I spend most of my time talking to writers. What I’ve noticed, over the years, that there are some things that we all deal with.
We all have a relationship to ideas, for instance.
Some writers are bombarded with them--they come from all angles all the time, and they are all so exciting. They’re idea extroverts.
Other people get one good idea at a time and they’re perfectly content to work at that one thing until it’s perfect, even if that takes the rest of their lives. They’re idea introverts.
Or how about our relationship to our audiences?
Some people write outwardly--without an audience, there’s no purpose to their work. Others write inwardly--they’d write in their journal and never let anyone read it, if someone would pay them to.
I started to notice patterns in the way that writers manage being writers. And if we can tap into those patterns, we can learn something about ourselves that will help us become better writers.
Every writer has an archetype and if we lean into that archetype, we’ll be more successful and (even more importantly) happier.
I’ve tested this theory on hundreds of writers. The results have been stunning. What had previously been confusing, suddenly made sense.
Knowing your archetype answers questions like:
- Why does it take me so long to write a single blog post?
- Why don’t I ever finish the novels that I start?
- Why do I keep losing interest in my ideas?
- Do I have to write the same way as that successful writer over there does?
- How come my desire to be a writer hasn’t translated into a career?
I believe that your archetype is your archetype, whether you write fiction or nonfiction. For instance, the way I write (my natural happy place as a writer) doesn’t change whether I’m blogging or writing a middle-grade book.
I came up with five archetypes. I wonder if you’ll find yourself in one of these. Here’s a quiz that will help you figure out your own archetype.
The Hesitater has trouble getting started. They want badly to be writers and they think about it a lot, but for whatever reason they can’t seem to get the momentum going to actually pull the trigger and start writing with any real consistency.
Facebook Groups for writers and MFA programs are full of Hesitaters. These writers are learners. They want to be sure they know everything before they pull the trigger and actually do the work.
Maybe they lack confidence. Maybe they’re pulled in too many directions by other projects. Maybe they lack experience and just really don’t know how. Whatever the reason, the Hesitater teeters on the brink of getting started but can’t seem to get themselves over that edge.
If you’re a Hesitater, you might find that the whole idea of being a writer, building an audience — all of it — just seems huge. Too much! There are so many things to learn, so many ways to screw it up, so many places where you could fail. It’s much easier to study and really think hard about it, then it is to actually do it.
Hesitaters are never only hesitaters. They have one foot on the gas and one on the brake (and often the right foot doesn’t know what the left foot is doing.) When they finally take their foot off the brake, they’ll move into one of the other archetypes as well.
Hesitaters need to build systems that help them overcome their perfectionism and quiet their inner editors. They also need systems that are designed to make sure that they actually put their work out into the world, once they do get started. They often do well with self-imposed deadlines.
There are writers who skip all over the place — they write about one topic today and another one tomorrow. Their happy place is having an assignment. Skippers are often journalists, freelancers, ghostwriters, or copywriters — working for a paycheck or with a contract and always knowing that they’ll be paid for their work.
Often Skippers end up writing for other people, taking assignments and thriving on the thrill of always having something new to research and write about.
The Skipper might struggle to find their own niche, if that becomes something they want to do. Diving deeper into a single topic doesn’t come naturally to them. They like the excitement of trying on something new when they start a new project.
They also train themselves to leave themselves out of the story and write with a journalistic voice, or in someone else’s voice all together, so finding their own voice if they want to shift gears can be difficult.
Because they are so often not writing to a dedicated audience, Skippers usually aren’t focused on building their own dedicated audiences at all. They might find that the work that they do involves building audiences for other people.
If a Skipper writes fiction, they’re often able to shift gears and write in any genre. They are more likely to be focused on what’s selling than on some ‘story of their heart.’ They might also write on a contract or as a ghostwriter, where they get paid, but don’t have their name on the book at all.
Skipper’s need systems that help them find and keep track of assignments. If they are moving into blogging or fiction writing, a system designed to help them remember that building an audience is important and that putting themselves into their story is essential.
Spillers put a strong emphasis on being confessional. When they write, they spill their guts on the page. Often their purpose is healing and they want to let readers know they aren’t alone in the world. There is someone else out there feeling what they feel or who has experienced what they are experiencing — and that matters to them, a lot.
Spillers write for themselves, often focused on storytelling. They’re happy when readers find them and relate or are helped by their work. The truth, though, is that they would almost certainly write what they write (even if it was only in a journal) whether there or not anyone ever reads.
Their storytelling is so healing and so important to them that they’d do it without an audience.
It can sometimes, also, feel like the Spiller is writing just to see if they can make us blush. They are fantastic about putting themselves into their stories and they are often extremely transparent and honest. The reader is drawn to their posts if for no other reason than they can’t look away.
The Spiller has a story to tell and they are going to tell it, no matter what. Nothing will stand in their way. While they want to help their readers, they are usually less focused on building dedicated audiences. They’re often happy with some anonymity in their work.
As a result, Spillers are the writers who are most likely to find themselves fielding negative feedback — because they are often writing on controversial subjects without holding back.
If a Spiller writes fiction, they often tell deeply personal stories or highly controversial stories. Memoirists or writers who write fiction based on their own true story are often spillers.
Spillers benefit from systems that remind them to include their audience in their stories. Their systems need to help them to actually build those audiences, which is important if they want to create writing careers.
This is my own writer archetype.
I am the kind of writer who writes with a strong emphasis on teaching. Even my fiction has an educational bent to it. I want readers to come away having learned something. As a result I have trouble writing about things that I’m not either an expert at already or strongly invested in learning about myself. I’ve had the same niche for two decades.
The Teacher needs an audience who expects to hear from them on a regular basis. On many levels, it’s the connection that feeds them. Because if your goal is to teach, then you want to know you’re reaching other people and they’re learning from you.
Teachers are writers who often bombarded by ideas — and who get as excited by other people’s ideas as they do their own. That’s a lot of ideas! They often write fast and publish prolifically, because they are so excited to share what they’ve learned.
Teachers are the writers who seek to build community. They have their reader at the top of their mind when they write. Without readers, it can feel like there is no purpose to their work. Teachers need students, after all.
Even when a Teacher writes fiction, they’re desire to reach out to the reader and share their ideas is apparent. They can’t help teaching what they’ve learned. Children’s book writers are often Teachers. But there are plenty of Teachers writing for adults as well. For instance, read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and you feel like you could go be a nurse or teach a class about 1700s Scotland.
Teachers need systems to help them manage all of those ideas, to keep from being impossibly distracted by them. They might have to work hard at remembering to put themselves into their stories and make themselves vulnerable, rather than just teaching all the time (which can come off cold, academic, and boring.)
The Artist’s main focus is the craft of writing. If the Spiller writes mostly for themselves and the Teacher writes mostly for their audience, the Artist writes mostly for their muse.
This writer crafts their work and presents it to the world, much in the same way that a fine artist might hang paintings in a gallery. They tend to be focused on their readers individually. They want to entertain and delight.
Lyrical, literary, poetic prose is this writer’s happy place. They might spend a week or more carefully choosing every word in a 1000-word essay, unbothered by other ideas trying to muscle their way in. When they are in creation-mode, they are fully focused on that project. Their ideas usually come one at a time.
As a result, when they’re done writing that project, there’s often a period of let down and a need, almost, to recover before they can focus on the next thing. They might not even be sure they’ll ever have another idea worth working on again until it shows up.
The Artist, because they are less focused on mass audiences or earning an income, are the most rebellious archetype. They’re often rule breakers, going wherever their muse leads, rather than worrying about things like a paycheck or being a bestseller.
When an Artist writes fiction, it’s often literary and can be very avant-garde. They care more about entertaining and creating art than they do about anything else, so they’re willing to push boundaries.
The Artist’s struggle is with perfectionism. They often work slowly, producing less output than the other archetypes. Their anxiety about creating something beautiful can keep them from actually putting their work out into the world and so Artists are often also Hesitaters.
Most writers have a primary and a secondary archetype.
For instance, I’m solidly a Teacher writer, but I lean towards being a Spiller. I care more about storytelling than I do about perfection.
What that means, for me, is that I’m a Teacher who struggles a little less than some Teachers do to put myself in my stories, because I’m also a storyteller and a little bit of an oversharer.
Like most writers, I can be a Skipper when I have to. I’ve worked as a journalist and a freelancer, because I need to feed my family. But whenever I could stop doing that and focus on a different type of writing, I did. A true Skipper would be happiest doing that type of work.
You might be an Artist with a bent toward being a Teacher — so you are dedicated to your craft, but your work often teaches readers something. Or maybe a Skipper with a Spiller tendency — which might mean that you have a job working at an online magazine that lets you write confessional stories for a large audience.
Here’s an example:
A while back, I wrote a story about my recent discovery that I love granny panties.
As a Teacher, I wrote about why I love granny panties and why other women might, too, and how to find them.
A Spiller might tell a far more intimate story about how giving up more delicate underwear helped them come to terms with a bad experience.
An Artist might write a poem about their underwear, or maybe a gorgeous essay about granny panties hanging on a line, fluttering in the breeze.
A Skipper might write a post that would fall into any of the three above lanes, that’s sponsored by a company that makes and sells granny panties.
And a Hesitater would plan a post in one of the above categories, really think about it, but either never write it, or write it, but never publish it.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation, Rebel Nation, The Astonishing Maybe, and Center of Gravity. She is the original Ninja Writer.