In writing circles, a common question is: are you a plotter or a pantser?
For those not up on the lingo, these two terms describe how someone goes about the writing process.
A plotter, as the name suggests, is someone who plots out their work. The style and length of their outlines varies. Some craft broad outlines that just list a few key events, some do chapter-by-chapter summaries. Others break things down even further, so their outline looks more like a nearly-completed story than a rough set of ideas.
A pantser is someone who just wings it. The meaning of the name may not be as obvious, but it derives from “writing by the seat of one’s pants.” A pantser may have a general idea of their story’s ebb and flow, but for the most part, they’re making it up as they go along. Each writing session is a new adventure.
Plotters are usually more efficient. Their outlines serve as guideposts; when they begin a writing session, they’re usually not floundering around for ideas or staring out the window in a stupor.
Still, many – most? – plotters will find themselves deviating from their outlines at some point. Some may even trash entire chapters that they’ve already plotted out. Nonetheless, they can usually maintain a brisk pace.
Critics of plotters proclaim their writing style sucks all the joy and wonder out of writing. Writing (especially fiction writing) is supposed to be magical, spontaneous, effervescent. Boring crap like outlines will cause your Muse to cease showering you with Mystical Wordsmithing Dust. You’ll produce dull, formulaic writing that no one will want to read.
Pansters may be less efficient than plotters, but their writing experience may be more fun.
Unconstrained by bullet-pointed outlines, they let the words flow out of them, and worry about pulling it all into a coherent whole later.
Or they have a firm grasp of storytelling, and so they “know” how to write a logically-progressing story, even if they don’t “know” what exactly they’ll be writing at the beginning of their session.
Critics of pantsers say they’re a bunch of flailing amateurs who churn out mush instead of tightly-crafted stories. A pantser wastes too much time, they argue, and puts too much stock in the Muse. Writing is a skill like any other, and thus there’s no shame in plotting out one’s story instead of waiting for the Essence of Creation to wash over you.
Of course, these are stereotyped definitions and criticisms. There’s a lot of gray areas between the two styles. Many writers reside somewhere in these gray areas, or dip into one or the other as the need arises, though they may be dedicated plotters or pantsers.
So, how would I answer the question, “Are you a plotter or a pantser?”
Up until very recently, my answer would’ve been a stalwart, “I’m a pantser.”
I enjoy letting the words flow out of me. I enjoy it when my characters (who I thought I knew so well) do a complete 180, or when a secondary character bursts in and demands attention. I enjoy it when my thoughts zip down weird corridors and I’m able to come up with a scene or chapter that I believe is awesome and unique.
And I hated outlines. The few times I’d tried crafting an outline had felt like medieval torture.
Why was I spending hours creating this flimsy little outline? In those hours, I could’ve written thousands of words! Bah on plotting!
But, as I said, that was my answer until very recently.
My answer now? “I want to be a plotter badly. Please please please let me be a plotter!”
In some ways, the melting-down of my pantsing bronze statue (does that analogy work?) has taken quite some time. I have been aware that I’ve wasted plenty of time in my writing career. I’ve even scrapped several projects because I hadn’t fully explored their ideas beforehand, and so found myself hopelessly frustrated when I had to contend with thorny storytelling issues.
But the writing of the third Johnny Wagner novel was the final straw – on the melting bronze statue? Hmm….
I began that novel as I’d always done: by pantsing, and pantsing some more.
The words tumbled out, and they were at least coherent. But…there was a lot of stuff I needed to explain. In many ways, I was creating a whole new world for this novel, in addition to what I’d already constructed in the previous two novels.
Was I being too ambitious? Should I write a simpler conclusion to the Johnny Wagner trilogy instead of some wild, multi-genre smorgasbord?
And why was I using so many damn characters?! Where did you folks come from?! You’re multiplying like rabbits!
And what do I do about this troublesome scene? And this troublesome scene? And this troublesome scene?
Imagine “And this troublesome scene?” echoing in some dank, dark dungeon with One-Star Amazon Review Monsters lurking in the shadows, ready to rend my flesh.
In short, attempting to write the third Johnny Wagner novel wasn’t no fun.
The manuscript remains uncompleted, the file collecting electronic dust on my laptop.
Now, I’m known for my stubbornness, but even I will abandon a method when that method is basically stabbing me with rusty knives.
(I don’t abandon a method if it’s stabbing me with clean, well-sharpened knives. Gotta get to the point where they’re rusty.)
If I want to take this writing gig seriously, I have to work in a style that reduces mental anguish and increases efficiency.
Thus, why I’m plotting to be a plotter.
So far, I only have one outline to my name, and creating it was…not that bad!
As I mentioned, my previous efforts at plotting had been abysmal, so I was shocked to learn I could write an outline without going on a teeth-gnashing, laptop-throwing, heaven-cursing rampage.
That certainly bodes well for my transformation from pantser to plotter.
So, for all you budding plotters out there, or for those on the fence about the whole thing, here are some tips, from an admitted newbie.
It’s not zero sum
I used to think if I spent X time writing an outline, then X time was “wasted,” because I wasn’t “really writing.”
This is so, so wrong.
I was splitting up the writing process into sections, and assigning arbitrary value to each section.
But writing is a process. There aren’t any “important” or “unimportant” sections.
A solid outline will make that “real writing” go smoother. If the “real writing” goes smoother, the editing will be easier. If the editing is easier, you won’t be paying a beta reader or editor to tell you, “Uh…this has promise, but it still needs a lot of work.”
It’s an outline, not a novel you’re hoping will win the Pulitzer Prize
Now, the novel itself is something you’ll want to be written to a high standard.
An outline, though, is allowed to have spelling and grammar errors, truncated sentences, and other “improper” stuff.
For example, writing, “Protag. meets love interest. They run from bandits.” is fine.
The pedantic amongst you may want to make sure everything is spic and span – and I do find myself correcting errors – but really, it doesn’t matter.
The outline should be clear enough to make sense to you. That’s it.
You don’t need to know everything (or, the triumphant return of pantsing!)
Even the most granular outline won’t tell you everything you need to know about your story.
Nor should it. The color of some minor character’s pants is of little importance when you’re focusing on macro issues.
Unless, of course, it is important. Maybe you’re writing dystopian fiction, and the color of someone’s attire denotes the class they’ve been assigned by the World Government Council of Accord in its Caste System of Complete and Eternal Harmony.
The point is: outline the stuff you absolutely need, and maybe a few snazzy things you come up with along the way.
You’ll have plenty of opportunity to fill in the blanks when you’re writing.
So, in a way, you’ll still be pantsing at some point!
See? You can have the best of both worlds.
Now, I hope it’s clear I’m not bashing “pure” pantsers.
I, of course, was a stubborn pantser for many years, and I’ll still incorporate some pants-time into my writing sessions, as my last advice point noted.
But if you’re struggling with your word count or have written yourself into a corner, perhaps it’s time to try something new.
Plotting isn’t very painful, if you’re mentally prepared for the task.
It’s certainly less painful than being stabbed with rusty knives.