Straight talk from the sisters about blood, sweat and ink
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?
Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW
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