Thursday, May 16, 2013

Broad strokes vs details

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend of mine about multitasking.

While she's in school, she has a part time job as a manager at a very well known clothing chain. She was telling me how, everyone who applies for a job says they are good at multitasking, yet 19/20 employees can't re-fold a t-shirt while giving simple directions to a customer (like, "kids section is on the left"), which seems like a pretty basic level of multitasking.

Since I love blonde jokes (being blonde myself*), her story reminded me of the old joke about not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.

So what constitutes 'multi-tasking'?

Maybe this is totally wrong, but I think of people who are good multitaskers as those who are good at painting with broad strokes. They can quickly assess multiple problems, prioritize them, then efficiently juggle the tasks, giving just enough effort to each as is absolutely necessary. The tasks may not be perfectly done, may not be done super fast, but they can be completed in tandem.

Broad strokes give the most impact for the least amount of effort.

Those who are not multitaskers get caught up in the details. Getting multiple tasks thrown at them at once, some will be able to prioritize quickly, others will get overwhelmed, but both will (one getting started), work on a single task until it is completed, then move on to the next.

Detail work may not seem as bold or prolific as a broad stroke, but it'll have more depth.

Yeah, sorry about all the art/painting comparisons ;) I've said before that when I'm writing, I tend to slip too far into the character and *my* writing style changes.

I've been thinking about this 'cause I'm not a multitasker, but also because I'm a pantser rather than a plotter. I can't see/organize a story in broad strokes, like an outline. I focus on the detail in front of me, finish it, then move onto the next. Somewhere in my brain the scope of the project exists, but it's fuzzy and indistinct. There's no sketch, each detail gets set into a blank canvas, like a mess of puzzle pieces dumped on the floor, they are complete in their own right, but I can only see the final product when they've all been laid out and clicked together.

Sometimes I envy plotters (and multitaskers) for being able to view their stories through a wide lens, while I'm stumbling along with blinders on until my first draft is completed.

But sometimes I feel proud because each scene I write is usually fleshed out with so many details that my brain has a dozen new avenues to explore when I am ready to write the next.

I don't think being one or the other is good or bad, I just think it's interesting how they both have advantages and disadvantages. As long as you're playing to your strengths, and not worrying about what you don't have, it's all good. Not every job requires you to give directions and fold t-shirts at the same time ;)

I wonder, what kind of writer are you, and what about your characters? Are they multitaskers, or are they detail-oriented?

Certain genres seem to call more for one type of storytelling (and character-type) than others. Like, wouldn't a fast-paced action/adventure story be thrown into chaos without a multitasker at the wheel fielding all the problems being hurled their way?

...and doesn't that kind of make you want to try writing a story like that?

...or is it just me? ;)

*See, as a natural blonde, I can find humour in poking fun at bleach-bottle blondes, especially since my sister and several of my cousins continue to use drug store products to re-capture their childhood hair colour ;)


  1. Interesting thoughts regarding a skill set and how it may apply to certain roles in genre fiction.

    1. In the past 2 weeks, I've read 17 books and 6 novellas, so I had a range of character types all thrown in my head at (roughly) the same time, and it struck me how similar characters are in contemporary books vs the more action-y ones.

      The number, and type of problems being thrown at the main character is so drastically different, both in type, and number, that the action-y MC's have to be way faster in their decision making. They don't have the luxury of 12 chapters to deliberate :)

  2. Multitasking is merely figuring out where to focus your energy and when. (According to my hubby.) I think being a writer is the ultimate in multitasking--from managing the characters in your head to wrangling all the business of the industry. It's good to be challenged, eh?

    1. Definitely, I love me some challenges ;)

      I'm always interested in other people's definitions, because we all categorize things differently and emphasize the importance of some qualities over others.

      Brains are interesting :D

  3. Sort of like not seeing the forest for the trees. I think I see the broad picture first then deal with the details, when it comes to writing. My last class taught me how to plot and now I’m curious to see if what I learned works. In order to plot though one needs the details and sometimes they are elusive. I can’t write an action adventure and won’t even try

    1. Very true.

      Yes, often (I think) writers who work with broad strokes generally get to 'the end' faster, but have to go back and fill in more details later on than a detail person would.

      Plus, I never said you can't learn the skills that don't come naturally ;) I seem to make a point of telling myself what I can't do, then throwing myself into precisely a challenge of that nature ;)

      keeps life interesting :D

  4. I've always considered myself a pantster. I don't sit down an write a chapter outline or overall concept. But as I think more and more about the questions, I think my first draft is actually an outline. When I start I have a concept in mind, some characters; a basic beginning, middle and end. As I write, sometimes I have to jump ahead a few scenes because I can't quite see what is actually happening, but I know what the outcome is. Sometimes I stop a while and just jot down details about my characters and their backstory.

    All this happens in the first draft. So, maybe my first draft IS the outline, and revision is where the actual writing starts.


    1. I agree, that first draft is an outline for me too. It's not until all the pieces are assembled that I can step back and go, "oh, that's what I was doing".

      Heh, I know all about jumping around :) Yesterday I wrote a piece in Project #6 which will happen probably about 1/2 of the way through the story.

      I love this online community 'cause I can connect to writers, like you, who work just like I do, as well as writers whose method is 180 degree away from mine :)

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Type me out a line of Shakespeare or a line of nonsense. Dumb-blonde-jokes & Irish jokes will make me laugh myself silly :)