Plotters vs. Pantsers

To kick off this series, let’s talk about that age-old argument: plotters versus pantsers. “Plotters vs. pantsers” is a description of how writers write. If you interviewed a hundred writers about their writing process, you’d get a hundred different answers, some polar opposites, none wrong. The writing process is as individual as writers themselves.

Defining Plotters and Pantsers

Some writers start with a character or an idea or a flash of a scene. Just the tiniest spark of inspiration. They start writing, and they let the story unfold as they write. These writers are sometimes called “discovery writers” or “pantsers,” because they write by the seat of their pants, following inspiration where it leads them.

Other writers prefer to plan before they begin writing. These “plotters” want at least some idea of a destination and some semblance of a roadmap before striking out into the unknown.

Plotting and pantsing are opposite ends of a continuum. Although a few writers (including me) fall on one extreme end or the other, most writers fall somewhere in the middle. Some do high level outlines but vary from it when inspiration strikes. Others plan a few scenes ahead. Still others pour their hearts and souls into deep character backgrounds and then let their characters dictate the story events. Individual writers might even find that what works with one story doesn’t work with the next. Writing is individual to the writer, to the story, to the moment.

Why am I a plotter?

I am an extreme plotter. My professional background is in technical writing and instructional design, and my first professional writing was in nonfiction. Through nonfiction I learned how organization could make or break content, how structure determined whether content would be effective.

My first truly creative writing was screenplays. Structure is as critical — and omnipresent — in screenwriting as it is in a sonnet. With screenwriting I learned that structure could be the difference between mediocrity and art.

I also had the importance of pre-planning drilled into me by my mentor, a man who had made his living as a television writer for many years. It was, he taught, much easier — and faster — to make massive revisions at the outline stage than when you have a finished draft in hand.

And so, those were the lessons I carried with me when I began experimenting with prose fiction. To my delight, I discovered that nearly all of what I learned about story and structure in screenwriting could be successfully applied to novels as well.

I also found that the method I had worked out addressed many of the concerns and pitfalls that seemed to plague other writers. Pacing, character arcs, intertwining of events all falls neatly in line. I decided to share my method with others in hopes that someone else could skip over some of those concerns and pitfalls as well.

Come over to the dark side!

Do I think my method and ideas are the only way to write a novel? Of course not! Do I think pantsers should abandon their preference and come over to the dark side? Yes! No, I’m kidding.

I do think, however, that even die-hard pantsers will find something useful here though, because even pantsers have to deal with structure and organization during the rewrite phase.

Come on. I know it’s scary. Just give it a chance!

Ready for the next step? Let’s talk about what to write about.

Baby Pflouff -- she'd definitely be a plotter

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