Are Writing “Rules” Gendered?

Rules of “good writing” have always bothered me. There are many reasons for this: I have a questioning mind and I don’t accept anything is so simply because some authority tells me it’s so. I see so many places where the rules are “broken”–sometimes for good, and sometimes not so much. (Rereading the Harry Potter series as I recover from my sinus surgery, I haven’t been able to help noticing how much static language and passive voice J.K. Rowling used, especially in the first three books. As an aside, it’s been interesting to watch her writing style mature over the course of the series.) And a lot of the time the “rules” simply don’t apply to my personal experience.

But one thing I never considered was that the rules of writing one sees so much might be gendered.

Like it or not, gender is an issue in a writer’s world, especially when you get into genre fiction. And I mean, the gender of the writer, not of the characters. It’s still a man’s world out there. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t need con panels like “Women in Science Fiction;” the fact that women write it wouldn’t be seen as anything remarkable. Men still get most of the reviews, and men are still the ones asked to write reviews. And it’s possible that men are still the ones telling us how to write, whether or not what works for male writers works for women.

I started thinking about this just this morning, actually. Yesterday I read a blog by a prominent male author & blogger. The topic was one of the usual ones: Write even when you don’t feel like it. This is one of the “rules” that bothers me, and I felt moved to comment to that effect. This morning, I found that several people had responded to my comment. I fully expected my point of view to be dismissed, but when I looked at the responses all of them agreed with me and said they appreciated my articulating what they had wanted to say themselves. And all of the respondents were women.

It got me thinking. The idea of writing every day whether you want to or not comes from a place of privilege, doesn’t it? It assumes that you have even five minutes to yourself to jot down words, that you aren’t struggling with a chronic illness, that you feel justified in taking the time to write. It assumes that not writing every day shows a lack of commitment or the unwillingness to “develop the habit of writing.”

But I have to ask, who has the time? Despite many strides in feminism and equality, it’s still the women who are responsible for most of the housework and child care. Women are still expected to spend more time on personal grooming. Women suffer more chronic illnesses than men, including auto-immune disorders like fibromyalgia, which can be completely debilitating. Sometimes, we don’t write because we simply CAN’T, not because we’re lazy or less dedicated. And then we have the added burden of feeling guilty about not writing, because so many people who do not have our experience tell us we should be doing it every day, whether we can or not.

It made me wonder about other writing rules. A quick Google search came up with about 650 million results. Obviously I haven’t gone through all of them, but in the first five pages I found two references to lists of writing rules by women as opposed to 30-odd references to writing rules by men. (Many of these were the most recent list from Elmore Leonard.) Making a brief comparison between this list and another by Janet Fitch, it strikes me how dissimilar they are. Leonard’s are, in the main, definite instructions: Do this, Don’t do that. Fitch’s are more suggestions that an individual might apply to his or her own writing experience: Pick a better verb, or explore dependent clauses. I can’t help but feel that, perhaps, this difference may stem from a difference in world view and experience. And it makes me ask the question: Are women writers doing themselves a disservice when they try to follow the rules that have been made up by men in the field?

I don’t have an answer, and I think the question deserves further exploration. I’m interested to hear what others might think.

12 thoughts on “Are Writing “Rules” Gendered?

  1. That is a really interesting question, I’m going to ask what my creative writing group thinks of this. It needs further exploration (which is itself a feminine answer, I think)

  2. Your gendering of the rules of writing is starting with a flawed premise. Women do more house work and child care. Men spend more time doing paid work and home repair. The Average man works 51.5 hours per week doing paid and unpaid work. The average woman works 51 hours per week doing paid and unpaid work. This half hour of difference is not significant. Women do suffer from more chronic illnesses than men. This is not because women are sickly. It is because women live longer than men and the elderly almost all have some sort of chronic illness. That extra 7 years at the end of life with a chronic illness really skews the numbers. So a young woman has the same amount of time and is equally likely to suffer from some chronic problem as men, the difference really is dedication drive and ambition.

    1. Oh. I just looked to see who you are, and never mind. From the subject and position of your blog, it’s clear you’re not interested in reasonable discourse about this topic.

      1. That’s just it. I am very reasonable. What isn’t reasonable is the current discourse on gender issues. There are many people with full time jobs twisting data, information and statistics to try and fabricate a threat narrative where women as a group are threatened by and oppressed by men as a group.

        This is a sick twisted bigoted form of sexism against men. Reality isn’t men oppressing women. It is interconnected interdependent gender roles for both men and women that are outdated dogmatic regressive and harmful for both women and men.

        Is it really that hard to believe men and women are equal? That men work just as hard as women? That men can love their children as much as women? That women can be just as criminal and violent as men? I have the truly extreme notion that men and women are equals, and that equality doesn’t end at benefits for women.

    2. It seems telling to me that you decided to enter this conversation with an attempt to point out a concrete statistic rather than consider the suggestion that there may be a significant, ” difference in world view and experience,” as the blog author asks. Your response seems to support the idea that men look for rules and concrete statistics rather than consider experiential factors and experiences, and the less than tidy idea that there may be more questions than can be accounted for by formulaic thinking.

      1. That’s just it. experiential factors and experiences are a major thing. Look at the author of the blog. She wants to be a writer. Does she spend her time writing, practicing, getting the experiences of writing? She chooses to focus not on how developing skills and getting experiences in the world of writing and publishing are important, but how oppressed and disadvantaged women are because she feels that way. Feeling is the most basic, lest reliable and a fundamentally flawed way of knowing. It is not the pinicale of knowledge.

        There is a very real difference in world view and experiences. This is not because women are oppressed. It is because many women have chosen to lock themselves in the idological cage of feminism where they are helpless objects that others act upon. This is a very different world view that leaves her interpreting experiences in a very flawed way.

      2. 1. I agree with you that “interconnected gender roles for both men and women are outdated and harmful for both.” That being said, I wonder at your need to be so defensive and leap to the conclusion that I’m writing about men oppressing women when what I did was make an observation and ask a question.
        2. I am an author with five published novels and currently working on a sixth. I take exception with your making the assumption that you know anything about my process because I have asked a question with which you disagree.
        3. I’m no longer going to respond to you because I’m not interested in feeding trolls. Please don’t come back here. Further comments will be deleted.

      3. Genderneutrallanguage, you’re assumptions about the author aren’t true. I know the author personally (to the point I know Fibromyalgia wasn’t just a random example she pulled out of nowhere), and I know for a fact she writes all the time. Also, I don’t always agree with her, but she doesn’t just base her opinions on her feelings. She tries to be informed just like the average person.

  3. That whole “write every day” thing, especially the “make an appointment with the Muse,” has always hacked me off. If that Muse is going to come to me, she’ll find me no matter if we have an appointment or not. I don’t really write anymore, because the pleasure of it ceased. I have other creative outlets now. But I still have a negative visceral reaction to The Writer’s Way. I honestly don’t remember the author’s gender. Oh, and journaling. I’d rather shoot myself in the head and remove the bullet myself than be forced to journal.

    1. I have kept journals at times when I had no one else to talk to and my head would explode if I didn’t get out some of my thoughts. Also, when required to do so for psych classes. But I’m incapable of keeping one when my life is going relatively well. I know how it is to no longer feel pleasure in something you once enjoyed (my band experience, anyone?), but it’s a shame you don’t write because you had a real talent. On the other hand, I find that a person with…a writer’s soul, I guess I would say, although that sounds a bit pretentious and it’s not really what I mean, always returns to writing, in fact MUST return to writing, can’t give it up any more than one could give up breathing. So the whole argument about dedication doesn’t make much sense to me.

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