. But when it’s overused, it really only creates a sense of annoyance.
5. Parenthetical Phrases and Clauses
I have a weakness for parentheticals offset by dashes. The problem is that parenthetical phrases are ones that you DON’T NEED. They’re offset by parentheses, commas, and/or dashes specifically because they’re unnecessary. During ACT prep season, I tell my juniors that if you can cover up part of a sentence and the rest is still a complete thought and grammatically correct, then make sure there are commas around it. It’s one of the secrets of speed reading. Anything floating around between two matching punctuation marks in the middle of a sentence can generally be skipped without any great loss.
A pair of dashes is like a pair of platforms in a video game. They’re there specifically so you can leap from one to the other. Even if what’s between them won’t cost you a life, it will rob of you precious time as you slog your way back out of it. What really sucks for me is that I’ll often fill those dashes with ideas I actually DO need. Fortunately, there’s magic to be found in turning a compound-complex sentence with a parenthetical clause stuck to its shoe into three simple, declarative statements that do a better job of making my point anyway.
And with that, I’m on page three. I’ll take that as my cue to stop.
Obviously, everything here is inter-related. Each item is causative – or at least symptomatic – of one or more other issues on the list. And everything here is a matter of style. I’ll address my shortcomings in the actual crafting and telling of my stories on another day.
Again, feel free to share your thoughts. And if you’re feeling brave, you’re invited to share some of your own unique weaknesses. Either way, I look forward to hearing from you.