Striking a Balance By Melissa Barker-Simpson

As people we compare ourselves to others, it helps us to (among other things) modify behaviour, learn, and to grow. When you’re a writer, comparing yourself can be a double edged sword. In fact, it’s easy to get lost.


If you were to look at the characteristics of a ‘typical’ writer, besides the obvious results like; well-read, observant, passionate, and imaginative – you’ll also find descriptions like self-disciplined, and organised. While all of these are true, there are times when we hone in the one skill we don’t possess and, (during our darkest moments) convince ourselves the absence of something means we’re doing it wrong.


This post is all about finding a balance, accepting who we are, so we can find a way to deal with these insecurities. Because we all have them. We are, after all, a contradictory blend of self-doubt and confidence.


So, on the subject of balance and the two sides of the coin, let’s take a look a few approaches to the process. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be another planner versus pantser debate. I believe we’re a little of both – which side of the scale we gravitate to, is merely personal choice.


Developing and Planning


I’m going to start with a quote, taken directly from George R. R. Martin – it goes like this:


“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.”


I’ve always enjoyed the analogy, and either way, a story is told. My view on this process though, is that you need to be a little bit of both. Most people naturally ride the scale, depending on the project.


My natural choice makes me a gardener. I plant that seed and let it grow. Once it’s come to fruition that is when my planning starts and, I suppose, where the analogy begins to break down. Thankfully we’re not talking in literal terms or how else could we shake those foundations without the whole thing crashing down on us!


It works for me because I can start at the beginning and see where I need to reinforce, modify, add and ‘weed-out’ parts of the creation. I use a variety of tools, ones which mirror those of an architect.


The fact is, planners will also plant something just to watch it grow. The occasions when they completely ignore an outline, when they go with the flow of the story and listen to the characters. This is unknown territory; one there are no blueprints for. But it works, given the right balance.


That’s the secret, I think. Finding the middle ground. It’s about doing what comes naturally, while adapting the process as it suits you. Personally, I often start with a basic outline, no more than the instructions on the back of my seed packet, and use it to gain the discipline I sometimes lack.


Whether we have long, detailed goals, or a short, brief set of instructions – we work better when we know who we are.


Embrace who you are


While we’ve dealt with the form a writer uses to weave their stories, the subject of many a debate, there are other comparisons we enjoy to torture ourselves with. Those tools a writer uses, the differences we like to pin point or discuss.


I’ve taken part in lengthy discussions about music, and how it can often complement our work. Some writers believe it disrupts the flow of words, while others feel it adds something to the flavour. In a way, it’s one of those comparisons we love to torture ourselves with, yet finding a balance can make the process an enjoyable one. If we’re writing an emotional or particularly dramatic scene, the right musical accompaniment can get those creative juices flowing. Having said that, if we derive no benefit from utilising this medium, then me must stay true to who we are. There’s no rule that states you’re not a writer because you don’t use music as a creative outlet.


As writers we like to observe the world around us. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a conscious effort – we’re not all people watchers. We might not ask a barrage of questions to be filed away for later use. In truth we all pick things up on an unconscious level. We listen, observe, and like the diverse creatures we are, we take things in by soaking up the information – in a variety of ways.


A particularly controversial topic at the moment, is the use of banned words. It’s fine to listen to advice and experiment a little. We have to be true to ourselves, so as long as we follow the rules of the language (grammatically speaking), why shouldn’t we use the words we believe will make our story better. The art belongs to each of us, and we should have freedom of choice. So again, in my opinion, we should stay true to who we are and find a balance – whatever works for us.


So really, it doesn’t matter if we use pen and paper, keyboard or chalk and mortar; usually it’s a combination anyway. We should rely on our support networks, take what we need, and try not to allow our doubts cloud what we believe to be true. It goes back to my earlier comment about getting lost. Yes, we should always seek to learn and develop our skills, but we shouldn’t lose who we are in the process. Go with your gut, that’s what I say, and try to strike a balance.


Melissa Barker-Simpson



  1. I love what you have to say about balance, and being ourselves. We’re all different; we all have our own natures, and our own lives. What works is definitely not one-size fits all.

    For instance, I love music, and it often inspires my music. But the catch is that I almost never listen to music WHILE I’m writing, because music I love makes me want to sing, and I love to sing…not just sing along, but really sing out…

    So I listen to music when I can sing, and let the stories wind through my imagination, and the music feeds inspiration.

    On the other hand, I often watch television while writing, and I know lots of people might not want to do that….

    1. I can completely relate to the fact music makes me want to sing out. I rarely use it while writing, but I listen and then begin writing to let the emotions of a particular song influence a scene. Like you, I sometimes write whilst watching television, but I guess it depends what the show is – sometimes I can only give my attention to one thing! Thanks for sharing your views

  2. I love the George R.R. Martin quote. I would definitely say that I’m a gardener–I start out with a little bit of a plan, but then I let the story grow from there. I sometimes–though rarely–have most of the story figured out before I write. I’ve grown from my full-out pantser days when I did zero planning. I now use the approach you discuss here–still a gardener, but I read the seed packet and plan out my rows before I begin.

    Great post, Melissa!

    1. Love that – ‘plan out my rows before I begin’. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I certainly enjoyed learning about your developments. Our processes are very similar 🙂

  3. I used to teach beginning fiction writing, and one of the things I learned from that (and from editing a writers magazine that focused heavily on craft and process) is that no two writers work in entirely the same way. I’ve known writers who spent a fair bit of energy comparing their own process to that of the Greats, and it always struck me as a way not to just go ahead and write. There’s no perfect way to do this thing, any more than there’s a perfect finished piece of writing.

  4. This was a great post, Mel! Thanks! I think I’m more of a gardener, trying to nourish my creations and see how they grow. Of course, there’s the scaffolding I sometimes set up, to encourage my creations to grow a certain way, but I love the organic way such a scaffolding (an outline) shapes the growth of the story without limiting it.

  5. I find writing with music quite helpful as long as there are no vocals in English so the voices remain equivalent to instruments. I can hum if moved to do so but words I know grab my attention like mini-stories, filling my head with a mass of free associations in words and images that keep me as distracted as a kitten in a Christmas tree.

    I cannot write my own words when other’s words are present. That would include TV and background conversations. Even the fear of interruption by conversation is often enough to mute me.

    But instrumental music chosen for the emotional ambiance the scene requires helps me gain and hold onto the dream state I find necessary for scene writing. And associating a particular piece to a particular scene or a particular character helps me regain the state of mind I need to return to a scene hours or days after an interruption.

    Music seems to pacify the editor–as in mute with a pacifier. 🙂

    I am both a gardener and an architect depending on the stage of a project but neither one plays nice. They each hate to share. Usually the gardener begins it and the architect horns in after she’s created a chaotic overgrown wilderness. But then the architect gets possessive and snubs the gardener, refusing to acknowledge that she can’t write the scenes alone as she endlessly moves elements around while cataloging them and fiddling with the instruments and aps parameters as much as the story’s. My husband calls it polishing the tools, including outlines, spreadsheets, lists, timelines and mindmaps in the category.

    I aspire to a fine balance of nature, nurture and design akin to that Japanese art of miniature trees where the end result gives the illusion of natural free-flowing growth. Maybe if I could find that balance I would actually finish more than 2% of what I start.

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