Tag Archive: pantser

Plotters vs Pantsers: Are We Really That Different?

Ever since I learned the terms “pantser and plotter”, I’ve identified as a plotter (someone who outlines a story before writing a manuscript). To me, sitting down to write a whole book without an outline (i.e. the pantser method) is impossible. And now it’s time for a confession: pantsers make me feel stupid. Why can’t I just sit down at my laptop and start writing a novel? Why do I have to plan first? How is it possible that people can construct complicated long-form narratives without a story map? Is it because they’re geniuses and I am not? Should I just give up now?

Then I discovered something that made me realize that pantsers and plotters are more alike than we think. This doesn’t mean we’re all “plansters” — the en vogue definition for writers who see themselves as a little bit of both methods. What I mean is we’re all doing the same thing, but we use different terminology to define it, and sometimes that leads to misunderstandings and a sh*tload of writers doubt. Let’s end that now…


So because pantsers begin by writing a manuscript, I used to think they didn’t do any story development, that the story just spilled from their magic brains fully formed. How I envied that! But that’s not exactly how it works. Every writer goes through a process of story development. We all head out into the unknown and follow that unmarked road to discover where it leads. It’s just that some record that journey in full sentences and paragraphs (first draft), others take point form notes (beat sheets), some map the route (outline) and backtrack to explore (revise), and at one point or another we all stare out the window daydreaming. Each writer is developing the story, but using different methods and calling the process different things. Pantsers call this the first draft, and the reason this made me feel stupid is because as a plotter, I picture a first draft as a readable manuscript that doesn’t need too much story editing. How do pantsers achieve that without an outline or ten?! Well, my pantser friends clarified that they don’t — their first drafts are often a mess of ideas spit onto the page that they then build, revise and edit into a novel via many subsequent drafts. See, it all comes down to terminology: a pantser’s first draft is different than a plotter’s first draft which is different than a plantser’s first draft.

Though this might be obvious to some people, for others, especially those just starting out, hearing writers use the same term to describe disparate stages of writing can be confusing and daunting. I know it was for me. And if you’re a plotter, you might beat yourself up for not “really writing.” Pantsers were always telling me to “just start writing” because they didn’t understand that I was already writing, that my outline serves the same purpose as their first draft, that we’re both getting the story out of our heads but just in different formats. And sometimes the formats aren’t even different! For example, I wrote a post last year (A Slow Writer’s Scheme to Win NaNoWriMo) where I confessed that I was not writing a fast first draft for NaNo, I was instead writing a detailed outline, and that started a conversation with some writer friends who said that my detailed outline sounded exactly like their first drafts. We were at the same stage of story development, but called it different things.

There’s a lot of chatter between novelists about whether it’s better to be a plotter or a pantser. A quick Google search reveals that the debate is endless! But I don’t think we’re all that different. Both camps develop, build, revise and edit the story, we just use different methods to execute and different terminology to define those stages.

This is all to say that the Plotter vs Pantser divide is silly and possibly harmful to a writer’s psyche. After all, I didn’t participate in NaNo for the longest time because I don’t “fast draft” first drafts. That’s pantser territory, right? To me, NaNoWriMo didn’t seem like a place for plotters and slow writers. But it can be if you change the terminology. Words are words, after all. If you’re a plotter who’s not at the first draft stage yet, count words for outlines or story development notes or whatever. Use the challenge to motivate yourself to write (that’s ultimately what it’s for) and do it. As for me, I am participating with another “detailed outline” this year. Here’s my NaNo profile. Hopefully I’ll see you there!

What do you think about the pantser vs plotter thing? Are we more alike than different?

Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writers-life/plotters-vs-pantsers-are-we-really-that-different/

Things are Getting Drafty

MS editFollowing up and adding to Caryn’s post yesterday:

What exactly is a “draft”? If you go from beginning to end without any revisions, that could reasonably be called a draft. But do we really? I work on a scene forever before I move on, maybe I skip around a bit to feel out other characters, go back and take out scenes because now it doesn’t work, maybe revise a bit before moving on.

I was lucky enough to meet Ray Bradbury in the last year of his life. I asked him for advice for a newbie, and he said, “Honey, just sit down, get your story out, and have a ball, because it’s sheer hell after that.” He went on to say the work starts after you’ve played, after you’ve gotten the story down. The revising and the editing is where the actual work comes in.

My book took two years to get to the point where I thought it might get some bites, and I can’t say I went straight through from beginning to end.

“How many drafts did you do before you felt comfortable letting other people see it?” A question from a stranger at a party that made my eyebrows knit together. As usual, I didn’t want to disappoint with my answers. I thought about pulling a respectable number out of a hat, only to impress with all the hard word I put into the missive. “Twelve,” I would answer firmly. “Twelve long, hard, tough drafts where I killed all my darlings and created new ones.” That would certainly impress them.

But no. I said I didn’t count drafts, only to have the questioner turn away in disappointment. I can’t lie in real life. In stories, sure, but not to someone who seemed so deeply interested in my process.

Drafts? I don’t know. I messed, fussed, picked at, read, adjusted, moved, clipped, expanded, dumped, re-wrote, and massaged words all through the two-year episode.

But drafts? I didn’t start at the beginning and go all the way through to the end, if that’s what is meant by the word draft.

Which segues nicely into my next meander: are you a pantser or a plotter? See, if I were a plotter, I might have a better answer. I could go from the beginning, looking over at my outline of beginning, middle, and end, and breeze right through to the end.

But no. I’m a pantser. I write from the seat of my pants, my gut, my instinct as to what a character might do. What I think might happen seldom happens. As I get into my characters and start conversations (my husband hates it when I make that statement) with them, it becomes clear to me that they might do exactly the opposite of what I had thought the direction of the story might go. “Aha! She’s not going there – she’s going there and doing that, which makes the antagonist mad, and therefore leads us to X.” But when it comes to writing the “X” scene, what I think might happen may or may not happen. And so it goes.

I once had a mentor tell me that letting the characters dictate what happens when you’re writing is the wrong way to go and you’ll go off course and get muddled.

I call BS on that. “Stick to the outline,” he said. He even had us write out what each scene meant, where the conflict was, and what the motivation was for the character to do whatever it was that they did, and how it affected other characters. It ended up being an eighteen-page document that I resented for the time and effort I put into it, because I just wanted to write my story. I tried going by an outline, but didn’t feel at all creative and my characters were champing at the bit to do something different and surprise me, but I forced myself to stick to the script. I had no fun, and neither did my characters. They came out moody and dark, like bad actors on the stage. There was no heart, nothing to give them any dimension. I threw it all away and went with my gut.

That’s not to say I didn’t know the ending. I knew exactly where my characters would end up, it’s what happened in between the beginning and the ending that surprised me, and that’s where the creativity comes in.

Drafts? In my book (pardon the pun), it’s not a finite thing. What I start with in the beginning days of a new project I know will never appear in final form. It will be tweaked many, many times before it’s deemed ready to be seen by others’ eyes. And when I look back on the first keystrokes I blush at the audacity I had to even begin this journey, but with a lot of massaging and thinking, adjusting, and tossing, it can become something that rises from a humble beginning into something I am proud of. It came from me, pulled out line by line from my psyche, my heart, and my life.

You can’t get that from an outline. Just one woman’s humble opinion.

Just don’t ask me how many drafts I’ve done. I don’t have a respectable answer.

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