Do Women Simply Write Differently than Men?

Allow me to plant a bare foot firmly on a third rail of modern society: gender differences. This post is inspired by a column my friend and Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA classmate Laura Warrell shared with me. Published in Salon by Lorraine Berry, it’s titled “Dear female students: Stop writing about men.” Ms. Berry has found that the female students in her creative-writing class often write about the men they’ve loved and lost. The male students don’t.

Ever the manly man, on my cross-country US road trip I paid a visit to the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum outside of Birmingham, Alabama.

I don’t claim to have the answers on differences, if any, between male and female creative writers. I do know, however, that since returning to an art-committed life and engaging in a community of creative writers, I have found myself a minority. I have taken three creative-writing courses at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I was the only male in one class and one of two in the others. I have been in two 12-student workshops at my MFA residencies, and in both I was one of two male students.

Now the courses and workshops focused on creative nonfiction, with writers working on personal essays and memoir. I’m sure there’s a blog post on why more women than men write memoir, if that is in fact true. But I think that trend I’ve noticed fits into the larger point I’m exploring here, that perhaps women are more inclined to explore their own emotional interiors on the page.

I believe this trend may be true in fiction as well as nonfiction. Last year I read a fantastic memoir in which the author shares when she was a young writer living with an unemployed boyfriend who belittled her and stole from her. Then I read a great novel by the same author about a young writer living with an unemployed husband who belittled her and stole from her. There was little doubt where the inspiration for the heroine came from, but that knowledge didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.

Here are some of the questions I’m pondering:

  1. Is it even true that women write differently than men? Any sociologist will tell you that data outliers exist. The male poets of the Romantic Era certainly wrote about women and love, and Patricia Cornwell doesn’t write romance novels. The question is if those examples are outliers or instead are representative of the fact that there’s no trend to be drawn from the data.
  2. I also tapped into my sensitive side on the road trip, as I took in the roses in the Biltmore Estate garden in Asheville, North Carolina.

    If true, is this a bad thing? Ms. Berry seems to think so, but I think her bigger concern is that the young women in her class lack perspective. She wants them to know that broken hearts heal, are broken again, and yet the person grows and survives. But isn’t that really an issue of age, not gender?

  3. If true, is it in part a reflection of the audience? We hear about “chick flicks,” which feature tender stories of love and loss, and “guy flicks,” with crazy sex and action. Clearly Hollywood thinks there are gender differences in their audience. And I suspect you’d find more women than men read romance novels, and more men than women (although I suspect a smaller differential) read suspense. It also seems true that more women than men are published romance writers, and more men than women are published suspense authors. So which comes first, the writer’s inclination or the reader’s expectation?
  4. If true, are men simply not as introspective? A primary goal in my MFA is to learn how to put myself on the page. I’ve written about that struggle here on The Artist’s Road, and the very act of sharing that with all of you has been difficult. I’ve wondered if part of the reason I seem poorer at sharing than many of my classmates is that men simply don’t reflect as much on their own lives, experiences and emotions as women.
  5. If #4 is true, is that a result of societal conditioning? It’s safe to say that men are not encouraged, as a rule, to share their emotions, although frustrated girlfriends and wives may often wish they would share more. I believe society is more supportive now of men displaying their sensitive side (I’m seeing a lot of male politicians crying), but from an early age, girls tend to receive more support and less derision when they share their feelings.

I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this subject, if I’ve raised any good questions, if you have answers for them, or if this subject is even worth discussing. Join me on the third rail. It’s electrifying!

62 thoughts on “Do Women Simply Write Differently than Men?

  1. I absolutely believe that gender roles are heavily influenced by social construction. In the US I had loads of boys and girls take my Visual Arts courses. Here in Dubai, there are some cultures that will out and out say that art is for girls. Interestingly enough, for our two years of advanced art courses, we have only two boys matriculated into IB Art. That is very different from the world of modern art where Picasso up through Pollack ruled the art scene (there are very iconic photos of the group of men who were seen as integral to the modern art movement all in suits. In some of them there is one woman, Helen Frankenthaler, included. I wonder how much creativity (as tied to the arts) is seen as a feminine trait across cultures? Funny how creativity in business is called innovation and changes connotation entirely.


    1. “I wonder how much creativity (as tied to the arts) is seen as a feminine trait across cultures?” I’ve often thought about how the Greeks, who have influenced our artistic culture in so many ways, depicted the Nine Muses as women.

      There’s much to ponder with your example in Dubai. How much of enrollment is a reflection of how the students’ interests evolve during their childhood, and how much is a reflection of what the parents will allow or disallow? Thanks for your addition to this discussion, Carrie!


    2. I do wonder how enrollment in courses is affected. I had a father tell his son (who was in my class at the time) that it was good he was getting art out of his system because it was women’s work and when he returned to his home country to go to university he needed to focus on being a man! (Let’s not even begin to talk about students who are forced or encouraged to return to their “home country” and asked to conform when they have spent their formative years in completely different cultures, which ultimately makes them an outsider to their peers).


  2. I agree with Carrie. I think it’s more a societal issue than a biological one. For centuries, women were relegated to domestic arts rather than fine arts. The only exceptions if a woman was instructed or influenced by a male figure in her life. At that time, artists were seen in a different light.

    Now, I think the tables have turned due to simple economics. Wealthy patrons are almost extinct and let’s be honest, it’s hard to support yourself, let alone a family on an artist’s salary nowadays. I wish it were different, but sadly, it’s not.

    On another note, bravo to you Patrick for at least taking that leap into the artistic unknown. It’s a difficult leap for either gender!


    1. Hi Melanie! So what do you mean by domestic arts? Pottery, weaving, knitting, quiltmaking, that kind of thing? You’ve reminded me of the many 19th Century female authors who wrote under male names, and the many today that use initials when writing books targeting male as well as female readers (I’m calling you out, J.K. Rowling). Like with Carrie above, this speaks to what society would tolerate from the females and males, but I still wonder whether there were some inherent differences even before the children were “slotted” into their male and female roles. Now we’re approaching a dissertation-level need for data and analysis, but another question is how did those male and female societal roles evolve, and was there any inherent gender difference that drove them to exist, or permitted them to continue?

      Oh dear, I’m tired.


      1. To be fair, not all authors who use their initials do it for marketing reasons. I don’t think it’s always a matter of what the public tolerates from male or female authors. For example, M.T. Anderson is a male writer who writes male characters and has nothing to gain from using his initials rather than his clearly masculine full name (Matthew Tobin). I do know an author who uses her initials because most of her books have male protagonists, but I know another one who was pressured by her publisher to do so but declined, and another who simply thinks that her first name is insipid, so uses her initials even though most of her protagonists are female. So while it’s the assumption that everyone uses initials or a pen name to disguise gender, that’s just not always the case. And to be fair to JK Rowling, her publisher insisted on the name change after the book deal was said and done. It was not done of her own accord.

        (and full disclosure, I’m visiting your blog from the VCFA MFA WCYA program πŸ˜‰ )


        1. Thanks, Shelby. As someone with a background in publishing, my understanding is that when initials are used to disguise gender, it’s almost always publishing-driven; the same goes with use of pseudonyms (a publisher will try to own the pseudonym, so you can’t leverage your following to a new publisher and so they can have others write under that name). So did Rowling’s publisher insist upon it because they wanted to disguise the fact that a woman was writing it? Obviously it became clear pretty quickly after the series became successful that she was a woman, and that doesn’t seem to have hurt sales! πŸ™‚

          I’m always glad to have visitors from the WCYA program! When I applied to VCFA, I didn’t know they had us attend different residencies. I’m rather bummed I haven’t been able to meet any yet in person, but I’m attending AWP at the end of February and hope to meet some of you then.


        2. Oh JK Rowling’s initials were absolutely used for marketing. But as you say, once the books became popular, everyone knew she was female and it didn’t hurt sales an iota. And looking at another popular series, The Hunger Games, which is high action-adventure and had a gender-neutral cover design, Suzanne Collins’ name was always on the jacket and again, no harm to sales there. So I’m wondering if this technique has even less impact on sales than people might think. Such an interesting topic here! And I too think it would be awesome for our programs to meet. πŸ™‚


  3. Wow, Patrick, you bring up so many good questions in this post. And your first line is a zinger!

    I think young women often do use their writing to explore their own issues. And since they are often occupied with trying to comprehend men at that age, that’s what shows up in the writing. The young men whose work I’ve read tend to write cardboard characters doing crazy stuff that’s difficult to understand, possibly because the authors themselves can’t explain it.
    There are exceptions to both of these though.

    In workshops with older writers of both sexes topics tend to be more evolved. (An interesting blog post topic might be how age (hence perspective) effects our writing.)
    Out of three men in my present workshop (all of whom are over forty), two are writing novels with strong romance elements, one is definitely exploring his own turbulent past relationships. The third male is writing an adventure with no romance in it, but loads of magic, mystery, and action.
    All the women (also over age forty) are writing novels that span the range of human emotion and experience, no matter the genre. None of the women seem to be trying to figure out their own lives, but all bring a wealth of understanding to their writing that helps round their characters out and make them interesting.
    I should probably add that all of the writers in this particular workshop are experienced writers. None are beginners, so that may weigh in.

    When I was a young writer I definitely used my writing in an attempt to make sense of my life. I don’t think I fully ‘bloomed’ as a writer until I stopped doing that. But stopping coincided with the maturity to really ‘get’ other people. Then, of course, my writing got exponentially better.

    It’s probably safe to say that, as we grow as people, our writing grows too, regardless of our gender.

    Thought provoking and well written post.


    1. Thank you for this informed and informative comment, Cynthia. And I like the use of the word “zinger!”

      You’ve reminded me of my creative writing in my early 20s, when I took a stab at writing suspense. I had romance in there, but the women probably were pretty cardboard. I’ll confess to having little understanding of women then, and I’m still struggling to understand them. Of course, that suggests once again a gender difference, although it doesn’t speak to the nature vs. nurture debate.

      I get what you’re saying about not using your writing to attempt to make sense of your life. I find myself in an interesting place with a travel memoir I’m writing, in that (with strong nudging from VCFA faculty and workshop participants) I am exploring my life, and am startled at some of the things I’m learning. But I’m playing catch-up here, having not really used writing to explore my inner self during my 20s and 30s. When you say you’ve “stopped doing that,” do you mean writing as self-therapy, or do you mean more, that your writing is now divorced from your own emotional struggles? You say your writing has gotten “exponentially better,” but wouldn’t some of “you” still be in that writing for that to happen?

      It’s becoming clear I have to write a post on age/maturity differences as well.


      1. I’d say I’ve stopped using my writing to figure myself out, since I now understand myself. Now I write to entertain and illuminate. It’s less about my own narcissism, and more about giving something – hopefully useful or entertaining – to others.

        Writing is a great way to figure yourself out, though. That just doesn’t make for the best writing a writer is capable of, which comes after we understand ourselves. After we understand ourselves, we have more insight into others, and that deepens the well we draw from for our characters and story.


        1. Thanks for the clarification. Yes, I’d say I’ve “figured myself out.” I am surprised how much more I can learn about myself through writing even at this level of awareness, although I’m writing personal essays and memoir, not fiction, so I’m forced to reflect. πŸ™‚


  4. Such an interesting question — one that I’ve thought about a lot. Especially because I do love writing memoir-inspired creative nonfiction and fiction BUT I also tend to write very sparse fiction — some have even implied I “write like a man,” whatever THAT means! (I even wrote a blog about this once — when I found online research with an analyzer that told you whether you wrote like a man or a woman — me? a man.) I know, not exactly what you’re talking about in this post. To your point I definitely do think that men and women think (at least a little bit) differently, probably feel (at least a little bit) differently, and even possibly write differently — I fought these feelings for a long time, growing up as a product of the feminist era.

    Now, in post-feminism, I’m so happy that we can talk about and even acknowledge gender differences as people and writers. And as to your question: is it societal? After raising a boy and a girl and from my own personal experience, my opinion is part societal, part biological. And speaking in generalities here (I hope needless to say): perhaps it’s even as primal as men being the strong hunters and gatherers who can’t show their “weak” emotional side; and women keeping the homefires burning, keeping society together with their emotional support. How’s THAT for opening Pandora’s Box?


    1. Hi Julia! Great stuff here. As to the hunter/gatherer issue, I read a great book called “What Happy People Know” that discussed our “reptilian” brain at our brain stem, the “fight or flight” area that dictates much of our behavior without us even realizing it. He didn’t apply much gender difference to his analysis, but he opened the door to the fact that a lot of our behavior is rooted in what our earliest brains needed to survive. Those hunter/gatherers didn’t have the luxury to contemplate universal forms a la Plato.

      i think the writing like a man vs. a woman is EXACTLY central to this post, and it’s fascinating the analyzer said you write like a man. Of course, any algorithm merely is a reflection of the bias of the programmer, so in that sense some geek in Silicon Valley has decided you write like a man. But the very fact that the algorithm exists, and that people (like you) try it out, speaks to a general acceptance that there ARE differences in writing style based on gender.

      If, as I am speculating above, writing like a woman means expressing emotion and reflection in your prose, then I definitely began my MFA writing like a man, and am now writing like a woman. Actually, I’ve been channeling Joan Didion, who writes like a “man” in that she’s very focused on presenting just-the-facts, but also like a woman in that she punctuates those facts with shockingly deep reveals. So what to make of that? πŸ™‚


  5. What a thought-provoking post, Patrick. I believe that, yes, (most) “women are more inclined to explore their own emotional interiors on the page” than men, and that maybe this reality accounts for perceived differences in male and female writing styles. I find it interesting that it has been so difficult for you to get ‘you’ on the page … but I would say that a lot of it also has to do with personality. I’m an emotional sieve, gushing my feelings for everyone I know. My sister is a a bottle, plugged with a cork. We were raised by the same parents, but are different people with different life experiences, which accounts for the way we see the world (and if she were a writer, would account for the way she writes, which I presume would be far more ‘male’ than mine). I do think society has traditionally, unfairly, dictated that emotive males are somehow ‘less,’ which I find insane. Show me the man who is confident in his emotions, and you’ve shown me a strong man. I’m glad to see things are changing, though. Oh – and you’ve now inspired me to read the Joan Didion book on my shelf; would love to analyze that male/female – perhaps androgynous – style of which you speak.


    1. Thanks for this, Melissa! Your example with your sister is interesting, two women in the same household, completely different approaches to emotional sharing. I’d note that my wife and I were both only children, for whatever that is worth, and we’re both fairly private people, reticent to share. We were also both drawn to journalism, where you tell others’ stories, not your own. I don’t think of our approach as “male” or “female,” but yes, some might think of her creative writing (she hasn’t done much, but I’ve loved what she has done) as “male.”

      So much to think about!


    2. I think the best example of Joan Didion straddling the male/female line is in her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. She writes of her grief in a matter-of-fact way without florid elaboration (in a “male” way), but her reader connection and emotion conveyed is heartbreakingly powerful (in a “female” way).

      PS. Hi Melissa!


      1. Hi Shelby, I agree completely. I first encountered her when reading her essay “White Album,” which also does this. Her most recent memoir, Blue Nights, has that Year of Magical Thinking style, but to be honest with you seems to lack the, well, magic of the previous one.


  6. I agree that social conditioning does probably influence women to be introspective. Yet immediately two men come to my mind who are as deeply feeling as any woman I’ve known. They are my first husband, an MFA graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, and my father, a really hard-driving and fun-loving, now-retired business man. My heart goes out to men who allow themselves to feel and express their emotional depth. I know it exists and, yes, I very much like seeing it on the page. Thank you for your article.


    1. Thank you, Katherine! I like this, as someone who is making an effort to put myself on the page: “My heart goes out to men who allow themselves to feel and express their emotional depth. I know it exists and, yes, I very much like seeing it on the page.”

      You make me think about how there are really two things we’re talking about here, which may be in sync or may overlap like two circles in a Venn diagram: The male who shares, and the male writer who shares. Hmm…


  7. May I add a bit more to the gender-difference fire?

    Most of my fellow local writers are female. I confirm that women differ from men in their writing styles and content. (There are other differences, but why increase the temperature?)

    Women use adjectives and adverbs; men do not. Women write about relationships; men report what is happening. Women write 100,000 word novels; men keep it to 40,000 to 50,000 (Robert Parker and me).

    In writing, we differ because of this fundamental gender opposition: women think everything is important; men think nothing is important.

    Have I over-generalized?


    1. OK, let’s shake it up!

      I’m one of seven writers in my local writer’s group, but I’m not sure I can really say my writing differs dramatically from them; of course, I’m trying to write more “female,” if we buy into the gender difference. I’ll watch for the adjective/adverb issue. I think on length, that has a lot to do with publisher preference, and most category romances are about 50,000 words.

      “In writing, we differ because of this fundamental gender opposition: women think everything is important; men think nothing is important.” Wow! Don’t men think sex and football are important? I do.

      I’m curious to see how some of my other readers react to this post; if comments are an indicator of readership, I have many more female readers than male. Of course, maybe that’s another gender difference, men are less inclined to comment…


      1. Hi Patrick-
        I don’t know if I can make a general comment regarding this post, though I think it’s interesting. I can, however, say that what I love about your writing is the fact that you use facts to convey emotion. When I am writing (and I happen to be a woman) I know that I have to be careful not to “make something out of nothing” whereas you do an excellent job of using the facts of the story you are telling to bring out a reaction in the reader. It’s not done in a manipulative manner. You respect the reader as well as the story, and you let both of these things do what they are going to do. I think all writers, both male and female, should aspire to do that. Now the real question is, which gender mixes their verb tenses more? Or is that just me? πŸ™‚


        1. Wow, Callie, thank you for that comment! It’s always illuminating to hear thoughts about your writing from another writer, and of course you’ve read a lot of my creative writing.

          As for your concern about making something out of nothing, one thing the VCFA faculty point out is that if it is something to YOU, it is not nothing. The experience may be unique to you and you may think it’s only of interest to you, but whatever emotions you have attached to it are universal. Anything you write about can be taken vertically to a larger audience. I believe you provide that to your readers in your writing. Gotta work on those verb tenses, though, Callie! πŸ™‚


  8. Oh, you are a brave, brave man, Patrick. I love this topic, thanks for tackling it. In my fictional life, I write what could be termed “literary chick lit” (if such a thing exists) so I’ve thought about these topics a lot. I agree with many of the commenters who say that a lot of our gender expectations come from society. For many years, women lived through men, romantically and otherwise. And also–women are relational creatures. Not just with men, but with our girlfriends and children. And come on, what is wrong with that? It gives us a different focus in our lives and our fiction and I, for one, applaud that. I get what the Salon writer was saying, though, and I agree that there’s a function of age involved–we get less worried about what men (or anyone) think of us as we age. And now I feel like my head is going to explode because this is a crazy complex topic and I’ve only barely scratched the surface of my thoughts on it. But thanks for starting the discussion.


    1. “And now I feel like my head is going to explode because this is a crazy complex topic and I’ve only barely scratched the surface of my thoughts on it.” Ah, but I believe Salon is so named because they hope to spark discussion that won’t necessarily lead to fully agreed-upon answers, and it’s fun to do that here as well!

      I’m curious as to your fiction: What drew you to “literary chick lit”? Is it what you are good at and found you could sell? Or is it what you like to read? No judgment should be implied in here, but I think it speaks a bit to this question of gender differences.


  9. Whoo boy, this is a firestarter, Patrick! (hat tip to male writer Stephen King’s 1980 novel with the same title where his female protagonist can start fires simply by thinking hehe). Well written, thought-provoking post πŸ™‚

    I guess if I was asked to offer a definitive response to the question you pose in the title of your post today, I’d have to say that I do believe for sure women write differently than men, with a proviso. The proviso would be I believe social conditioning (sociopsychological influences growing up especially) do affect a writer’s ‘voice’ and what s/he chooses to write about, and this transcends their gender.

    Just as I prefer to have a female family doctor because I know she can directly relate to what my body might be going through, I sometimes lean towards a preference for women authors given the purpose of my reading. That said, I was completely bowled over how well male novelist Wally Lamb portrayed his female protagonist Delores in She’s Come Undone, a novel I still think about after reading it years ago. Frankly before that time, I didn’t have my own experience how a man could write a woman’s perspective so convincingly (albeit there were some very bizarro moments in that book; maybe that was the ‘man’ in him writing those parts hehe).

    I’m cutting this comment short, I could write tomes on this subject! So glad you wrote/initiated this. I’ll be chewing it over for a while:)


    1. A fascinating area to consider further, the idea of writing a fictional character of the other sex. I was talking to someone the other day about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; I am the only person in America who has neither read the book nor seen the movie. The woman I was speaking with liked the book, and found the female protagonist fascinating, but also felt the author brought a bit of misogyny to the page in writing about women.

      I can’t speak to that example, but to the extent men and women are “different” as a result of social conditioning, if a novelist is able to transcend that and show where we have emotional symbiosis, that may make the characters more credible. Dane (above) mentions Robert Parker. His tough-as-nails protagonist Spenser was a sensitive man who liked to cook. His longtime girlfriend was a psychiatrist who could be emotionally distant. They both seemed credible, more real than some real people I know!


  10. Male incoming… I would be surprised if the genders didn’t write differently. They sure look different. A chemical analysis of the liquids flowing through our veins likely reveals differences. So it should be no surprise that what comes out of the pen is qualitatively different. But I haven’t noticed that any gender has an advantage on producing compelling stories. Nor does our society seem to be a determinant. Good literature remains elusive and rare. So, while gender is an interesting topic, it doesn’t strike at the heart of what makes good fiction. But, Patrick, you seem to be able to make any subject read-worthy. Cheers.


    1. We could use all the men we can get in this conversation, PJ!

      “I haven’t noticed that any gender has an advantage on producing compelling stories.” That may be the comment of the day. Something can be different without having to be qualitatively better or worse.

      Thank you for those kind words.


      1. Anne-Marie

        It’s both a compliment and a refutation of your statement. πŸ˜‰ Again and again, in blind tests, people can’t guess the correct gender of pieces’ authors. Particularly with poetry. You mention a few styles that are often associated with gender, but that’s a choice, not something the other gender does less well. The canon is filled with examples of women who passed writing as men, and men who wrote in the forms you use as examples. The example I like to give is Frankenstein—written by a teenage girl. In fact, gender identification isn’t even an either/or, but a continuum.


        1. Thanks for coming back, Anne-Marie, with the clarification! Yes, Mary Shelley is a great example. My sixteen-year-old daughter likes to do creative writing, and sees Shelley as a role model (my daughter’s writing can be dark and dystopian; her favorite writer is Poe).


  11. Hi Patrick! First comment is, love the image of the roses. Nice shot!

    I can totally see the influence of society (and, even more so, familial influences) to keep male emotions in check, particularly tender or soft ones, in someone very dear to me. While he is opening up to me, he makes comments about never having shared what he is sharing at the moment with anyone, that he doesn’t understand why he is talking about these things now. (My response . . . because you have the space to do that with me and that you have my full attention and support).

    In addition to current societal norms, I think that is largely influenced by the age of his parents . . . his upbringing is certainly a reflection of a different era.

    Something I *have* noted is that younger males seem to be much more sensitive/in touch with their emotions. I’m talking about guys just coming out of high school to about age 27. I think that is a generational shift.

    Alright that is my two cents . . . time to get to work on my studio prep. Interesting fodder as usual! πŸ™‚


    1. Hi Amy, thanks for the compliment on the photo! Given you are a visual artist skilled with a camera, that means a lot to me.

      You’ve hit on something here with younger males. My daughter, as you know, is an artist, so that skews her friend circle away from the stereotypical jock-type boy, but I’d say her male friends are far more “sensitive” than I remember from that age. Still, the Salon writer is seeing a big gap in the young students she’s teaching right now, so perhaps increased sensitivity on the part of modern young men isn’t penetrating their pen quite as much. Thanks for getting me thinking about this!


  12. Great post. I would have to agree with others that if there is a difference it is societal rather than biological. When I read Lorraine Berry’s article a few days ago, I was more dismayed that she would use the opportunity to berate her students instead of looking at the larger issues. Perhaps helping empower them is more in order. More to the point, maybe Berry should accept that it is their prerogative to write about what they wish, and nurture their creativity on their terms instead of squashing it.


    1. Hi Adriene. Yup, some of my friends took issue with her berating of her students as well, cringing at the idea that she is passing judgment on what is important to them. Of course, she then engages in self-reflection and decides she was similar at that age. But I fully agree with this: “[M]aybe Berry should accept that it is their prerogative to write about what they wish, and nurture their creativity on their terms instead of squashing it.”


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  15. Good post & great commentary (I haven’t quite gotten through with all of it, but I’m running short on time here).

    I think there are some gender differences at play. I think women like more time dealing with characters’ thoughts (including emotions) and men tend to like less. Women are also (and these are broad generalizations, outliers definitely exist) tend to put more emphasis on relationships between characters.

    Romance (both the movie type romantic-comedy and the bodice-ripper type of story) tend to rely more on how people react to each other, and spend more time on characters’ reactions to events. I think this is why women tend to gravitate towards those sorts of stories (regardless of medium).

    Men tend to not want to spend terribly long on the intricacies of how a character interpreted another character’s mom’s comment. Lack of action can just about kill off the interest.

    Basically, different genres have emphasis on different parts of the writing, and people gravitate toward what they like and what is understandable to them.

    As a related thought, I’ve heard rumor that there’s some social research suggesting that women usually work in a network structure with a sort of equilibrium while men tend to work in hierarchical structures. This may support the notions above.

    As to some comments on use of initials, it may be preference, or practical. I’ll probably end up using at least one initial because my name is so common.


    1. Wow, I really like this summary. You have some key points: 1) Women’s focus on characters’ thoughts. 2) Women’s focus on relationships. When you look at literature (and motion pictures and, frankly, the video games my daughter prefers vs. my son) that pattern continues to emerge. And yes, they are broad generalizations, but I think we’re safely not into “stereotype” territory, because there’s no real judgment as to one being preferable over the other.

      Thank you for your reflection and thoughtful contribution!


  16. I read an article one that there are male Romance writers, but they use pen names that are “womens” names. They do this because women don’t want to read a Romance written by a man. They think it’s creepy.

    I don’t know. It might seem weird, a man writing in a woman’s POV like that. However, I write predominantly male protagonists all the time… but I’m not really a “girly girl” eighter. I guess it comes down to stereotyping.
    Interesting article. Good stuff to chew on.


    1. Jennifer,

      I find that interesting because I’m not girly at all and am having trouble with female characters.

      BTW, Jennifer, I tried to post a comment on your site, but had some trouble. Sorry if it posts in duplicate (or not at all!)


    2. Hi Jennifer,

      I know some romance novelists and am fairly familiar with that industry. There are a few men who write romance, and by and large they do write under women’s pseudonyms. There are a couple of causes for that, both driven by publishers: 1) It’s less the case now, but romance publishers (led by Harlequin) generally wanted their writers to write under another name that they would own, preventing the author from going to another publisher with their built-in audience. 2) The publishers feared romance readers, almost all women, would indeed resist a male author. I wonder if that is really true; the women I know who read romance read other genres as well, and read male authors.

      As to the issue of being better able to write male or female characters if you’re a male or female author, I think what the comments in this post are revealing is that the general assumptions we make are largely being upheld, but there are plenty of exceptions as well.

      Thanks for your contribution!


  17. All valid points but the one I think is most interesting is perspective. I imagine you’re right that this writing prof wishes her female students realized relationships end and that they’ll survive. But part of having perspective also means being able to write about relationships in more sophisticated ways because you have the wisdom, life experience and creative talent that only comes from being around longer than 22 years. Some of the greatest literature in history is about men and women trying to figure out how to love and bed each other, so it’s not the theme that should be avoided. Maybe we just need to let these girls get it out of their systems because one day, they may blow us away with their insight about relating.

    Also, while I think younger men tend to write less about relationships, they often write about other subjects – sex, drugs, being cool, being lost – in ways that are trite. They’re young. We’ve all been there. I thank my lucky stars that there’s no paper trail leading to the pap I wrote as an undergrad. Oh Lord…


    1. That’s a great point about perspective, Laura. I’m beginning to think there’s another post for me to write here, about the extent to which experience matters for creative writing relative to other creative pursuits. Songwriters often have their greatest creative bursts in their 20s; the same is true for scientists (think Einstein). But think about how many creative writers finally break through in their forties or fifties. In The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate says it’s the rare youth who can write something profound and lasting, listing James Baldwin as one of the few who did. Of course, maybe I’m just rationalizing as a middle-aged man trying to get his act together as a creative writer!

      I’ve been trying to remember what I wrote about creatively when I was young. I never took a creative writing class before last year, but I certainly wrote a fair amount of creative work on my own. When I was single I wrote about sex, most likely, and perhaps cars. When I became a father I did that annoying thing all parents do; I wrote about my kids. Hey, it had already been said by writers better than me, but I hadn’t said it yet!


  18. Ha! You hit a hot button for me. As a writer of 100+ novels from most of the major publishers, many of which have been NTY bestsellers (my latest one has spent four weeks so far on the printed list, starting at #9), I’m not so sure about gender dictating story.

    As an honors lit major, I read all the classics, which is where, since I never took a creative writing class, I learned about characterization and structure. Storytelling, fortunately, came naturally to me; I suspect it was partly handed down from my Irish seanachie grandfather, my mother, who wrote plays at Pasadena Playhouse, and my birth father, who was also a playwright and ended up a college drama professor.

    I was initially going to focus on horror when I switched from writing for Arizona’s largest daily newspaper to novel-length fiction in 1982, but decided on romance because I wanted to be a stay at home working mom and, quite frankly, romance paid a lot better.

    Over the past 30 years I’ve written many category romances, hardcover glitz (which were excerpted in Cosmo), family-centric “women’s” books, serial killer suspense, military thrillers (yes, with romance, as I’d like to point out Lee Child and James Lee Burke also put into their stories) and now, due to stress from having nephews and “adopted” troops doing multiple tours in the same Afghan mountains where I was setting my books, which got too emotionally close to home, I’ve returned to writing family-centric stories about troops settling back into civilian life, dealing with war related issues.

    Perhaps my gender slants how I tell the story, but I don’t think about my audience. I merely write about what interests me, much of what couldn’t be considered solely women’s topics. My current book addresses spousal abuse, military dogs returning home from Afghanistan wounded and with PTSD, and organic, sustainable farm-to-table food.

    The next one, which I’ve turned in, focuses on the abuse (a storyline continuing from the previous book), film festivals, and the depression caused by months of being a Marine notification officer. (Unlike the Army, Marines stay on to support the family as long as necessary, sometimes up to a year.) The book I’m writing for 2013 focuses on the pressure of Army EOD (bomb guys), high school basketball, hazing, and a women who’s juggling the challenges of a dangerously troubled teenage son with a demanding career.

    My readership is admittedly slanted heavily toward women due to my early romance days, however I also receive a lot of mail from male readers who appreciate my getting the cop, FBI, and military stuff right. Including a former Russian Special Forces guy who helped me with details about a little known Russian sniper rifle I learned about while hanging out on underground gun dealing message boards.

    Oh, and FYI, the term “bodice ripper” for romance is so 1980s. πŸ™‚


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  23. Fascinating post, Patrick. And practically guaranteed to cause ripples of debate πŸ˜‰

    I agree with many people here that nurture plays a part as well. I grew up with a father who was a naval officer, which meant my sister and I had to grow up faster than most little girls as we helped our mum run the show while he was away at sea for long periods at a time. When he came home he seemed to find it difficult being a dad to two daughters; he treated us very much like little rookie sailors on board his own tight little ship. Showing emotions – crying, getting angry or being scared of anything – was considered the ultimate in girly weakness, a character trait to be suppressed and – preferably- eliminated from our personalities. Not because he was a cold or cruel man or anything like that – I think it was just easier for him to deal with his little girls if they behaved more like little boys. It was hard enough for him as it was, spending months at a time away and barely seeing us grow up at all.

    Has that had an effect on my writing? Well… I have NEVER written romance stories, never wanted to and probably never will. I’ve written tons of song lyrics over the years, but out of all the ones that have done well and got good reviews the ones I categorically HATE – to the point of my guts twisting into pretzel shapes of embarrassment whenever I re-read them – are the ones where I’ve tackled emotional subjects like love, lost love and all that gubbins. Others seem to like them – in fact many claim they’re favourites of the work I’ve done – but I just look at them and almost wish I’d never written them, or at least that I’d never put them ‘out there’ in public for others to see.

    I’m much more comfortable writing dark, dystopian sci-fi or silly, satirical comedy. Even as a kid, when I played make-believe games with my Barbie dolls, I put those poor girls through hell. No tea parties and fashion shows for them, oh no… they got assault courses, survival missions and perilous SAS-style careers!


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