Pantser vs. Plotter

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
—George Orwell

If you’re a writer, do you fall into the Pantser or the Plotter camp?

Many of us are combinations of the two, but lately, I’m wishing I was more of a Plotter. And I’m kicking myself for spending FAR too much time writing out of the foxhole I unwittingly dug so long ago.

A Pantser is someone who writes “by the seat of their pants.” They believe characters develop lives of their own and want to tell their own stories. They feel that not knowing what lies ahead is exciting and provides a better story, for them and their readers. When they back themselves into a corner, they often abandon the project entirely rather than claw their way out.

A Plotter, on the other hand, is an outliner. Someone who starts with Point A, proceeds to Point B, then C, then logically to a conclusion. They derive comfort from knowing beginning, middle, and end — usually before they embark on their writing journey. They keep Post-It notes or detailed charts with character and setting descriptions, timelines, and so forth. Their ends are tied up in nice bows; the act of writing comes easier because it has structure.

Each writing style has pros and cons. The work of Pantsers flows. It can be a heady experience for a writer to feel that his Muse is sitting on his shoulder, helping his story “write itself.” But the work of Plotters is accurate, detailed, complete. Plot holes are nonexistent; characters are flushed out, and the conclusion is reasonable.

I have Pantser tendencies. They served me well as a journalist. I get an idea and RUN with it, and I’ve hated outlines since elementary school. Being a Pantser novelist though means I spend a lot of time rewriting. I get to the “murky middle,” find that things don’t line up right, and march back to the beginning. This makes my beginnings strong (something editors love), but unless the rest makes sense to me, it’s not finished.

Regardless of how much I want to type “The End”!

I’m told we Pantsers eventually recognize our need for an outline, though often not until we’re 30,000 words in and toying with moving on to something else — like maybe telemarketing or folding burritos?!

There are lots of reasons for outlining, chief of which is remaining focused on the task at hand.

So which camp do you fall into??

26 thoughts on “Pantser vs. Plotter

  1. A bit of both. As a panster, I didn’t get far. Plotting takes me farther, and then my “panster” prances in and redirects, ha!

    • I’m trying to re-train myself to plot, Suzi, but it’s so HARD. It just doesn’t come naturally for me at all. I can see where it would make the actual writing gel more, but the pantser in me just wants to GO. Now, too!

  2. I imagine I would be a panster. Since my life is usually run off the cuff. However, I do appreciate done and I love the sense of order an outline provides. Until now I didn’t even know these terms existed. Thanks!

    • Glad to be able to teach something new today! It’s funny, you know. Most of my life is more Plotter. I plan and make lists. But writing is another story. Sigh.

  3. Debbie, my friend, I LOVED this post and found it extremely interesting and informative! And although I have never written a book, I believe I’m more like you, a panster, because I seem to fly by the seat of my pants once I plan a basic outline of what I want to write. And that also pertains to most things in my life. I will plan up to a point, but then stay open to taking different directions.

    I write and live more “intuitively.”

    For my blog, I like having specific days that I post because it keeps me motivated to continue writing and allows me to stay connected to my muse. However, I write more about life experiences than fiction, so perhaps I would be different if I were to write a book, where Plotting would be more helpful.

    Thanks so much for sharing this post. I really enjoyed it! Have a faaabulous weekend!

    • When I started this novel, I had a general idea for the beginning and the ending; the middle was a complete muddle! I figured I’d work my way around it when I got there. Maybe other writers can pull that off, but I’ve written myself into a corner on sooo many occasions now that it’s become rather annoying. I guess I’m just so excited by the initial idea that I want to get it down as fast as possible — before it evaporates into thin air! You’re wise to do some planning — and to set up a structure that keeps you focused. Happy Saturday, Ron!

  4. Considering the most extensive amount of writing I’ve ever done about one topic was a series of three or four blog posts, I can’t really claim to have much of a plan of any sort when it comes to writing. I guess that makes me a pantser! 🙂

    • C’mon, Professor, you’d never let me get away with sitting on the fence *laughs* — don’t you want to choose?? I plan — sometimes — but mostly I just go with the flow. When writing, you know.

  5. Like you, I’m probably a pantser and will always be. I don’t have the patience for an outline, yet that is what agents want. Which is why I’ll never write a book. Blogging and writing profiles is about all I can handle. Sigh.

    • My problem is, I start off being a pantser, then find myself deep in the middle (where the plot is thick and murky), and I can’t see my way out to connect to the ending I’ve got in mind. So I end up rewriting. A lot. Somehow, I feel like I’m writing WAY more this way, too.

  6. I think I fall in between these two. I work best when I take the time to at least note one major thing that should happen in each chapter. I don’t plan sub-plots or side stories… they just kind of happen 🙂

    • Janna, you sound as if you’ve got it all put together — good for you! Maybe I should take notes on how you do it, so I, too, won’t subject myself to mental aggravation?? Oh, yeah, I *do* have notes — all over the place — but they’re NOT helping. Sigh.

    • At least folding burritos would be steady work, huh, Barb?? I mean, people have gotta eat! Possibly I’m just tired — and worried this one, too, won’t sell. Grrr!

    • That’s interesting, Kim. I write fiction, and I’m definitely a Pantser. Something tells me I’d be a Plotter if I wrote non-fiction (but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking, ha!!)

    • Pat, you’ve inspired and encouraged me without even knowing it! After all, you’ve already published a book, so the Pantser in me sees it CAN be done. Thank you for that!

  7. I’m a plotter …no I’m a panster. When the Lord tells me what to write I’m a punster. For me…writing is VERY hard. I’m struggling with writing so the quote at the beginning of your blog was for me. My book that I wrote in 2007 is just sitting here in my computer waiting for an opportunity to be seen one day. Just thinking about what it took for me to write it stresses me out even now. But one day….

    • I wonder how many of us have written books that never saw the light of day, Tanya. It makes me kind of sad because if God gives us an ability, I think we’re supposed to use it (otherwise, it’s like throwing it back in His Face!). Maybe you need to dust off that book and do a re-edit??!

      • Your words were hard but oh so true! My book is the visions I’ve had from God and I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in that. I know I’m making excuses here LOL! But you are right and I’ll put that on my New Years resolution list.

        • GOOD for you, Tanya! We’ll never know how many people our words can help, if we don’t put those words out there. Best of luck with the project, too.

  8. Hi Debbie, I’m definitely a panster, which is good in a way, because the characters tell their stories and I get to know them really well.The problem is that my poor Beta reader(s) sometimes complain that they can’t find the plot and ask me if I know where it’s all going. I’ve have tried going back and planning but usually I only end up as far as I’ve got to in the story. There’s also the problem with procrastination and not finishing anything.

    • Jacqueline, you’ve summed it up so well! The characters do have a way of taking things over, don’t they?? I usually start out knowing where I want to go, but then they start “fighting” me, ha! And I think procrastination is the bane of a writer’s existence!

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