It is commonly recognized that a child’s personality type affects their learning. Some kids are more conceptual learners while others are more visual learners, meaning some can handle text books while others need hands-on. Which creates a problem because our public education system tends to approach all kids the same, giving them little freedom to learn at their pace and in their own way. Similarly, much of today’s professional writing advice treats writers as of the same type, as if we all write the same way.
Example: I used to loathe first drafts. Now I just dislike them. On the other hand, editing, dare I say, is enjoyable for me. I derive unique pleasure picking apart my words, reorganizing them, pruning the overgrowth, fattening up an undernourished plot and adding seasonal color to my bed of prose. The difference between my approach to first drafts and editing has little to do with correct form or discipline. It has to do with my personality type.
Stephen Koch, in his excellent book The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop opens with this advice about first drafts:
It would be nice, I suppose, to begin at the perfect point in the story, in the perfect way, using the perfect voice to present exactly the desired scene. Unfortunately, you have no choice but to be wholly clueless about all of this. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect, and you’re unlikely to know in advance what is right and wrong in a story that has not yet been written.
I’ve always been a fan of the ancient “four temperaments” approach to personality theory (as popularized by Tim LaHaye, among others), in which human temperaments are narrowed down to four basic categories: choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic.
Learning that I am of the choleric / melancholy brand (high choleric) has helped me immensely in counseling, leading, and relating to people. Among other things, cholerics tend to be control freaks; they not only can chart the course, they want to be at the helm. They sincerely believe they know the right way and how to get us there. They are driven and impatient, easily frustrated with sloth and incompetence. Cholerics can be perfectionists and nit-pickers, and can easily abandon something (or someone) that isn’t working.
So when Koch says that I must start first drafts “wholly clueless,” this is more than just an inconvenience — it grates against my personality.
You see, as a choleric, I need to know where I’m going before I start and devise a plan to get there. Or to translate this into first draft language: I can’t start writing until I know how my novel ends and the basic steps that will get me there. This tends to make my first drafts a slog.
It’s also why “seat-of-the-pants” writers drive me absolutely bonkers! I mean, how can someone just start writing without knowing where they’re going?
The reason I like editing so much more than first drafts relates, in part, to my personality. Editing is more about “control” and detail, while first drafts are a bit more random, scattershot, and unfocused. Loose ends don’t need to be tied in first drafts. But as a choleric writer, it’s hard for me to devote time to a piece if I can’t conceieve how those ends can be tied. So understanding my personality type has helped be more patient with first drafts. Knowing that I am a tad controlling helps me impose a little bit less upon my first draft. But this self-awareness has also kept me from trying to be a first draft seat-of-the-pants writer. (From my experience, seat-of-the-pants writers are often sanguines, the temperament type given to color, spontanaity, and scatterbrained-ness.)
And this is where I find some of the professional writing advice out there flawed. As a choleric, I need to spend more time on my first draft. Pre-plotting is essential to how I work. Just telling me to spit words onto a page without concern for order or clarity is more than impossible for me… it is near blasphemous. Conversely, imposing my writing style upon someone else is equally wrong. This doesn’t mean that sanguine / seat-of-the-pants writers don’t still drive me bonkers. It simply means that there’s no “one size fits all” writing advice.
Writing a novel is hard enough. Writing a novel without conceding your personality type is even more difficult. It makes me wonder how many writers are encumbered by someone elses writing methods. In other words, they’re a choleric who’s trying to write like a sanguine.
Realizing my temperament has improved how I write. I no longer loathe first drafts. I endure them on the way to what I really like — the editing.