What kind of person are you? Are you the kind that has all their documents filed in order, in-trays and out-trays on your immaculate desk, and a pinterest-worthy, minimalistic workspace ready to go at a moment’s notice? Or are you someone with paperwork scattered everywhere and a hundred mismatched pens, the sort who never tidies up because if they did, they’d never be able to find anything?
The answer to the above will give you a good indication whether you are a plotter or a pantser when it comes to writing.
WHAT ARE PLOTTERS AND PANTSERS?
These are writer slang for two different ways to write. Plotters are those who outline and meticulously plan their story. They tend to have masses of world building information, character backgrounds, character arcs, they’ve planned their story around the three act structure (or something similar) and may even have chapter and scene breakdowns so that all they have to do is fill in the detail and the first draft will be done. These are the writers who know exactly what will happen to whom, when, how, and why, and exactly where it fits in to the story.
Then there are pantsers — so-called because they write from the seat of their pants. They tend to sit down and just write. As shocking as that sounds to some (in which case the chances are you’re a plotter), it works for them. They might have a broad idea of the storyline, a particularly interesting character they want to explore, a scene in their mind, or a burning desire to write but they rarely have much more than a vague notion of where they’re going.
To the plotter, the idea of not knowing what will happen may cause immense stress but to the pantser, having everything carefully planned is not interesting enough.
Bear in mind that this is in fact a sliding scale rather than two boxes. As you grow in your writing and your circumstances change, you may find that you lean more in either direction. But is one better than the other?
THE PROS AND CONS OF PLOTTING
Being organised is a gift, but it can be learned to some degree. One of the benefits of being someone who carefully plots their novel and outlines it before they begin is that when they sit down, they know exactly what to write. This helps the person to keep going when they don’t feel like it — it’s difficult to get writer’s block when you know what comes next.
If a writer plans their story thoroughly, the chances are that they will be able to pick up any major plot holes much earlier too. There is a case to be made for having to do less rounds of revisions this way too. Anyone who hates edits (like me) will see the benefit.
However, there are problems with being a plotter too. One of the pitfalls is that some are sucked into the wormhole of the eternal planner. Because plotters tend to have more perfectionist tendencies, they want things to be in order before they begin. The issue is when they can’t stop tweaking things and it prevents them from getting pen to paper and finishing that first draft. Instead, they end up caught in a never-ending cycle of adjustments. Some use this as an excuse because they are scared to start writing (all of us are at some point) and it makes them look like they’re being productive. Others don’t realise that they’ve trapped themselves and can be set right with minor intervention.
The other downside of plotting extensively is something that I struggle with as a pantser. Unless I love a story (The Book Thief or Gatty’s Tale for example) I don’t care to read it if I already know what happens. It’s the same with writing. If I know exactly what’s going to happen when and how and why and to whom, then I completely lose interest. I have no motivation to write something that has already been written, even if only mentally. It’s more of a character flaw of mine than a real problem with the plotter method of writing but I know people who feel the same way.
THE PROS AND CONS OF PANTSING
As I said above, I love an unfamiliar story. Sometimes, this method is called discovery writing (because it sounds more professional and is generally a better description). It’s great for those of us who enjoy making things up as we go along. One of the greatest benefits is that the story can grow itself, previously unsuspecting subplots are uncovered and twists can take the writer by surprise even as they pen them.
The result of this hedonistic scribbling is a story (and the characters in it) which develop almost naturally — there is no shoehorning events and dialogue in because that’s where it’s supposed to be whether it fits or not. It’s like driving at night with the headlights illuminating far enough ahead for you to see a little but not to the end of the road. The flexibility and spontaneity are a delight.
That said, pantsing can also be a nightmare. The fluid nature of the plot means that there are often far more revisions to be made, pacing to be tweaked, events to be rearranged, dialogue to be shuffled and cut. . . When you make it up as you go along, the story is much more prone to inconsistencies, great and small.
In addition, writer’s block has a much greater sway over the pantser. When you sit down, not knowing what you will write next, it can be exciting but it can also be daunting. If you are going through a creative dry patch, pantsing can be all but impossible because you don’t just have to get the words out, you have to know where they are going. On top of this, any notes kept tend to be haphazard and disorganised. This, of course, makes it difficult to keep track of what they were thinking at any given point and thereby harder to pick up where they left off.
SO SHOULD I PLOT OR PANTS?
The longer I write, the more I begin to realise that there’s no right way of doing it. This is one of those areas in which I must shrug and suggest that you do what works best and is most productive for you. Somewhere toward the middle of the spectrum is healthy . I’m a little pants from centre. There’s benefit to being organised, it does increase productivity in many ways but there’s an inherent joy of feeling like you’re reading the book for the first time as you write it. An end goal is important as you write and you’ll thank yourself if you keep good, ordered notes as you go. That said, I find a fiendish glee that if ever I die just before the climax of a WIP, no one will ever know how it was meant to end.
- Where are you on a scale of plot to pants?
- Which pitfalls of your chosen side are you prone to falling into?