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a strengths-based approach to editing

Like most writers, editing is not my favorite part of the job. The work is never-ending and slow-going; the words and moments begin to lose their magic; and I never quite feel like I’m producing something the way I do when I’m drafting. The worst part this go around, however, has been the crippling self-doubt that has followed all my picking and probing and persistent criticism. I’ve encountered this before in editing, and with shorter projects the self-doubt is usually short-lived, but with this novel it seems only to get worse every day as the editing end seems nowhere in sight.

Will I finish this book? 

Is it good enough? 

Is it even good? 

I’ve had to give myself a little space from the project recently to figure out why I keep coming up with no as the answer to all of those questions, and while this method may not cure my self-doubt entirely — it’s part of the writer’s experience, after all — it certainly has put me back on my feet:

strengths-based editing.

You may have heard of a strengths-based approach to education, focusing on children’s wiring, their interests, and their talents in order to keep them engaged in school; or you may have heard of using it as a life philosophy in order to do your best, end up in a place you’re proud of, and get the most out of your life. While the approach in general has met it’s share of critics, I think the core principle –focusing on your strengths rather than trying to fix your weaknesses — can be applied to editing in order to help writers produce their best work and overcome the insecurity that accompanies the creative process.

But before diving into how this works for editing, let’s talk about the major drawback to this method in order to be aware of it going forth. Though I find this approach productive and now use it myself, I think the strengths-based ideology can encourage complacency with our weaknesses, both in writing and in life. Though the strengths-based method does not suggest ignoring our weaknesses, this line of thinking can be used as justification for putting aside those things we are no good at, or even those things we’re okay at, and leaving them as they are. If weaknesses are inevitable, what’s the point of even trying our best at the things we struggle with?

But that isn’t the message of the strengths-based ideology, rather that we put more time and energy into our strengths than into our weaknesses. Though we can always improve in any area of life, trying to fix weaknesses as if they are a problem to solve is counterproductive. The fact of the matter is, we all have weaknesses, failures, and flaws, things we aren’t good at and things we really aren’t good at. Perfectionism and comparison have set the lie that if we correct all of our imperfections, if we prune and groom all those wayward things, then we will be perfect, our lives will be perfect, everything will be terrific and grand.

But that isn’t going to happen.

In life or in writing. There are no perfect people and there are no perfect books. But there are excellent people and excellent books, and I think strengths-based editing is a path to pursue them. Here’s why.

Strengths-Based Editing Focuses on the Positive

Editing can be a very negative experience. When you have to look at your work critically and admit all of its problems and mistakes, it can be a blow to your self-esteem to realize your work isn’t as great as you thought it would be (writers, of course, know this going into the process, but accepting it is another thing entirely). It’s even worse when over and over you come up empty handed for answers to those problems. If that’s the case, you might be dealing with one of your writing weaknesses.

To write is human, to edit is divine. // Stephen King, On Writing

Let’s say you struggle with depicting setting. Traditional editing tells you to nitpick each and every instance of setting in order to reach a certain standard, and more than likely you’ll wind up feeling disappointed in yourself when your writing doesn’t cut it. But when you edit with your strengths as a writer, answers to your draft’s question are closer at hand. It might look like this:

The setting throughout the novel is completely lacking. I give no sense of what the world is really like!

But I am great at dialogue. How about the protagonist’s friend points out some of the critical features of the world in their lunchtime conversation. 

Using your strengths to fulfill your story’s needs keeps your confidence afloat and concentrates on how you are capable of filling your story’s holes instead everything wrong with it in the first place. When this kind of positivity is present, even big, bad editing can seem possible and fun, and you’re more likely to remain motivated to finish.

Strengths-Based Editing Streamlines the Process

Before I started editing from my strengths, part of my struggle with editing was how much time the process takes. I would step away from sessions hardly making a dent in the work, and after three weeks of editing, I was still nowhere near my goal of finishing draft two by the first of December. I wasn’t hitting any of my weekly deadlines and would spend what precious time I had staring at my draft and producing nothing. Over time, this grew out of frustration with editing in general, but it started with the overwhelming burden of too much possibility. Every problem seemed to have innumerable solutions, every twist a hundred possible outcomes; every sentence and section could be reworded a million times over. I could create a completely different story with all of these possible changes, and this left me wanting to tear up my draft and start fresh from the beginning.

Focusing on my strengths and acknowledging my writing weaknesses has pared all that possibility to the best options for my story. I’ve started flying through sections faster because I know what kinds of changes best showcase my writing style and which edits to avoid as much as possible due to my weaknesses. I don’t worry as much about what will appeal best to certain readers in this paragraph, or what my favorite writers would do in that section because I know myself as a writer well enough to admit that some forms of writing don’t work for me, and I hardly need to waste the time exploring them. When I encounter a section that requires I write from one of my weaknesses, I don’t fret as much because I know those parts are few and far between. Instead, I try my best with them and hope my beta readers and writing community help me spruce those sections to readability when the time comes.

Strengths-Based Editing Supports Originality

Elusive originality. Impossible to pin down, but you know it when you read it, and I would argue that a strengths-based editing approach is a powerful tool in achieving it.

It probably goes without saying, but every writer is unique — in style, in voice, in ability — and our strengths as writers both stem from that uniqueness and shape that uniqueness. Allowing your best qualities to shine in your writing instead trying to pretty things up according to “the rules” or other writer’s standards establishes your storytelling style and tells readers what they should expect from your writing in the future. Whether it’s snappy dialogue and to-the-point description or poignant characters and deep worldbuilding or anything in between, you have a special way of telling stories that is individual to you and best reflected in your unique writing strengths.

When you answer your story’s toughest questions or bridge writing gaps in ways that suit your strengths, you form a story that differs creatively from others’, even if the plot is as old as dirt. How many zombie apocalypse stories have we read and seen? How many novels about witches and wizards, tyrannical governments and rebel revolts, forbidden love and loss? Even if you distill the genres further to specific plotlines, you’ll still find thousands of stories with the same general points, but with each story its elements that allow it to stand out from others.

And just as readers can elaborate on those features that produce a memorable story, with enough probing we can find the faults, things the writer didn’t do as well. Even the greatest books have weaknesses, but a writer’s best qualities shining forth are able to speak for the rest and leave the impression of a story well told. When you edit to emphasize your strengths, readers will remember the best parts of your story and forgive whatever is lacking so long as you do your best.

/// E.S.T.

NOW TELL ME // What parts of writing do you do best and enjoy? How can you focus more on improving your strengths and managing your weaknesses? Tell me below!

photo by: Vera Bitterer


  • whenwordsarebound

    I love how educational your blog posts are. This one hits home in many ways. I have been sitting with the same novel for years now and cant quite manage to finish the editing. I have doubted if it’s good enough, if it’s even worth the time wasted.

    What I do best is definitley tell the story which also is my favorite part Lol! But I think for me to improve my weaknesses is to always remind myself of why I started. Why I needed the story told in the first place.

    • Emily

      I’m glad you liked this one! If I want anything from this blog it’s knowing that I’ve reassure other writers who sometimes feel the same doubts and frustrations I do that we are all in the same boat!

      I’ve been stuck on the editing phase of a novel for a long time too. I had to set it aside earlier this year and I’m itching to get back to it to figure out what’s wrong with it! Maybe this time I’ll take some of my own advice 😀

      Thank you so much for sharing!