Why dichotomies don’t work in describing the writing process

Don't limit yourself to two mutually exclusive options when it comes to your writing process

Don’t limit yourself to two mutually exclusive options when it comes to your writing process

There are so many dichotomies when it comes to writing. We are often quick to throw ourselves, and other writers, into one or another of supposedly mutually exclusive groups.

  • Prose or poetry?
  • Contemporary or historical?
  • Morning or evening writer?
  • Planner or “panster”? (I know a lot of people hate the term, but it’s used and known to describe those who don’t plan or use outlines when they write.)

Now, there is nothing wrong with preferring to write in the morning, or loving outlines and always using them. There’s nothing wrong if you want to stay within one genre that work for, challenges, and fulfills you as you write.

There are only 2 problems with these labels that I can see. They’re not major, but they’re worth considering. They’re not problems with the labels themselves or with the categories, but rather with how we tend to approach them.

The first is that if we fall in between the extremes, we might feel like we are doing something wrong. What if I like to write in the morning and the evening, and mix it up a bit?

There’s actually a great benefit to writing at any and all times of the day: you will of necessity at some point be writing at a time of day when you feel tired and least inclined to write. That’s probably when you’ll produce your best work.

In fact, I think it’s probably more typical to fall in between the cracks than staunchly on one side of the alternatives listed above. There are degrees of planning…. There are percentages of days we can write in the morning or evening, and we can draft more or less poetry when we feel so inclined along with writing fiction (or vice versa). We can experiment with short stories or novels in genres we’ve never written before on a whim, or we can make a habit of stretching ourselves that way.

The second problem I see with these dichotomies is that we can use them to justify patterns, or even ruts, that aren’t working for us. Even if they used to work, they might not be working now. We all grow and change and develop, after all. But we can use these phrases–“I’m a planner,” “I’m a pantser”–to prevent ourselves from trying something new that might work far better than what we did in the past.

I’m a big fan of experimenting with the writing process. I like to try different approaches with different pieces. I like to see if “this” works better than something I did before. If something works well, I work around it and tweak it and try to make it more productive or more useful still.

So, that’s what was on my mind this morning…. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with labeling yourself a morning writer, or a planner, or a genre writer. Just don’t let the label prevent you from branching out if you need to do that, and don’t let labels make you feel like you’re doing something wrong if what you’re doing works but doesn’t fit the title.


8 responses to “Why dichotomies don’t work in describing the writing process

  1. I agree with you that these pairings, while useful, can also be limiting. I tend to think of them as the extreme ends of continua, or the tendencies where we often mix up a bit of one with a lot of the other. And I don’t think it’s just a writing thing, but a life in general thing – it’s just that if we write, that’s where we tend to think about this stuff.

    • that’s exactly what I was trying to explain…. that they’re pretty much the ends of a continuum or spectrum 🙂 thanks so much for making that explicit! We are definitely on the same page 🙂

  2. Sometimes I wonder if I might do better if I did have a set time in which I wrote. I’ve never been able to keep a writing schedule. As for being a planner or pantser, I’ve tried the planner way, and it doesn’t really do much for me. But I do like using timelines and background notes, even when I’m pantsing it. So I can agree with what you’re saying.

    The biggest problem I see with not labeling oneself is the tendency otherwise to spread oneself too thin. I find myself going all over the place at times and not making the progress I could if I would just focus on one way of doing things and stick to it. I suppose it would also help if I could focus on one project at a time and stick to it too.

    • I have been there, Michael! It’s tough to keep to a schedule. I don’t have one right now… and barely getting any editing done at all. Oh well…. For the moment, it is what it is. 🙂

  3. Your usual gold. Thank you for all the hard work you put into this blog, Victoria. It’s appreciated. Your post has been shared, as always. 🙂

  4. I normally just write whatever comes to mind. So far, it’s always been adventure, at least with a long-term project. With my poetry, I have to be inspired first. I can’t just sit down and write like I can with a long-term project.

    • I agree about the poetry! I have to sit and really think about it, and know that there is something particularly moving me to write poetry that has given me something purposeful to say.

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