Messy Room, Clean Writing?

I am not, by nature, a tidy person. Evidence of this in the form of a photo of my college dorm room exists, and while it’s funny, it’s also too embarrassing to ever post on a throwback Thursday. Clothes, stuffed animals, magazines, shoes, donut boxes, textbooks, and more are strewn like an explosion had gone off. And even though I make more of an effort to put things in their place and tidy up the apartment on a regular basis, I can’t help notice that small piles accumulate when I’m not looking: the four different pair of shoes that sit by the front door where I kicked each of them off when I came home, the pile of mail to be shredded, the spices that I used on last night’s dinner still sitting on the kitchen counter. collective clutter, I’d call it.

My writing style seems to mirror this. The table where I write is strewn about with notes on my current work in project, timelines of when everybody was born, character summaries, descriptions of the curriculum of the college major from the school that one of my characters attended (Princeton, if you’re curious. I’ve always had a thing for Princeton.) There’s also my notebook, my calendar, and a sheath of handwritten pages, and, unrelated to the project but also on the table: a sewing pattern, some fruit, a roll of crime scene tape, and a highlighter. The same chaotic post-explosion-like mess as my dorm room twenty-some years ago.

Here’s where this all gets interesting to me. When I write a story, I write from beginning to end. Start to finish. Logically, neatly. Sure, things change in the editing process, but my process feels like I’m paving a road each day so that I can take another step forward. Very focused. And I can’t help wonder, can a natural inclination toward messiness translate into clean writing?

I have friends who swear by certain writing software that helps them organize their notes and their scenes. I’ve tried to be neater during my process. I’ve tried index cards and wall charts and Post-Its, and none of it worked like the explosion-on-my-desk approach.

So now, I’m curious: are you messy in life and messy in your writing? Or neat in one but not the other? Can you make a comparison between the way you live and the way you write?

Author: Diane Vallere

Diane is the author of four mystery series. Like her character Samantha Kidd, she is a former fashion buyer; like her character Madison Night, she loves Doris Day movies, like her character Polyester Monroe, she lives in California; and like her character Margo Tamblyn, she has a thing for costumes. Find out more at

9 thoughts on “Messy Room, Clean Writing?”

  1. Ha! I never thought about this. Too much clutter in life drives me insane. I’m constantly going behind people putting things away (my current pet peeve is dishes left in various states of cleanliness on counters and in the dishwasher). I’m one of those Scrivener fans, which means all my notes and scenes are neatly stored in Scrivener projects. But the actual process? What a mess. I often start in the middle or at the climax, working forward and backward during the first draft stage. And revision is where I smooth it all out, plug the holes, fix the timelines, etc. So pretty much the OPPOSITE of you, Diane!


  2. Interesting, Diane. More often I write like you do. Occasionally like Mary does.

    I can say I have major relationships with hoarders. Well, maybe not that bad, but people who make piles and stacks and go through those stacks every five years or maybe never. Are relationship patterns similar to writing patterns? I do hoard ideas and starts in notebooks and of course in electronic files, but I’m neat about it. *huffs*

    I’ve recently (re)discovered (sigh) that my writing process changes from project to project. Usually I outline and write it from start to finish. The one I’m working on now, I just have to write scenes that burn and see how and even if it will all come together. This might be related to genre.


  3. Mary-I was thinking about Scrivener people when I wrote this. The idea of Scrivener makes me want to break out in hives, but fans of it are SO IN LOVE WITH IT!

    Theresa-I go back and forth between hoarder mentality (just found my stack of 90210 teen magazines in a closet, mint condition!), and gypsy mentality (give away everything that doesn’t fit in the back of my car!). My writing projects always start at chapter one, but that chapter one doesn’t always stay in the final draft, so there’s that, too.


  4. Ha. I’m a person who loves to be organized but the maintenance of being organized can be too much for me, and my cleanliness slowly slides into something just this side of messy. Once it’s there, I can’t do ANYTHING until I clean it up and start over. My writing style might parrot this a bit in that I’m also compelled to write beginning to end but occasionally, a certain far-off scene speaks to me and I have to write it down, even if it’s just in pieces or if it might not make the final cut. Typically, I get those things out of my system and then return right to where I left off.


  5. Great post! I’m not sure if I’m more like Mary or Sarah–I could have written either of their responses, I think. Love it! Just downloaded Scrivener, so I’m reserving judgement. I write whatever scene calls to me, although I always write the first chapter first (the WIP had seven “first” chapters before I got it right). And if my space is messy, nothing creative can happen. If the space is too messy–paralysis. I call it spinning; I’ll just stand in the room and spin, looking at all the things to tidy up until finally I decide on a starting point.


  6. There is a sphere of order around me, but the outer perimeter is made up of various paper piles in which the chaos is contained. I always write to an outline which escapes the fray by hanging on the wall along with a map of Acapulco (where my series is set.) Stuff related to the current book either fits in a binder or is within reach. As long as I don’t thnk about the piles of stuff beyond reach, the system works!


  7. This is such a fascinating question. I need things to be super-organized in my space. But I’m a fan of writing fast to allow the work to take on its own shape (and surprise me!)…the drafting phase is fast/chaotic since I know the revising phase can provide order.


  8. Interesting! I love the organizing process but never follow it. Instead i end up with piles of notes whose organization only makes sense to me. I distract so easily! My writing seems to follow this pattern. It’s not until the entire mess is spread out that I can sort out the pieces I need to make everything make sense.


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