Reading Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, and taking the Strengths Finder Assessment, has really helped me as a writer. So, in today’s installment, I’d like to share my experience with you and let you come to your own conclusions as to whether you would find it useful.
What is Strengths Finder? If you get down to the nuts and bolts, it’s a neurological evaluation of how you think and how you process information. You go through about 80 pairs of options and choose between them as fast as possible to find out which of the 34 ways humans process information are your top five. Doing something in tune with your particular strengths actually produces an endorphin rush, much like you get after exercise. Not acting from your strengths can do anything from just not giving you that rush to leaving you feeling truly stressed and frustrated.
“But, I write stories…” you say, “What does finding out how I process information have to do with writing fiction?”
It’s simple, says I. Knowing how I think is just as critical to practicing my craft as reading, studying grammar, or keeping my rear end glued to the chair until my word count for the day is done. Some people can do this intuitively – “I don’t need a computer to tell me how I think. I think just fine on my own…” – but I’m not one of them.
In my own experience, I would get a super feeling in certain writing situations, knowing I’d written something particularly well, and yet get incredibly frustrated in others. But I could never figure out why it happened, or how to repeat the “woohoo!”s, and avoid the “aarrgghh!”s. Taking the assessment and learning how I process information has helped my writing tenfold, and may help yours as well. Let me show you how by walking you through my own strengths: Context, Learner, Communication, Positivity and Strategic.
Context allows me to avoid problems in the future by looking to the past. It’s also very helpful with world-building and character building. The trip-up is that, if I don’t know why I’m writing something a certain way, or how something works in the background, I get frustrated because the scene never sounds right…it never sings. This ties directly in to ‘write what you know’.
The problem with Rachel I mentioned last time is a perfect example. I did not have enough context to understand her. I didn’t know how she ticked. So every time I sat down to write her scenes, the only things that came of the effort were caricature and an unhappy writer. But, once I connected with Rachel through music, I could write comfortably from her point of view without any of it sounding forced.
Learners get a kick out of research. It’s not the conclusion, but the learning and the study that gives the rush. This is extremely useful for fact-finding and description, because research is not in any way tedious for me. That being said, Learner is very dangerous to word count.
I’ll start off on the internet trying to find out when pocket watches were invented, or whether the heroines could have put on a grade school production of The Pirates of Penzance in 1877 (no such luck…wasn’t performed on stage until 1879) and raise my head three hours later with not one jot of the scene written because I’ve gone bonkers reading all the source links on wiki, and every bit of information on Gilbert & Sullivan, Rudyard Kipling, and the Battle of Agincourt that I could get my paws on. Because Learner is number two on my list, I now know I need to set a timer when I start researching an item to keep me from bounding off into the brush and ignoring the real work of writing the book.
Communication is my drive to tell stories, to describe the worlds I’ve created and take you on the journey with me. “Stories inside, fighting to get out.” is the essence of what this strength is to me. I live for the perfect phrase. Heck, I read the dictionary and study languages for fun. The rush I feel when I know I’ve nailed something exactly the way I wanted to is as exhilarating as a ride on the spinning teacups or the Tilt-a-Whirl (can’t do free-fall or roller coasters, but I love me a really good spin and barf).
Positivity helps me bounce back. It keeps me going. At one point in writing The Stolen Songbird, through Murphy’s Law, karmic backlash from a previous life, or just somebody up there in the aether having a yuck at my expense, every single copy (including backups on three separate thumb drives, a PC and a laptop) of the at that time 57,000 word manuscript all corrupted at once. Months of work down the tubes.
I remember the panic of checking every copy, every machine, and every back up file, and finding that I was the lucky one for whom that .00001% chance decided to happen. Without positivity, I would still be curled in a ball crying in the corner. Instead, the first thought after the panic was, “Way cool! I printed a copy out last week to edit, so I only have to redo about four scenes and I can retype the rest back in from the printout.” And I did, without looking back.
Strategic allows me to see patterns, to thrive on the best two words in the universe for a writer “What if…?” This strength is particularly good for alternate histories, but even more fun for newly found plot holes. Sure you can go back and erase a plot hole. But I get my kicks out of turning those plot holes into plot points, explaining them, and working them back into the narrative later when someone else finds them.
For instance, a friend read one of the scenes for one of the later books in the series and asked “But, wait…if your hero has super speed and the traitor knew he had super speed when she planted the explosives on the hero’s horse, wouldn’t she know he would be fast enough get away before they went off, and use something more deadly?” Oops, hadn’t thought of that. Good point. That makes no sense at all. Until Strategic kicked in a minute later and I saw the pattern in my mind’s eye. No wait…of course she knew he’d get away…but she continued with her plan for a very specific reason.
And so, by training myself to work with my strengths, I’ve learned to recognize the feelings I have when I capitalize on them or when I’ve forgotten to use them and act accordingly. I can’t tell you how awesome it is when I’m completely frustrated because something isn’t going right, to slap my palm to my forehead when I realize that it’s because one or another of my strengths isn’t being met, and do what I need to do to get back on track. It’s so much better than wallowing in a morass of self-flagellation while staring at a page of hideous prose hoping that it will miraculously fix itself. So, if you do decide to go out and get the book and take the assessment, I hope it helps you as much as it helped me…and if you already know what your top five are, feel free to post your strengths in the comments. I’d also love to know how you use your strengths in your writing.
See you next time for “Working Though Writers’ Block with B.U.N.s”