In the last column, I talked about the dangers of "the things we are good at." One of the greatest dangers of the things we are good at is that they tend to distract us from the things that we are not good at.
No matter where we are in our writing careers, there's bound to be something that we're not terribly good at, but which we still need to be able to do. In the beginning, perhaps, we may have imagined that "being a writer" simply meant sitting down and writing (though even that isn't as easy as it sounds). Soon, however, we discovered that being a writer involved mastering an extensive toolkit of skills and techniques, without which we could neither proceed nor succeed.
Of course, there are undoubtedly a host of skills that we don't possess and don't, in fact, actually need. The fact that we're not good at something doesn't automatically imply that we ought to be. But as writers, there are certain things that we do need to be able to do well -- and again, those things tend to change over time.
One way to identify the "thing that you're not good at but ought to be" is to identify the thing that is holding you back. Of all the things that you don't do so well, what's the one thing that, if you could master it, would make a real difference in your writing career? What's the thing that is standing between you and success, or increased success?
For example, many writers hate "pitching." (In fact I think I can safely say that most of us hate pitching.) It's very easy to get comfortable with a certain type of market, or a certain level of market, whether that is based on a topical niche, a pay range, or whatever. It's a lot easier to keep pitching to a market that consistently says "yes" than to try to break new ground with a market that might say "no." Why waste time, we ask ourselves, pitching to unknown markets when we have a "sure thing" going with the markets we already work with? Pitching to higher-paying markets can be particularly scary, because a rejection implies that we're not "ready" to move up to a higher level. Many writers spend years at a particular pay zone rather than try to move up the scale. And so our fear of pitching -- the thing that we're not so good at, or think we're not so good at -- holds us back from the chance of greater success.
Many writers still believe they can proceed, and succeed, without mastering the basics. I still hear from writers who believe that things like grammar, punctuation and spelling are simply polish on the apple. Rather than regarding these as fundamental, foundational skills, some writers regard them as "extras," icing on the cake, nice to have but non-essential. "I have a great story," such writers say. "It's the editor's job to handle the grammatical stuff!"
I could be wrong, but I suspect writers are the only "artists" who harbor this quaint notion. Imagine a painter, for example, who seeks to create (and sell) a work of art. After laying down the basic design and some broad strokes on a canvas, he trots off to a gallery, hands over the piece, and declares, "I've done the big picture; you finish the details!" Not going to happen! Nor is it going to happen in the writing world. Editors have a glut of material from which to choose, and neither the time nor the inclination to waste hours correcting someone's grammar.
In determining which area of one's toolkit requires work, always start with the most basic issues first. If you aren't that good at pitching, and you also have a poor grasp of punctuation, work on punctuation. The best pitch in the world won't help you make a sale if you hand in a piece that, shows, you don't, know where the, commas go.
No matter where you are in your writing career, however, a vital element in allocating your time (surely the scarcest of a writer's resources) lies in facing the fact that at least some of it needs to be spent upon those things that we do not do well. Otherwise, no matter how much time we spend on the things we've already mastered, we will find ourselves coming up, time and again, against obstacles that just aren't going to go away.
For example, a key thing that I'm not good and, and that is therefore standing in my way, is promotion. I hate promoting. I have no idea whether I hate it because I'm not good at it, or I'm not good at it because I hate it -- or whether, if I became good at it, I'd learn to love it. Ultimately, that's a chicken-and-egg question that simply doesn't matter. My lack of promotional skills is holding me back, and if I want to achieve my goals, eventually I'm going to have to spend some time at this thing that I'm not good at, and become good at it.
And there lies the bottom line. In the last issue, I pointed out that we writers tend to be good at a great many things, because we've often had no choice but to master those skills over time. We mastered them by spending the time to become good at them. We weren't born with an innate grasp of grammar, or punctuation, or website design. We built those skills. Today, it's easy to forget how much effort may have gone into the development of "the things we are good at." Conversely, it's very easy to be dismayed by the amount of effort we have to put in to become good at something new.
But you've already done it. I've already done it. Whatever skills may be on our "easy to do list" today, we acquired them through effort and time and struggle. We've done it before and we can do it again. If we want to become successful, or become more successful, or achieve a goal that has been eluding us, then we must do it again.
And when we do... one day... we will suddenly realize that some of those things we weren't so good at have become the things we ARE good at. They become the things we do without a second thought, the things that are easy, the things that are comfortable.
And then, of course, it starts all over, because... there will always be something new that we need to learn, to master, to overcome. It never ends, really. Unless we never start.
Because if we don't tackle "the things we aren't good at," we're already reached an ending. We've accepted, by default, an end to certain hopes, dreams, and goals. If we only do what we're already good at today, we will never get any farther tomorrow.
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