The Two Sides Of Writing

When you spend the better part of your life not being a writer only to discover that you may actually be one, you have to play a little bit of catch-up. You have to learn the tricks of the trade and figure out how to write (or at least determine how you write). As you improve and discover, you begin to form your own ideas (usually stolen) about the act and the art of writing.

The more I think about it (and boy have I been thinking about it), I can’t help but believe that writing is one of two extremes: setting yourself free on a blank page or forcing yourself into a firm structure. It’s taking an idea, running with it and seeing where you end up or it is limiting yourself to a single thought and rigidly sticking to a plan. The potential writing styles are vast, but regardless of this and the infinite tools, tips and tactics we use, you are always somewhere between letting yourself go or boxing yourself in.

Let Yourself Go

This often tends to be the starting point for many of the writers I’ve spoken with. Inspiration strikes, you finally set to flesh out a previously captured idea or, if you are truly daring, you pop open a blank page. From there, you play. You see where your ideas, instincts and fingers take you. You might have a direction, but you really don’t have an end game or the route you hope to take in mind. Oftentimes the goal is as surprising to the writer as they hope it will be to the reader.

Box Yourself In

Much of what we learn about structured writing comes from our early experiences at school and we (or at least I) tend to resist what we learned there. Yet the more ambitious our projects become, the more value there is in putting up walls and carving a clear path ahead. Getting a simple point across is no easy feat and a complicated one can be near impossible. Knowing not only what you want to say, but how you plan to go about saying it can go a long way towards helping you realizing your ambitions.

The Best Of Both

None of this is to say that writing is black and white; in fact, the best work seems to come from finding the balance between freedom and structure. When we strike this balance, we avoid the kind of overly structured writing that comes off as predictable or boring while steering clear of excessively free prose that often feels incomprehensible or unreadable. The more I experiment, the more I write and the more I discover the limitations, the more I begin to understand the true potential of both styles.

I know this is all a bit theoretical and I welcome any feedback from real writers, but for those who are interested in how this might actually apply to actual writing, check back for a follow up look at how I’m applying these ideas to my writing.

(Thanks to Yuvi Zalkow and Erin Feldman for letting me bounce some of these ideas off of them. They will more than likely recognize a few of their ideas, if not their actual words in the passages above.)

14 Responses to The Two Sides Of Writing

  1. Thanks for the backlink. It was very nice of you.

    Feedback from a real writer? I’m hesitant to call myself such a thing. It sounds very official, somewhat like being the poet laureate of the United States. A girl can dream, right?

    I’ve been thinking about the two facets and where my writing fits exactly. I think I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m more likely to need structure when working on a lengthy project, particularly a project that requires source materials. I don’t necessarily have an outline – I think I developed a hatred of them during junior high – but I tend to have some sort of map to follow. Poetry often requires less structure, but it again depends on the project at hand. In most cases, I tend to start with something more organic, then overlay some sort of structure.

    • My pleasure and no matter how much you keep trying to marginalize it, your thoughts really helped!

      As for the whole real writer bit, you write every day both professional and personally. Besides, I think writer is the broad term, it’s when you really get into one (or several) such as Novelist, Poet, Playwright, etc. that things get scary :)

      I had a pure hatred/inability to outline. The mind mapping has really changed my entire worldview on this. It’s just so easy to see the post before you ever write it. Doubt it would play for the poetry, but might prove useful in other projects.

      • Perhaps not with an individual poem – unless I were writing an epic poem, and I avoid those like the plague – but with a manuscript. That was one reason I wanted to try our Scrivener. I thought it would help with mapping themes and images. I think it did with this last submission I prepared and that it will with future manuscripts, but I’ve been having a hard time figuring out the best way to export anything I create in Scrivener.

        The poet title is scary, mostly because of how people react to it. The reactions can be funny, but it’s not fun trying to address errors in perception.

        • Well, hopefully tomorrow’s post will give you a few ideas. I walk through how I handle these kinds of posts and include the mind map I used as the structure for the post.

  2. You have some good ideas here, Michael. The thing to remember is that you’re not alone. Writing is a craft. It’s actually something that you can be trained to do. You can go to school and learn to write well.

    Unfortunately, a lot of schools make people resistant to writing. People learn to hate it. But the fundamentals are eminently trainable. If you or other want to learn how to write better, you don’t have to struggle alone in the dark. A lot of people may not want to hear this, but the most effective thing that you can do is go and take a writing course.

    I am a big advocate of approaching writing as a craft. The art will come, but only if you learn to use the tools. 

    And one of the best ways to get rid of the reluctance and fears is to accept that sometimes you simply must write what you’re assigned to write. I make a living taking assignments from others. It’s not a big deal. It’s not about being boxed in, it’s about exercising the craft. Learn to take an assignment, do the work, and deliver the product, and you’ll quickly find that you’re more open, able to let yourself go, and to create real art.

    • It’s very true and I certainly see a few writing classes in my future. At the moment, I’m sort of land locked with the little ones at night. My wife and I both work full time and then head right home for the kids. Sure this will change and things will get easier as the little one grows up, but 4 month olds tend to limit your time out of the house.

      There is certainly a decent amount of stubbornness here… School made me hate learning but the past few years have been a bit of a renaissance of self-education through books, blogs and podcasts. I’m certainly learning as I go (and seeking those to learn from), but I’m probably at the point where I’ll learn more from a two way interaction. Reading Writing Down The Bones, by Natalie Goldberg is making it very tempting to seek out a class.

      Couldn’t agree more on the assignments. After having written a monthly magazine column for over a year and talking on projects for friends has really helped me appreciate a good assignment. I’ve also never seen being boxed in as a bad thing and hope it didn’t come off that way. The idea of thinking outside the box is always tempting, but I’ve always found that true magic happens when you think all the way to the edge of whatever box you’re in.

      Thanks for the thoughts and for indulging the request for feedback!

  3. My approach is very simple. Put pen to paper and let the words guide me to wherever it is they want to go. The book I am writing for Nanowrimo is an excellent example of this. I started with a blank page and the words flowed from my fingertips to the keyboard and suddenly there was a story unfolding in front of my eyes.

    I have a rough idea where it is going but I won’t know for certain until the words and the characters show me.

    My professional work is slightly different out of need but only in a rough sense. The structure is based upon journalistic formula and reader need to obtain key pieces of information. But even there I make a point to let the words be my guide.

    • Honestly, it’s probably fear. I’ve never sat down in front of a blank page. I have an idea and either capture it or start writing. I’ve always been aimless, so that little bit of direction always goes a long way towards getting me somewhere.

      The words should always be the focus, I just often feel the structure (when done right) can do just as much to guide your way. Again, as you said, it depends on what you’re writing.

  4. Nice work, Michael. I like your take here. As a slight variant to this dichotomy you’ve presented, when I’m working on my novel I often think in terms of a spectrum between voice-driven writing and plot-driven writing. I err on the side of voice and so my struggle is to understand plot enough so that my novel has just enough plot to hang my crazy voice onto… Of course this novel writing stuff doesn’t 100% apply to blog writing, but I think it is similar in that there is a voicy aspect to a blog post and there is a structured aspect to a post. One can occasionally get away with all of one and not the other, but I believe the best writing is a combination, even if one facet might be stronger than the other…

  5. “A bit theoretical” Michael?? 😉

    Honestly man, I’ve never thought about the  writing thing very hard. I care a lot about it, I just don’t analyze so much as one way or the other. For me, it’s a matter of living life in such a way that I notice personal experiences as they come. It’s about telling stories in a while that I smile while typing the words.

    But like you my man, I certainly learned of this writing thing well into my 20s, as I stunk up the joint before that time period.

    Well done bud,


    • On the plus side, it lays the groundwork for tomorrow’s super tactical post!

      What I’m about to say isn’t a woe is me sort of thing, it’s more a statement of fact. I’ve never naturally been good at anything. So when I decide to do something I really have to think about how I approach it. It’s also a likely byproduct of genetically inclined self analysis :) That said, the more I get this kind of stuff out of the way and figure out how it is I’m going to go about it, the more I get to that state you’re talking about where you can just write.

      It’s probably the reason I love to share the geeky stuff. Want to make sure that those who lack the foundation figure it out sooner rather than later :) Took me way too many years of stinking the joint up to start building up a sound foundation for getting things done.

      Besides, a little theory never hurt anyone…

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