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To Plot, or Pants?

Exploring the Main Two Types of Writers

Photo by airfocus on Unsplash

There’s always a lot of buzz in the writing community about “Plotters and Pantsers.” Occasionally, there might even be mention of a “Plantser.” If you’re part of any group of authors, you’ve definitely been asked the question about which one you are, even if you weren’t familiar with the terms.

Am I a Plotter?

Odds are, if you’re agonizing over whether to try to plot or pants your novel, you’re more likely disposed towards plotting. Plotters prefer to have a lot of structure to their novels, and determine what they’re going to write before they even take pen to page.

Sometimes they use structures and models, or tried-and-true formulas to produce their writing. They may write according to a three-act-structure that they’ve laid out beforehand. Sometimes they’ll use a book as a writing companion for their novel, such as Save the Cat and Romancing the Beat.

The plotter is far more likely to discuss things like “plot,” “climaxes,” and especially “story beats” than a pantser would. Not that the pantser doesn’t have these things, but they’re usually not attempting to do them consciously like a plotter does.

A Plotter is far more likely to use an organization system, whether that be a program like Scrivener, or a physical system (like a series of plot-beat notecards, or a pin board.)

The Strengths of a Plotter

The plotter can fix and fill plot holes before they even start writing. This results in them not having to perform as many rewrites, and frequently, they’re not in as much need of developmental editing.

In genres where every piece of the story comes together for a big “reveal” climax, being a plotter is almost essential. Suspense, Horror, and Mystery all benefit from having every piece of the solution being predetermined at the onset of writing, so that they can foreshadow clues to the reader.

The Weaknesses of a Plotter

The plotter’s writing can occasionally flow unnaturally at times, especially between scenes. They may understand Point A and Point B, but travelling between the two isn’t always always that smooth, and sometimes will require some revision to ensure that their characters aren’t railroading.

A character taking an unexpected direction is a beautiful thing for a pantser, who has discovered a new and interesting piece of their story to explore. To a plotter, it’s a headache, and either is often ignored, or requires a massive structural overhaul.

Am I a Pantser?

What’s a pantser, and what does writing have to do with pants, anyway?

The term comes from the phrase “writing by the seat of your pants,” which of course comes from “flying by the seat of your pants.” In both cases, the term usually means that the reader is are idly floating on, without any clear direction, flying according only to their own capricious nature.

This is reflective of the pantser writing style, which abides by the maxim “just write.” Simply sit down, and get words on the page. They benefit greatly from writing sprints, and often do their entire novel in a single document.

Some authors find the term to be degrading; they prefer the term “discovery writer” instead. The idea that they carelessly fly forward without a thought in their head isn’t indicative of their work. Instead, they prefer to think of themselves as learning more about their characters and world as they write it down.

The Strengths of a Pantser

Pantsers aren’t afraid to do whatever they think will make the story the most interesting in the spur of the moment. Surprises, hard-hitting character deaths, a twisting, turning plot, and unexpected scenarios all tend to be tools for the pantser to keep their writing moving.

In general, they tend to be more character-driven than plot driven, instead focusing more on how their characters would realistically act in a given situation, rather than focusing on where the story itself is going. They know their characters incredibly well (and probably have drawn them) and enjoy interacting with them. They also tend to simply love living in the places they create, and are often creators of the most immersive of fictional worlds.

Since they’re so focused on just simply moving forwards in their novel, pantsers are also more likely to finish their works in progress, or at the very least produce more prose than their plotting counterparts.

The Weaknesses of A Pantser

Nobody can overwrite or create unnecessary scenes like a pantser can. Sometimes, they’ll get so caught up in creating a scene, and diving into a subplot, that they don’t stop to ask whether or not they should.

Pantsers also tend to fall into plot holes more than plotters. Sometimes they can lose focus, and start writing themselves into a hole that they may have difficulty getting themselves out of.

In almost every case, a pantser is going to want a strong developmental editor to read their story before they even consider it for publication, so that they can make sure that all the plot holes are filled over, and there aren’t any major detours along the way.

What if I do both? What does that make me?

You’re not alone! Many people don’t consider themselves to particularly lean towards either the architectural rigidity of plotters, or the carefree artistry of pantsers.

Sometimes, this type of writer is a called a “plantser,” a combination of the two terms. In spite of the term, no, it doesn’t have anything to do with plants.

These writers lay out the forest, first, but don’t yet decide on the trees. They may have a general outline, or a few materials pertinent to their world. They might draw out entire character sheets for their characters, despite having no real plans for them when they go to start writing.

A very specific and common type of plantser is the writer who will write their ending or climax first, and then go back, and spend the rest of the writing process figuring out working their way up to that point. Stephen King claims to use this strategy, and in his earlier works (especially Carrie) it definitely shows.

In most cases, however, they’re ultimately more similar to discovery writers in the way that they actually produce writing. They may have a destination, and have an idea of where they’re going, but they get there incredibly organically.

If a plotter has a GPS in their hand, and a pantser is wandering to sightsee, the plantser has a map, but isn’t in a huge hurry to arrive at their destination.

Does it even matter?

Nope! Not a bit. Writing is mostly a private affair. It’s a job that you do by yourself, and nobody can really tell you what your writing process should look like. If you’re producing words, it’s really all that matters.

Truly, when someone asks you this question, it’s really just shorthand for asking your about your typical writing process. It might be out of interest, or just simply to share strategies, should they share a writing style.

However, it’s really not too important, so don’t sweat it too much!

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Ghostly Written gathers everything useful to writers. Editing, genre discussion, grammar, and more.

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Collen Young

Collen Young

I usually write about books, grammar, and discourse. I’m also an editor, so feel free to reach out if you’d like to work with me. Linktr.ee/ghostlywritten

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