On Writerly Differences

I think I mentioned to you before the Write Better-Faster course, which I loved. I’m currently taking a more advanced version of that class and an interesting topic came up in the discussion for the class.

So what I loved about WBF was that it confirmed for me that we are all different and have different strengths and approaches as writers. I’d always done my own thing and just shrugged off what didn’t work for me, but that class gave me the supporting evidence for following my gut the way I always had.

What this new class has brought home for me is how fundamentally different some of our views of the world are. I’m over 40 at this point and coming to grips with the fact that others don’t experience the world the way I do has probably been one of my biggest struggles in life. One I still am working on.

Especially because a lot of things come to me very easily. So when my very intelligent friend in high school just could not get Geometry, I didn’t understand. You just flip the triangle in your mind, right? I mean, it’s not hard. Just mentally line up A with A and B with B. (But it is hard for those who don’t see spatially.)

One of the tests we take in WBF is called the DISC assessment. And one of the components of that assessment is Compliance.

Now Compliance is my highest of the four, so I’m motivated to see things done right, essentially. I will put in the work to make something a good product. That need will drive me to work until the product is good. Not just done, but good.

But I’m not really high in Compliance. So when I noted an extra space at the beginning of an entry in a numbered list during the formatting of my latest ebook and fixed it, I didn’t write that down to make sure I’d also fixed it in the print version. Because it was just one little space and I’d already submitted the file for review.

(Now, turns out I found a few other errors that needed fixing, including a horribly misused word. When that happened then I did update the print file and did actually scan through all hundred pages to find that missing space. Because if I was going to fix those other issues, then I did feel like I should fix the spacing issue, too. It’s just that I would have been willing to let it slide before even though that meant the book wasn’t perfect.)

What’s been interesting in this latest class is seeing how others with different levels of Compliance talk about writing and writers and what a book requires. And also the way our instructor has broadened that discussion to cover readers, too, and to help us understand that some readers are high in Compliance and some are not.

Let me give you an example.

Last month I was at a conference where someone mentioned pulling Patrick Rothfuss aside and giving him the rundown on how he’d messed up in his books by referring to both linen and cotton in his character’s wardrobe. This person could not believe an author would that kind of mistake. (They’re an editor so at least they’re in the right job for their level of compliance.)

At the time I thought, “Seriously? That’s what you got from his books? That he used the wrong kind of fabrics in someone’s clothes? You are so not my reader.” Because even knowing how much that person cared about that fact I knew I would never take the time and energy to learn that much about every detail in my books. Not gonna happen.

But that’s how someone with really high Compliance views the world. And writing. And their fellow writers.

Those very precise details matter to people with high Compliance.

I’d never notice something like that. But if I somehow had acquired that knowledge, then I’d get it right when I used it or be annoyed at myself.

For some writers, even if they knew this issue existed, they wouldn’t care if they got it wrong.

And the key here is to realize that there are readers who fall into all of these categories, too.

For me, high high Compliance readers are “not my reader”. It’s why I’m not writing PhD-level papers on my non-fiction topics. I will never be that precise a person that puts in fifteen footnotes to explain something exactly. 95% is good enough in my book.

But it’s also possible that low low Compliance readers are also not my reader. Because I will want a certain level of logic and coherence and accuracy in what I write and that means there are certain crazy, fun stories that I am incapable of creating. I would have to break too many rules to write a story like that so I literally could not force myself to do so.

A reader with really low Compliance will choose a book with a crazy, fun plot and horrible grammar over my more coherent, more grammatically correct book every day of the week.

For my fellow writers I think the lesson here is that a well-written story is not a singular thing that can be defined and put in a box. If you were to sit all readers down and asked them about their favorite story of all time and their most hated story of all time, the same books would be on both lists. Not because some readers have trash taste (which is what people often think to themselves), but because we are not all the same. So what we each want in a story will also not be the same.

I would add that this is why I really don’t like critique groups, because I have yet to see one where the other participants said, “I see the type of story you’re trying to write here and I’m going to set aside my preferences and help you to make the story you’re trying to write the best story it can be of its type.” Usually those groups act as if there is one correct way to write each sentence and one correct way to tell each story. There isn’t.

But maybe they work that way because it’s not actually possible for us to set aside who we are when we read. I personally can’t read a story that has tense issues. I just can’t do it. But some readers? Don’t even notice. Blow right past the fact that we just went from present to past and back again in two paragraphs.

So I personally will miss what’s great about a story that has tense issues because I can’t set aside my belief that a story with tense issues is poorly written.

What I conclude from all of this is this: Be careful how you tear down your fellow writers over these kinds of things.

I’ve for years had issues with the way people criticize Dan Brown and E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer. Because those criticisms miss the fact that those writers do something very right for their readers.

After learning more about personality types and how different we all are, I’m tripling down on that view. Instead of saying “That really sucks.” Practice saying, “Yeah, that just wasn’t for me.” It might make the world a nicer place.

(And I know those high Compliance types are shaking their heads and saying. “No. There is one right way to do things and they are not doing it that way.” But that’s okay. You be you.)

 

Author: M.L. Humphrey

I am a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 I have also been a published author who writes under a variety of pen names across non-fiction, fantasy, and romance.

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