Your Writing Weaknesses are Your Strengths

Published 26 days ago • 3 min read

Hi Bookfoxers,

At the age of eighteen, Django Reinhardt, a brilliant jazz guitarist, suffered severe burns to his left hand in a fire, rendering his third and fourth fingers unusable.

Everyone said he'd never play guitar again.

I mean, he only had three fingers on his left hand -- 40% of his musical possibilities were gone.

But Django persisted. He worked with his shortcomings rather than against them.

He figured out how to use the injured fingers for bar chords, and then use the good fingers to hold down specific strings.

And in doing so, he came up with an usual musical style, a sound that belonged uniquely to him. His lack of fingers forced him to be original.

Every writer has lost fingers.

Basically, you have some kind of shortcoming that you have to work around to be great.

Some writers are bad at writing dialogue, and they end up writing books light on dialogue, and their books have a specific texture that's unique.

  • Example: H.P. Lovecraft was known for avoiding dialogue, and his storytelling turned out all right!

Some writers are coming to English as a second language, and their lack of grammar and limited vocabulary guides them into a path of simpler prose -- giving them a specific voice.

  • Example: the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah.

Some writers struggle with concentration, or with orchestrating complex scenes, or with writing in short bursts while caring for children, and so end up writing a whole book in little snippets.

  • Example: "No One is Talking about This" by Patricia Lockwood.

Your shortcomings are not problems, but invitations to develop a unique voice.

Now if you don't have shortcomings (or don't know what they are) you can still take advantage of this advice.

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To teach you how to use shortcomings to improve your book, we have to look at a French group of writers in the mid 20th century.

A group of French-speaking writers, led by the poet Raymond Queneau, decided to artificially limit their writing styles. They called themselves "Oulipo".

They hadn't suffered the loss of two fingers, but instead they took on artificial limits that forced them to be creative.

Some of their exercises were wild (like not writing with the letter E).

I won't ask you to do that (it's really hard).

But you could try one of these exercises as a way to force you out of creative grooves and into new territory:

  • Tell a story with at least 5 scenes that are non-chronological
  • Sensory Deprivation: write a scene using only one sense (sight, sound, touch, taste, or smell).
  • Write a scene using only dialogue
  • Write a story but never mention the central thematic word (if your book is about patriotism, never mention patriotism or adjacent words)
  • 90% of your sentences have to be under 10 words. (a Hemingway "Old Man and the Sea" constraint).
  • You cannot use any three-syllable words (not even one!)

Another benefit of the Oulipo technique is that it cures writers block.

Somehow when you put up road blocks for your writing, it allows you to be creative, but when there are zero restrictions, it's a struggle to face the infinite possibilities.

Maybe you already know what your missing two fingers are. Or maybe you can just pretend to be missing two fingers.

Either way, the limitations will force you into new and original territory.



PS. Check out my latest Youtube video, "Huge Lies Writing Gurus are Telling You"


John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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