Spend a little time following writers on social media and you’ll come across the phrase “plotter vs. pantser.” Many treat it like a binary choice, as though you should proudly define your writing process as either one or the other.
In reality, writing has very few rules as long as the final product stands on its own. Learning about plotting and pantsing as distinct processes can help remind us there’s more than one way to do it. But don’t let these identities fool you into thinking there’s only one way to do it.
What do plotting and pantsing mean, anyway?
When people divide themselves into camps of plotters and pantsers, they generally mean this:
Pantsing is a process described perhaps most famously in Stephen King’s book On Writing. King describes the first draft as an archaeological dig of sorts: a time of discovery. Pantsers write their first drafts intuitively, by the seat of their pants. They let the writing take the lead. Detail and structural work happen in the revision rounds.
Plotters, on the other hand, make a plan before they commit the first draft to paper. This plan can take the form of an outline, character sketches, and more. By the time they write the first draft, they have a solid armature upon which to build their story.
These two processes seem in many ways like polar opposites. This, of course, leads many writers to make plotter or pantser a core part of their identity.
What’s wrong with calling ourselves a plotter or a pantser?
While there’s nothing wrong with creating a writerly identity for ourselves, we need to be careful not to limit our process. Creative folks have a habit of defining necessary conditions for our work. Before we know it, we have a whole host of external factors to blame when we get blocked.
And everyone gets blocked. We need to remain open to a wide range of techniques to get unstuck when we hit the inevitable rough patch. If we insist we can only work one way — e.g., I can’t write from an outline or I can’t write without one — we close ourselves off to possible solutions. We can also make it easier to get stuck in the first place by not adapting our process to the problem at hand.
Develop a process that works for you.
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool pantser. However, my current novel-in-progress has a lot of details, biographical and otherwise. Ten thousand words into the first draft, I got confused and overwhelmed by it all. I tried to write through it, but the whole process felt bogged down.
So I stopped and wrote an outline. I also made a timeline of my characters’ major life events to help me keep my facts straight as I wrote. I have to admit I don’t look at these documents often in my writing, but they helped me organize my thoughts and will definitely contribute to revisions. Despite my typical anti-outline stance, I’m glad I remained open-minded. Every project is different and this one benefited from an early-stage outline.
Different writers have different reasons behind their processes. A member of my critique group does a lot of prep work before a first draft because she has very little time to write. She feels this work makes it easier for her to hit her word count goals when she has an opportunity to sit down and work on her draft. You may not enjoy working this way — or you may, but you’ve resisted because pantsing seems more creative.
When it comes down to it, perceptions don’t matter. What matters is whether you come out of it with a good book at the end. Do what works for you, even if it doesn’t match up exactly with your maddeningly-prolific writer friends or your favorite bestselling author. Even if it’s not strictly plotting or pantsing. The book is what matters. Only you know the best way to get those words on the page.