When Sarah and I first met in January 2015 (read more about our stubborn yet fateful meeting here) she asked me if I was a plotter or a pantser (total nerd, right?). A what you ask? I may have just finished the first draft of my novel in NaNoWriMo, but this writerly lingo meant nothing to me. Not only did this question jumpstart an entire existential crisis (okay, not really), but it also opened up a world of how authors plan and write each project.
So, what does it mean to be a plotter or a pantser?
In January 2015, I quickly learnt I was 100% a pantser. In short, a pantser flies by the seat of their pants with little or no planning when they jump into a story. Descriptive, I know. This method can be freeing as it allows the writer to take an idea they have and run with it.
Pantsing allows the story to take you by the hand to explore your characters, build your world, and chase those shiny new ideas. However, I’ve found that writing without a clear guideline can, in some cases, result in an entirely unusable draft that lacks plot focus, a clear narrative through line, character development, and scene level tension—among other things. While this approach may be ideal when pushing to write 50,000 words in a month during NaNoWriMo, sometimes it also sacrifices the structure essential to tell a compelling story.
Though it varies from writer to writer, a plotter is someone who outlines their ideas in some way or another before they start the drafting process. Sometimes writers use tools such as Save the Cat’s three act structure, or they outline each chapter in detail, or draw out maps (or in my case, hastily traced macaroni because I have no drawing talent whatsoever), extensive family trees, or other important plot, character, and world building elements. Plotting often provides a strong understanding of the intricacies of your story and can act as a roadmap for when the writer jumps into drafting. A strong aspect of this method is that it can be an effective (but not foolproof) way to combat plot holes before you even get words on the page. One downfall of this method is getting so caught up in planning every detail of your world that you never sit down and actually write the book. Unless you’re writing about a crew of crime fighting ninja turtles, you probably don’t need to know all about your city’s plumbing system. Knowing when to stop plotting and start writing is a key skill for a writer to learn.
As silly as the word ‘plantser’ sounds, some writers don’t think they fit into the pantser camp or the plotting camp. Instead, they are firmly in the middle—taking elements of both methods and mixing them into a new method that works for them (plantser…get it?).
In early 2018, I discovered I am, surprisingly, one of these neither-here-nor-there writers. I find that I naturally veer towards being a pantser, fast-drafting draft after draft—but this is my weakness. In constantly pantsing, I don’t necessarily improve each draft, I just change it ever so slightly, leaving my larger craft weaknesses unaddressed. But, plotting can make me feel creatively stunted and sometimes even guilty for spending time not actually writing the story (which something you should never feel guilty about!). So, after many failed, messy drafts, a plantser was born. For me, plantsing looks like fully pantsing my first draft then ripping it apart and diligently planning my second draft. This allows me to explore my ideas freely at first and then reign them in and tighten them up for subsequent drafts. While I can still fall prey to the negative aspects of both methods—and writer’s block, which is an affliction everyone faces regardless of method—I’ve found a system that works for me.
But remember: Regardless of what method you take, know that there is no one way to approach or write an idea. The way you identify (or don’t) can evolve with each draft, with each story, and with your writing journey.
So, what are you? Share below (or on social media) any tips or tricks you have for your fellow plotters, pantsers, or plantsers.
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