Plotter, Pantser, Plantser: What Are They, and How Do You Know Which Type You Are?
There are many different ways to be a writer, but what way works for you?
You may have seen terms like “plotter” and “pantser” tossed around in writing communities and – if you’re not a writer or you’re new to those communities – you might be confused about what, exactly, they mean.
In simple terms, plotters are writers who plot and pantsers are writers who don’t (instead, they “fly by the seat of their pants”, hence the name). But is it really that simple? Do these two categories really encompass all the ways to approach writing a book? And how do you know which type of writer you are?
Well, let’s break it down in some more detail, shall we?
If you’re a plotter, outlining is your best friend. You need to have a clear idea of what your story looks like before you can write it, and you hold that outline as a treasured road map to get you from point A to point B. Now, obviously, there are different degrees to which someone could outline a book – some people get down the main plot beats and then iron out the details and in-betweens as they go; others have all the tiniest minutia figured out before they pen a single word of the actual first draft. You might only outline the actual plot of the story, or you might also do up character sheets and backstory outlines and lore/world-building outlines.
When working on a series, some plotters might outline each book as they go while keeping a broad overview of how the whole story is going to unfold. But you might also find it helpful to have a solid outline of every book going forward before you write the first one, and adjust accordingly if the finished drafts deviate from the plan.
Basically, planning is super, super important for these writers, and asking them to write a story without figuring out what it will look like beforehand probably sounds like pulling teeth to them.
No outlines – we die like men!
Okay, but seriously, pantsers outline very little before they start writing, if they outline at all. This could be for a variety of reasons – it feels too rigid and they know they aren’t going to stick with what they wrote, or outlining is too impersonal and distant from the characters for them to get a feel for the story, or their outlines usually end up just turning into actual drafts.
If you find the third example happening to you a lot, you might want to try your hand at what’s called a “zero draft”. This falls somewhere between an outline and a first draft – it’s too detailed and narrative-like to be an outline, but waaaay too rough and all over the place to be a true first draft. Essentially, just throw ideas onto the page to see what sticks, then worry about cleaning up the mess later.
Now, even just with a preliminary comparison between plotters and pantsers, you might notice that pantsers are probably going to have more extensive rewriting to tackle in order to make their story workable. This might sound like a more tedious or labour-intensive process, but it isn’t, really – plotters just frontload some of that work by going through the process of outlining.
Looking at that title, you might be asking yourself, “What the hell is a plantser?” Answer: the in-between category. Also, my method of writing!
I used to think I was a pantser, mostly because I had tried to do full outlines before drafting and just found it didn’t work for me at all. But over the years I’ve found that completely pantsing it doesn’t really work for me, either – I’ll go long stretches not really sure what to write next, or I’ll lose interest/motivation in a project. What I found worked instead was to do a very fast-and-loose outline to get myself started and then just write.
When I say “fast-and-loose”, I mean it. My outlines often aren’t even in chronological order – it’s just a bulleted list of some plot beats I want to hit, open threads from previous books if it’s later in a series, and maybe some questions I need to answer. I don’t rely on it a lot while I’m writing, but I’ll refer back to it any time I feel stuck to help guide myself back on track.
What Are You?
This ultimately comes down to trial and error. There isn’t really a magic test you can take that will determine your ideal writing style in this sense, so you just have to try different methods and see what works for you. And it might change! You might be a rigid plotter for years and then a story comes along that refuses to be anything but a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventure. There’s nothing wrong with that.
These categories aren’t meant to be rigid or deterministic or anything of that sort. Honestly, in the grand scheme of writing, they don’t matter all that much. But they can be helpful guide points in understanding what works for you in comparison to what works for other writers. There’s nothing wrong with hearing someone preach gospel about the necessity of outlining in order to write a good book and thinking, “Outline? Never heard of her.” Just as there’s no shame in needing structure and planning before you can get your draft onto paper.
When it comes down to it, writing is a very personal thing, and we’re all going to approach it differently. The point is to realize there’s no “right way” to write a book and just do what works best for you and your story.