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Male Writers & Female Writers—There’s a Difference in the Writing

September 17, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 11, 2010

I’m sure I’ll catch flak for this one, but I have to tell the truth—men and women write differently.

Their approaches are different. Their styles are different. Their tones, their words, their sentence construction is different.

And…

I often prefer a man’s stylings.

I read a lot of books, and in the past few years I’ve delved into a lot of manuscripts. By far—and not always, but most often—the male writers get to the point sooner. They jump into action and begin the story without hesitation.

Their characters are people with character. The people in stories written by men don’t hold back. They speak plainly—often boldly and crudely, but not always—and they leave the reader in no doubt about who they are and what they want.

These characters have clear goals, strong motivations, and few hesitations. They act, they act out, and they press forward.

Stories written by men tend to have exciting action, action that draws the reader deep. The emotion is up front, the goals plain, the trip to the finish filled with fun or terror or disbelief.

Do women write this way? Of course some do.

Does everyone need to write this way? Of course they don’t.

Yet…

I find myself wishing that more women would give their characters the frankness that male authors do. That female writers would pour it on, turn it up, go for the gusto more often. I wish they’d come out and write some of the outrageous declarations that men put into the mouths of their characters.

I know there are different styles of presentation and countless ways to introduce characters and plot and tone. But I suggest to female writers that it may be worth your time to take the restraints off when you write your next character. Give him a voice you’ve not used before. One that grabs the reader’s attention. You might be shocked at what your story turns into. You may be surprised at the readers you gain. You may discover you’ve pushed yourself into a stronger style.

I can hear some wondering if I even enjoy female authors. You bet. I love their stylings and the myriad approaches they bring to the craft. And yes, I’d love to see male writers take on some of the strengths of the females. But that article’s for another day.

I’m certain this one’s stirred up enough trouble.

Tags: , ,     Posted in: A Writer's Life

33 Responses to “Male Writers & Female Writers—There’s a Difference in the Writing”

  1. Thought provoking post, Beth. The concept makes sense, though I’ve seen counter examples. I just read a Carl Hiassen book and found he meandered all over the place. He wrote a fun book, with plenty of energy, but it sure would have benefited from incisive editing. I’m currently reading a novel by woman writer Delaune Michel and it’s hard to imagine that a man could write this particular book, given it’s insights into the world of life long girl friends.

  2. Kat Sheridan says:

    Fascinating insight, Beth, and I wholeheartedly concur. I think this is why I enjoy writiing my villains so much–they’re insane, so they can say whatever outrageous thing I put in their mouths. I only have one other character like that, the heroine of an unfinished WIP. Perhaps it’s unfinished because I wasn’t sure that either I–or a reader–would appreciate a character like that. You’ve just inspired me to dig out that WIP and think again!

  3. Kat, I like being an inspiration. Go for it! Characters can’t afford to be bland, to hold back. We remember those who stand up and stand out.

    James, I’ve also seen men wander and women get to the point. But female writers often hold back, in many ways, and I can only imagine how much stronger their characters and scenes would be if they cut out hesitation and just went for it.

    We know, all of us from experience, that men (as a whole) are direct while women (as a whole) take a subtler approach. (Exceptions accepted, of course.) I’d love to see female writers write boldly, as if consequences mean nothing, and male writers attempt subtlety without losing boldness.

  4. ~Sia McKye~ says:

    Food for thought. I’ve also noticed that male authors tend to jump right into action and motivations are much clearer. This is a fun idea to play around with.

  5. Vivian A says:

    I guess I knew this subconsciously, but I didn’t really think about it. Wondering how “girlie” my writing is now. Shoot!

  6. Beth says:

    This isn’t to say, naturally, that male authors are somehow better writers. It’s just that their fiction is often more compelling. It’s exciting to read a story that goes all out.

    Vivian, we ladies have our strengths, so we’re not so girlie. But I’m guessing differences in writing styles lead men toward books written by men while women read both men and women.

  7. I like to think my characters are frank and I put it all out there no-holds-barred (I’ve shocked many a reader), but then I’m a poor judge of my own writing, so what do I know?

    I like the emotional connection that comes with stories written by female writers. I have never felt truly close to many characters written by men (I’m sure there are exceptions, but I honestly can’t think of any at the moment). Their characters do exciting stuff, but I don’t really care if the characters live or die. I haven’t become emotionally attached to them. A good example: Harry Potter vs. Percy Jackson – very, very similar series. Harry, written by a woman, I LIVED his life with him and felt his sorrow, his pain, his happiness. I cried for him more than once. He was real to me. Percy, written by a man, I WATCHED his life and didn’t give a hoot what happened to him or his friends. Exciting, fast-moving adventures, but I was not emotionally invested in the characters. Honestly, if they all die at the end I wouldn’t much cared. I find that a lot with male-written characters. I enjoyed both series, but for different reasons.

    So I have to say it depends on why I’m reading. I like both styles of writing, but the experience is not the same. If I want an emotional connection, I’m more likely to find it with female writers. If I want interesting stuff to happen to people I don’t care about, I’ll seek a male writer. There are always exceptions to both of these, and I do hate to generalize, because I’m not a fan of gender stereotypes. Or any stereotypes, for that matter. But there you have it.

  8. Pat Bertram says:

    As a whole, I think women are better writers than men, but I used to prefer books written by men. I know how women think, so I liked getting the male perspective. I preferred jumping into the story without a lot of touchy-feely stuff delaying the action. But now, so many men write like they think women write and so their wrting seems contrived.

  9. Honestly, I would look at genre before I look at gender. I think there are certainly gendered preferences in genre. But I read mostly mysteries with a literary bent, and I don’t see this in that particular genre.

    I think without looking at genre and the expectations attached to it, this is way too broad of a generalization to make.

  10. Beth says:

    Olivia, I find that emotions are often written differently by men and women, though they both push at emotions. That’s part of what makes fiction so satisfying and engaging–when both the emotions and the mind are touched, a story resonates.

  11. Beth says:

    Lisa, I typically read by genre. This was a reflection of what I’ve experienced as I’ve read any genre.

    I think generalizations serve us well. We learn that the red burner means a hot stove–we don’t need to test every red burner. We can draw the same conclusions about people from our experience with them. People are different; some people share characteristics and behaviors. They differ based on age and sex and experience and culture and whether they’re left-or right-handed. They differ based on many factors. They share traits and behaviors based on many of the same factors.

    Olivia, you mentioned stereotypes. I don’t find it stereotyping to notice truths. Men tend to be more blunt than women. Men tend to be physically stronger. Women tend to live longer than men. Women tend to talk more. Children are more ignorant than most adults. Not stereotypes but observations based on real people in their everyday lives. I find that writers bring their traits and behaviors and qualities and tendencies to the books they write. And thus their stories reflect who they are at this stage in their lives.

  12. Lisa says:

    Sure, and there is some truth to be found in some stereotypes. But human behavior is not so cut and dried — there are shades of gray and it’s across a spectrum. And I think you have to look at the type of thing that’s being written or this is too general to be useful.

    I also think…I feel like there’s a subtle devaluation of women’s work here. I get that you’re trying to get writers to break out of conditioned patterns, but this seems to be all one way — getting women to “write more like men.”

    I think that my writing is pretty direct and blunt, but I don’t think that makes me a “male” writer. And I’ve certainly gotten what I think are some gendered responses to some aspects of the book.

  13. Beth says:

    Lots of gray shades–I agree. I was going for generalizations and tendencies, which are different for everyone and different for the same person at different stages, ages, and even times of day.

    Not necessarily to write like a man. But to be blunt instead of hesitant and direct instead of going around the block. That type of writing is often more compelling. So why not go for it?

  14. Elizabeth says:

    Is it cheating though, to write characters that are interesting but perhaps unrealistic? Human beings are often UNCLEAR about their motivations and almost all the time unclear about who they are as individuals. The same point can be made for action. The real challenge is to take real life, which often lacks in action or excitement and make it interesting without changing the facts. Of course there are exceptions for both, but just because a story is exciting does not make it good writing, nor does it make it more interesting necessarily. Depends on what kind of reader you are.
    If the interest is merely entertainment, or sales, then yes, write with the intention of being clear, black and white, and dramatic. But some of the greatest writers wrote to make their readers work, and these were male writers, in a time when female writers were not taken seriously anyway.
    If the question is writing style, direct is best, but showing is better than telling, be clear, but don’t dumb it down for the reader, every writing class will tell you that these are the except rules for writing. But if it is a question of character and content? Let your characters speak for themselves, and if your character doesn’t know who he or she is, don’t pretend he or she does. That’s why oftentimes we feel for the characters of female writers more, because they are people we actually know. (Olivia I totally agree with you about Harry and Percy)

    Another point here: The more we define male and female literature, the more we create an excuse for one to be considered better than the other. There is a stigma these days about so-called “emotional writing” or my favorite “confessional poetry”, unfortunately this has been lumped into stereotype “female writing”. Even the term “chicklet” is insulting. A book written about emotions, or difficult situations, illnesses, mental disorders, or even about females in general…they become beach reads and “social issue” books, not literature. That is not to say that they should all be considered great literature, but the subject matter, excitement level, or clarity of the characters self-knowledge should not be the basis of what is taken seriously. These days, one cannot write a book about female friendship without it being compared to “divine secrets of the ya-ya sisterhood”. Male friendships, with their Roman divinity (yeah, let’s just forget that sexual part) are revered, while female friendships are reduced to chicklet reads. Why does “brotherhood” have a positive connotation and “sisterhood” a negative, fluffy one? Sure, Toni Morrison is great and she wrote about women, but be honest, she hangs in a different hall than the greats doesn’t she? A particularly female one? Or maybe even an African American one?
    The connotations need to change, and until they do we will be trapped in male and female writing, one husky, brilliant and honest, ha! now that’s I’m thinking about, even the word honest means something different when talking about male and female pieces. A male work is “honest” as in issues are on the surface, that its loud and proud..but a “female” piece (as it is classified these days) is honest as in “a chilling or haunting confession” or as in we’re revealing secrets.
    Even Austen, in all her wit and satiric beauty is fading from recognition. Jane Austen, the women that reawakened Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, who brought to light a women nobody wanted to admit existed, is now thought of by English professors everywhere as a “chicklet”.

    Just something to think about.

    • Elizabeth says:

      And now I’ve found typos, don’t judge, can’t help myself…
      “the accepted rules”
      “now that I’m thinking about it”
      “as if we’re revealing secrets”

  15. Beth says:

    Elizabeth, from what I’ve heard of Dan Brown, his books are exciting but not well written. But people enjoy them. I haven’t read more than blurbs of any of his books, so I can’t weigh in. But if a book keeps a reader’s attention, doesn’t that mean it’s well written (good) in some way?

    I admit I can get caught up in movies that have implausible moments. Too many such moments, however, and they’ve lost me. A couple? I can handle those. Then I probably still say the movie is a good one. They may do some things wrong, but if the movie keeps my attention, they’ve also done a lot of things right.

    ————

    I think there will always be differences between the sexes in terms of what they write and how they achieve their aims. Can there be crossover? Of course. But people are different. Men and women have differences. They also have similarities. Play up one, play down another, and we become much more alike. But we are not the same. I’m not sure that all women will value the topics men typically enjoy nor will men all value topics women typically enjoy. And by no means do all men or all women enjoy the same things.

    So, do you try to change what people enjoy or do you try to change what you write to match what people already enjoy? Both? Neither? Maybe we continue to write what we write well and search for new audiences, male and female.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I’d be the last to say that because a book keeps you interested means that its bad writing. I have read Dan Brown and I do believe his writing to be good, in that it gets his point across exactly the way HE wants it to get across, clear and in an entertaining way. What I’m saying though is to not forget the opposite. That just because a book doesn’t entertain you doesn’t mean that it’s not good either. Some books are meant to be intellectual, to make you think, to highlight a certain culture or subculture, value or lack of value, not meant to even tell a story. Some books are meant just to fill you in on a particular person or a type of person, and sometimes that means not creating drama where none exists. A book, read by a careful reader, does not need things to “happen” and while a book must be clear to a certain point, it can be clear in being unclear. Stein did it brilliantly, and frankly, she flubbed the BEING clear about being unclear part and is still considered a great.
      And why are we talking about movies? Books are not movies, and hopefully are not written with the thought of later becoming a movie. A movie is two hours give or take, it does NEED to keep you interested the whole way through, a book can take time and is often not done in one sitting, and like i mentioned can be written for a variety of purposes, one being because the author felt the calling.

      I am not saying that men and women write the same either, because they don’t. I fully believe that there are two distinctly different voices there, but the problem is that one has a negative connotation at this moment in time, and that I believe is morally wrong and perpetuated by the “entertain me” mindset we have going for us. It’s not helped that most of the history of good writing has not only been written by men but also dictated by men.

      We need to be more careful about the way we talk about literature I think. We can only do so much to change the people, though Eliot certainly did when he forced people to understand his Greek quotations, not admitting defeat to the lazy readers of HIS generation (and I am NOT saying that we should start that up again, that would be TOO extreme) but as members of the writing community, and this goes for writers, editors, english and writing professors and critics, we need to be responsible when using words for meanings other than they’re literal. We need to be careful of the connotations and try and read without prejudice. Perhaps if a book written about the journey to find oneself is not read with the preset mindset that any book like that is bound to be lacking in “interest” (another subjective term which currently means entertainment value) perhaps the book can be given an accurate evaluation and perhaps be praised (if it is indeed worthy of praise) for any genius it might possess. Not be sent off to be beach read of the month.
      We write what we are compelled to write, and that is the correct way to go about it, but is everyone writing that way? Or are some writing for the money or the fame or the puzzle to solve? Where has the artistry gone?

  16. Beth says:

    Excellent discussion here, Elizabeth. I’m just going to comment on a few of your comments (in no particular order).

    Some writers, I’m sure, write for money or for fame, and maybe don’t write what they’d really like to write. But others work in jobs they don’t like to make money, so I can’t fault anyone for that. There are practitioners in every profession who are there because they fell into it—it’s a job. But we can definitely notice, as readers, when writers enjoy their work. There’s something different about the product they turn out. A skilled technician can turn out a book of quality, true, but a skilled technician who enjoys his work puts a different spin on it. It’s easy to see a comparison in the world of teaching. A person given to teaching might not ever work in a classroom—he may teach every day in hundreds of ways. A classroom teacher might teach by profession, but not be a natural teacher (gifted that way). Or, a natural teacher might find himself in the classroom, putting his gift to work in a profession that pays him for it. The teacher who isn’t one through natural gifts isn’t kept from the classroom, because he can learn the skills to impart information to students. (Yes, I know, some people shouldn’t be allowed in a classroom.) Writers who are in it solely for the money? They can be just as successful as the non-natural teacher.

    I can’t agree that the current “mindset” is wrong. Cultures change. What is popular today is not what was valued 50 years ago and not what will be valued 50 years in the future. If someone likes a beach read, that’s what he likes. If 250 million like a beach read, that affects what gets produced. It’s not my place to tell people what they should enjoy. It may be my place to suggest that there are many other quality reads available and to point them out.

    I also disagree that a book doesn’t have to entertain. Fiction is primarily entertainment. Novels may have been written at one time to disseminate a message, but that’s certainly not a major purpose today. Yes, writers can put messages into their works, but most don’t write to sway opinions. A few may pick up pen to make their message more palatable through fiction, but most novelists are storytellers first. And the audience of today, as we’ve both said, wants to be entertained. That’s the reality of the culture. Writers can pander to the culture, rebel against it, challenge it, lead it forward. But they can’t write solely for their own pleasure and then get upset if their work appeals to no one else. Stories are a shared medium.

    I hope I didn’t imply that you thought an entertaining book had to be bad writing. I certainly hadn’t thought that. I find good and bad writing in every type of book. But a book that doesn’t entertain, doesn’t keep the reader’s attention? There’s something wrong with that book.

    You mentioned that some books are not meant to tell a story, don’t need to create drama, and don’t necessarily need things to happen in them. While books may not need these elements, fiction books do. I’m speaking to novels and novellas, where things do have to happen, where tension and drama (in whatever form they take) drive the story, where there is story. Non-fiction is, of course, a totally different animal (though creative non-fiction can be highly dramatic). But a novel without a story or drama or events is not a novel.

    I used movies in comparison because I see them as similar to novels. Events happen to someone and the viewer is caught up in those events and in the drama. The same happens in a good novel—the reader is caught up in the story, as if it were real. I agree that a reader doesn’t have to finish in one sitting, but if a novel doesn’t engage his emotions and/or his mind, either the writer hasn’t done his job or the reader simply doesn’t enjoy that story.

    What a range of topics we’re into. Back to the male/female issue…

    Do men write what appeals to more of the reading public? I don’t think that’s the case. But most men I know gravitate toward male writers and are hesitant about picking up a book written by a woman. Most women, however, will read both male and female writers. Thus, the male authors are read more. Would men read more from women if they didn’t know the author was female? I’m sure studies have been done. Nothing about this says that men are better writers. Actually, it speaks more to the expectations of the reader. But what’s wrong with a reader expressing his or her opinion through the books read? Preferring one type of book over another doesn’t mean one’s better written. It just means the reader has a preference—for style, for topic, for pacing.

    Wow. I didn’t mean to write a whole new article.

  17. Frootbat31 says:

    Wonderful and thought provoking! I’m currently researching the ever-elusive trick to strengthening writing, and although I don’t like to focus on male versus female, I can’t argue your points.
    Women tend to write as if they are asking permission, as if to say ‘is this ok to say?’, instead of being forward, direct, and bold.
    You don’t have to be aggressive…but being an assertive writer offers more to the reader.
    Great article

  18. Thanks, Frootbat. There are differences between men and women and those differences can come out anywhere, including in our words. We can change those differences when we write, if we want to. We don’t have to, of course. But the possibility is there.

    I’m glad you stopped by and commented.

  19. Hi guys! No gender war please! Certainly there are differences. Being an author I feel that gender represents one’s innermost feelings…doesn’t matter much. But the writing without message is food without salt. So a book with a realistic approach, of course in a classic style, fulfill one’s emotional hunger whether from a male’s point of view or a female’s point of view, the target is to create wholesome characters with several traits. A female colours it with feminine type and male perceives it in manly ways. So this difference is absolutely normal.
    Chayanika Singh

  20. No wars, Chayanika, just heartfelt discussion. And yes, we need what both male and female writers bring to story. That mix is what makes story so appealing. It makes life appealing too, doesn’t it? I’m glad you stopped by.

  21. Elizabeth says:

    Been a while I know, but just passed this article again and was thinking…what about Mrs. Dalloway? Just curious…

  22. Elizabeth, I wasn’t sure what you meant about Mrs. Dalloway. So of course I had to order a copy to check it out. I’ll be reading this weekend. But let us know what you had in mind.

  23. Elizabeth says:

    Well…Mrs. Dalloway is interesting, beautifully written, entertaining in its psychological complexity, and genius in its structure. Written by a woman, about a female protagonist, where technically nothing happens besides a party. It is considered one of the greatest novels of all time, and revolutionized the concept of the novel itself. It mastered stream of consciousness, free indirect discourse, and time manipulation, all of which even the simplest and most “entertaining” novels of today would not exist without. SO I was wondering what you thought of Mrs. Dalloway as it seems to be at odds with your idea about clarity and plot being necessary for the entertainment and interest value of a novel, as most would agree that Mrs. Dalloway has plenty of both.

  24. Elizabeth, I’ll let you know what I think of Mrs. Dalloway. Thanks for the clarification—I didn’t know if you were referring to the differences between the sexes or something else.

  25. christina says:

    you are all sexist! i have read books from men and women that i loved and that i have disliked as well. You shouldn’t look at whether a book is written by a girl or boy before choosing a book, it is quite ignorant. No stereotype is completely and always true

  26. Christina, thanks for adding to the discussion. This is obviously a topic that stirs folks up.

    I believe that we all agree that we each love books by both male and female authors and don’t like books by both male and female authors. But there is nothing wrong with having a preference nor is there anything wrong with pointing out differences in writing styles. Men and women are different and they’re different in many ways. Just as a woman raised in a city is different from a woman raised on a farm. Children who are homeschooled are different from those who go to public schools and they in turn are different from kids who go to private schools. (And yes, all groups have commonalities as well as differences.)

    There’s nothing wrong with being different from others and there’s certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging and studying those differences. Nothing wrong with putting those differences to work either.

    And while I personally think it would be limiting to read only male or only female authors, I wouldn’t tell anyone else who they should read. If someone wants to read only male or only female authors, why shouldn’t they? That is his or her choice. What if someone wanted to read only mysteries or romance or sci-fi? Who are we to pick someone else’s reading material? Of course it’s a person’s own choice to read what—and who—he or she wants to read.

    I’m glad you stopped by and let us know you were here and what was on your mind.

  27. Carlos D. says:

    Beth, your observation is valid and well articulated. I’ve noticed some of these differences myself. However I was wondering on your thoughts beyond authors of fictional stories. How about nonfiction? Journalism? Do you find there to be differences there as well? Also what are some of your thoughts on WHY so many women tend to be less forward in their style of writing? Nurture? Nature?

  28. Carlos, I’ve not done a study or anything, but I don’t really notice this difference with news articles. They seem to be more structured, more generic, if I can say that. Fiction seems to allow for more of a writer’s personality to show through. News articles and some non-fiction come across as more of rule-bound type of writing, where individual quirks are less often used.

    It’s not that news articles and non-fiction can’t be creative or take on a writer’s style or flavor, because they can and they do, but as a whole, the style of writing seems more prescribed.

    As for the differences between men and women in writing, that’s a big topic, as is any question on the differences between the sexes. With many answers. But yes, I’m sure both nature and nurture play their parts.

    The sexes approach confrontation in different ways, they problem-solve in different ways, they even use different words to convey the same object or issue. So many fascinating differences. Some wonderful similarities too. The study of those differences and similarities could last a lifetime.

    Of course, not every woman differs in the same way from every man; nor does every man differ from every woman in the same way; the variety and possibilities are endless. But there are generalities that behaviorists have observed over the years. And fiction writers, it would seem to me, might make a great study concerning those differences.

    A great topic, Carlos. And endlessly engrossing.

  29. Louise says:

    I have to write about feminist literary critique for English in college. They mention masculine and feminine writing. This is confusing because it doesn’t explain what’s the difference. WHAT THE HELL DOES IT MEAN AND WHY DOES IT EVEN MATTER?!?

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