Are you a plotter or a pantser? ...Or a plantser?
In writing circles, you’ll often see people dividing writers into two distinct types: plotters and pantsers. In this post, we’ll talk about what these terms mean and how to figure out which type you are.
What are plotters and pantsers…and plantsers?
A plotter is a writer who structures their stories before they begin writing, typically via a fairly extensive brainstorming and outlining process. They’re called plotters because they typically figure out most or all of their story’s plot before beginning to write the first draft. You may have also heard the terms planner, outliner, or architect used to refer to these types of writers.
Pantsers, on the other hand, tend to write their stories as they go and adjust the structure once they have a finished draft. They often jump into writing with only vague ideas of plot, character, or premise in mind. They’re called pantsers because they write by the seat of their pants, typically going where the story takes them rather than planning ahead. You may have also heard the terms discovery writers or gardeners to describe these types of writers.
Many people think of these two types of writers as two sides of a coin with no in-between, but increasingly, the existence of plantsers is becoming more and more recognized. Plantsers are writers who do some mixture of plotting and pantsing. Maybe they plan a general outline of their overall plot, but make up the details on the fly. Or maybe they plan ahead a chapter or two, write those parts, and then sit down and plan some more. (These types of writers are often called headlights writers, because they can only see ahead as far as their metaphorical headlights reach and can’t plan beyond that point.) Or maybe they know the beginning and the end, but have to discover what happens in between.
Some famous authors who are plotters: Brandon Sanderson, JK Rowling, Jim Butcher, Marissa Meyer
Some famous authors who are pantsers: Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, Douglas Adams, Diana Gabaldon
Is one way of writing better than the other?
Oh, the answers I read to this question always get me fired up. In short: NO! Neither one (or any of the shades in between) is better than the other. These are just different types of writing. As a writer, the best way to write is the way that works for you. That may change over time, or it might change based on the genre you’re writing, or it may change with each book you write.
There is no one perfect way to write that will always get you the best results. Don’t let anyone ever tell you anything different.
Myths About Plotting and Pantsing
Despite what I’ve written in the section above, if you’re active in online writing communities at all, then you will inevitably run across people who vehemently advocate for doing it one way or the other. They often spew a bunch of myths as their reasoning, too. So let’s head them off at the pass:
Myth #1: Plotting is inauthentic.
This one is probably an overreaction to outlining methods like Save the Cat!, the Three Act Structure, and the Hero’s Journey, all of which prescribe elements that are needed within a story. (Though most of these elements are present in most stories already…)
But planning your book ahead of time with an outline does not make it inauthentic. If you’re using your own imagination to come up with scenes for your story, then it’s not any less authentic than pantsing is. You’re still brainstorming, still letting your imagination run away with you, and still creating something that didn’t exist before, even if you’ve decided to map it out first.
Myth #2: Pantsing is lazy.
This one always makes me laugh. No, pantsing is in no way lazy. It is not lazy to prefer to just write the story over creating an outline first, especially if that outline doesn’t serve you. Despite what your high school English teachers probably drilled into your head, you do not need an outline for every piece of writing you do, and you’re not “skipping a step” because you don’t outline. And after all the work you'll need to put in to get your draft polished? Yeah, pantsing isn't lazy at all.
Myth #3: Pantsed novels are messy and erratic.
It’s true—the first drafts of pantsed novels do tend to look a bit messier than their plotted counterparts. However, a novel isn’t just in the first draft; it’s in the revisions and editing. If I gave you a plotted novel and a pantsed novel in their final forms, after all the rewrites and polishing, you would not be able to tell the difference, promise.
Myth #4: Plotted novels are predictable.
Newsflash: Pantsed novels can be just as predictable as plotted novels can. Plotting or pantsing has absolutely nothing to do with creative thinking. You can just as easily plan out a good twist as you can accidentally throw one in. Again here, the key is in revisions—if you recognize that your story has gone in a predictable direction, whether you’ve plotted or pantsed, you can fix that in the rewrite.
Which one are you?
Keep in mind that these reflect the absolute extremes of the plotter-pantser scale, and most writers are somewhere in between! You may not fit either of these categories perfectly, and that’s okay.
You might be a plotter if…
You often get totally stuck in your story if you don’t have an outline or if your outline isn’t detailed enough.
If you ever do happen to stray from your outline on accident, you find this really uncomfortable or stressful and feel the need to reoutline immediately before you can continue writing.
You really don’t like doing huge, extensive revisions.
When you do revise your drafts, you rarely have to make any major structural changes.
You might be a pantser if…
You’re eager to just sit down and get started on writing—research and taking notes makes you feel fidgety.
When you do have an outline, you either find yourself going off the rails really soon or abandoning it completely despite any efforts you make to stay on track.
Or, if you try to write an outline, you soon lose interest in actually writing the story, and you can’t get motivated to complete the draft.
You enjoy or at least don’t mind revisions, and it’s a good thing, because your first drafts usually need a lot of big changes.
So what kind of writer are you?
I’d love to hear what writing process works best for you. And if you don’t know yet, make sure to experiment with different styles until you find exactly what serves you best!
And whether you're a plotter, a pantser, a plantser, or any other kind of writer, I've got editorial services to help you along the way. Always feel free to get in touch and let me know how I can help you!