Strengths and Weaknesses

I’ve loved writing ever since I can remember—I wrote poems and stories at home, and it was my favorite part of school (and not just because I usually received A+ on my writing assignments). When I started writing middle grade novels, I was surprised that my talents weren’t enough. I think I do a great job of coming up with ideas, and creating fun, vivid characters, but I didn’t realize that most writers have at least one area they have to work on way harder than the rest. For me, that was plot. I kind of masked my problem, because I was able to add tension to my manuscripts by always considering the worst thing that could happen to my characters…but that wasn’t enough to create a full, exciting arc that could propel readers through an entire novel. I’m always working on finding ways to improve my writing, and am thrilled to see how much stronger my plotting is now.

I’ve never been a fan of outlines, but I realized that just knowing the beginning, ending and some possibilities for the middle, plus character sketches, wasn’t enough. After studying plotting, I found a method that works great for me. It’s a Plot Clock, created by writing coach and mentor, Joyce Sweeney, and breaks the novel up into four acts, starting in the normal world, which prevents me from jumping into the middle of a situation before readers care about my characters.

Joyce Sweeney Plot Clock

When I first started writing children’s books, I had no idea how deeply I’d have to dive into revisions. I love seeing characters come alive and watching all the wonderful layers evolve through revision after revision. I don’t remember having to revise my stories when I was in school. We’d get an assignment, hand it in, get a grade…end of story. I’ve really been impressed with the way I see writing taught now—with children as young as elementary school receiving feedback and being asked to revise their writing. I can’t even imagine writing children’s books without receiving critiques—feedback from peers and professionals really can help your writing grow!

Here are some things I’ve learned that I hope will help you, too:

  • Take a good look at your strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to know what they are, so you can really focus on them! If you’ve had writing critiqued, what types of comments are there? I used to hear that some of my earlier manuscripts seemed episodic…it took me a while to realize it was because my plotting wasn’t strong enough to propel readers through the entire story.
  • Try to swap critiques with people whose strengths are your weaknesses.
  • Critique often—it helps the person who wrote the manuscript or story, but it also helps you a lot, too. It’s easier to spot areas that can be strengthened when you critique the work of others…and in time, you become better at finding those areas in your own manuscripts.
  • Read as many books as you can, and stretch past your favorite genre to explore other types of books, too. Once you know your weaknesses, you can search for books that master those aspects.
  • Read your story out loud. It’s easier to find places that need streamlining, dialogue that doesn’t feel natural, and where you can improve the pacing. Reading out loud often feels different with an audience, so even if you’re alone, you can record yourself, or read to your pets.

Teachers and parents—I’d love to know what you’ve noticed about the strengths and weaknesses of your students or children, and what you do to help them become stronger writers. And to all the writers out there—what are your strengths and weaknesses, and how have you overcome your weaknesses?

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her twelve and fifteen year-old daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer pup who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s blog or Twitter to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

9 Responses to Strengths and Weaknesses

  1. Mindy Alyse Weiss

    Thanks, Beverly. Is there a way you can focus only on the content of the writing first, then work on spelling and grammar in the final version? This could free up their creativity and help them have enough confidence to dig deeper into their assignments. I’d love to hear how everything goes with your class, and I’ll see if other Mixed-Up Files members have additional suggestions to add.

    Thanks, Wendy and Suzanne.

    Thanks, Tami. Those plot charts were so interesting (and different). A few of them looked hard to read. I absolutely love the one up on the wall! My mind moves so much faster than my hands, it’s hard to read my writing sometimes. I ended up typing up the Plot Clock into a file, so I can easily type in each item (and also change them without making a mess and having to start over).

  2. Tami Brown

    Great post, Mindy!

    Coincidentally, this morning I saw this slideshow of great writer’s plot charts on Flavorwire. They’re not quite as graphic as the plot clock but it shows that even very experienced writers benefit from drawing their plots out and seeing what’s happening from a bird’s eye view- http://flavorwire.com/391173/famous-authors-handwritten-outlines-for-great-works-of-literature

  3. Great post. Plotting is my weakness and the plot clock is becoming my nourishment for getting stronger. :)

  4. I’d never heard of the plot clock, though this reminds me a bit of the screenplay structure in Save the Cat. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Beverly Johnson

    Hi Mindy,

    I enjoyed reading your post, and was glad to hear of advantages of going through the revision process and learning from feedback. I think your question of identifying the strengths and weaknesses of students is a valid one. In fact, it is one I am struggling with this year. I teach English language learners who are motivated to learn, but get discouraged when issues with spelling and grammar get in the way. How do you suggest I handle this while encouraging them to keep writing?

  6. Mindy Alyse Weiss

    Thanks, Janet. I love revising, too!

  7. Those are all great points, and I try to do all of them when I write. I love revising and making the story better.

  8. Mindy Alyse Weiss

    Thanks, Joyce! It’s wonderful that you teach revision workshops for kids, and they see how much it can help their stories. Revision definitely rocks!

    I think it’s easier to revise now than when I was younger, because of technology. I used a typewriter for my earlier papers, and loved how much easier it was when I got a word processor. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be to revise without my computer now!

  9. Hey Mindy, great post. Yes, I love the revision process also. I often say it is where the real writing happens. And I also have been impressed with how writing is being taught to students these days. I like that teachers break the writing process up and even separate the difference between editing and revision. IN fact as a kids book author and teacher I do workshops for kids on the revision process. Most kids balk at the idea becuase they think it’s doing work over. But once they see how much revision I do to turn out a book and how much better their story has grown they get excited and want to keep improving. Revision rocks. Writers get to do-overs. Neurosurgeons? Not so much.