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Does Your Writing Style Match Your Personality Type?

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.

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Johne Cook September 11, 2014, 9:46 AM

    This resonates with me. As a Phlegmatic (with Sanguine chaser), I am far more comfortable as a panster. It grates against my temperament to even attempt an outline, as if even that little bit of control over my story might stymie the creative Muse.

  • Keanan Brand September 11, 2014, 10:10 AM

    This makes total sense.

    I used to love the creation process far more than the editing process. I wanted to slop my colors on the canvas in any way my imagination desired, perfection and criticism be damned.

    Later, however, creativity was stifled because my creativity didn’t live up to other people’s standards, and somehow that became personal, so I stopped writing for several years.

    Now, as an editor for close to twenty years, I’ve come to appreciate more methods of getting the job done. Also, on personality tests limited to the four main categories Mike listed, I tend to score consistently high in melancholy, choleric, and phlegmatic, with sanguine a distant fourth. (Wonder what that says about the few writers groups where I was perceived as the party animal?)

  • Jill September 11, 2014, 12:33 PM

    I guess I’m a melancholic and choleric blend, judging by the descriptions . And it sounds like my writing process isn’t that different from yours, either. I have to have a plan, but at the same time, I don’t want too much of one because that destroys the magic. Even though it irks me at times because I want to be an artist, I’m actually more wired toward editing. Ah, well. But personality typing is interesting. Some of these typing systems with fewer categories would encapsulate multiple Meyers-Briggs or Enneagram personality types. They are all different ways of looking at the human spectrum of traits, I guess.

  • Kessie September 11, 2014, 6:39 PM

    Yeah, I’ve come to realize on my own that not all writing advice works for me. I tried to do EVERY METHOD ALL AT ONCE. I wound up with a hot, stinking mess. So I’ve tossed 70% of the writing advice I’ve read, and stick with my own method, which is loose outline, light pantsing, lots of rewrites.

  • HG Ferguson September 11, 2014, 8:57 PM

    Thank you so much for your insights here. Thank you so much for speaking out against the “one size fits all” aka god’s 10 rules of writing, and if you don’t write like god wrote, you write excrement. Thank you for bringing in individualism and standing up for one’s OWN VOICE and how personality plays a part. Writing “experts” need to recognize this. Far too often the “experts” may have some great ideas and some good practices, but it usually at some point degenerates into “and my way is THE ONLY WAY.” The “stylistic” conformity imposed from the top down needs to go. This doesn’t mean the “experts” are wrong about everything. They just need to listen more to people like you on matters like this. THANK YOU!!!

  • Keith J. Henry September 12, 2014, 9:08 AM

    What a wonderful post! I feel vindicated and freed. Now if we can just get the rest of the editors and agents to read this. I also concur with H.G. above me. This strange adherence to the “god’s” (Elmore Leonard, I believe) rules through out the writing world seems quite peculiar to me. It’s great for the crime novel but for genres like science fiction (my area), horror, and romance, just to name a few…not so much. Again, a great post!

  • R. A. Meenan September 13, 2014, 11:39 AM

    Excellent post. I’ve never thought of personality types getting involved with my writing.

    I’m definitely on your side of the thing. I love editing, but I’m not a fan of first drafts, and I can’t understand pantsers at ALL. It’s nice to finally have WORDS To my feelings behind it.

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