Pantsers vs. Plotters


I love discussing the writing process with other people, especially other writers. We're all so different, the way one operates obviously unique to the individual.

From what I've discovered through research, conversations, and observations, every writer tends to naturally fall into one of two categories: plotters and pantsers. As illustrated above, plotters outline, create detailed character boards for their characters, and may even follow a strict writing timeline ("I plan to have this part done by this time"; "I complete a chapter a day"; etc.) Pantsers tend to, as the name suggests, fly by the seat of their pants, creating mostly as they go, eschewing outlines, and throwing together different ideas until something coherent (usually) emerges.

I've known for a long time that I'm not exactly a... planner. I'm impulsive, idealistic, a procrastinator, and -- what's the opposite of anal? I'm that. Sure, I can be quite organized when it comes to some things -- my home and family, mostly -- but all in all, you could call me the poster child for Type B. In fact, the "B" in Type B stands for Bianca.

As you can imagine, this bleeds into my writing style. As a high school student and then an English major in college, I always hated the step of essay assignments where teachers required the submission of an outline. HUGE waste of time, in my opinion; I could have spent that time getting the essay over with.

That's why I fell in love with creative writing. I don't have to submit an outline for a work of fiction. Later on down the line, a literary agent or publisher might require a detailed description of my progress on a project, but most of the time I can let my novel(s) progress as they will. This is beautifully freeing for someone like me.

We Are Eternal was written almost entirely by the seat of my pants... which is why it endured a number of rewrites and sits on my computer in multiple draft forms to this day. I don't mind doing rewrites, though, and don't see them as a bad thing. My writing style and ideas are ever-evolving, so even a fully planned novel would and probably should get rewritten at some point.

Take Way Down Low, another novel that I'm currently working on a third draft for (and is my next publishing aspiration if my plan to query We Are Eternal doesn't pan out): I wrote the first draft of Way Down Low in one month, right after I finished We Are Eternal. This novel weaves together four different storylines, which I took from short stories I'd written in the past, so it had to be somewhat plotted or complete chaos would ensue. Even so, I only barely outlined the story so to avoid plot holes and continuity issues and guess what still happened? Plot holes and continuity issues. Why? Because aside from the fact writers are human and therefore subject to human error, even when I plot, I plot pants-ily.

So, which one are you? A pantser or a plotter? Dislike strict labels or feel you fall into some sort of gray area? No problem. I've found a handy little chart that covers it all:

I'd call myself a Lawful Plantser -- aka just this side of pantser, or "plotting pants-ily" -- but I have been known to act as a Chaotic Plantser from time to time. Depends on where I am when an idea/scene strikes; if inspiration wakes me from a dead sleep, I'm scribbling on anything I can get my hands on: computer, phone notes app, grocery store receipt, torn-off scrap of paper, and I'm writing until I'm done. Whether or not it makes sense when the frenzy is over is completely arbitrary and honestly part of the fun.

There are others out there like me, of course. It's delightful to see which professional writers share my writing style, and which ones are completely opposite of me. This Goodreads article takes six authors and tells you which camp they belong in. What does Stephen King write like? Did J.K. Rowling plan all her Harry Potter novels, or come up with the entire "wizarding world" as she went along? The answers are entertaining indeed.

So, how does a pantser get anything done? And how long does it take to cobble together anything even resembling a literary work when there's not much of a plan involved? There are several methods to try when you want to get a project done quickly: I've participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an event that occurs every November and challenges participants to write 50,000 words -- the minimum length of a novel -- in 30 days. I've bought books that show you how to organize your ideas efficiently (this one in particular was helpful). And I've set writing goals (a page a day, x amount of words a day, a chapter a day, etc.).

These methods were helpful and fun, and any time I give myself a challenge, I tend to become obsessive about completing it. But I've found that I get my quickest writing done when I just sit down and "pants" it -- no thinking, no following anyone else's guidelines, just running with the inspiration*.

*Disclaimer: One of my favorite quotes by Octavia Butler urges us to forget inspiration, and many other writers have said that if they waited for inspiration, they'd never write. I believe this to be true, and have used this logic as motivation to develop daily writing habits when I've been working on novels. However, it's inspiration that lets me dive into a writing project without inhibitions (planning), and it's inspiration that keeps me up until 4 am writing. Writing every day is a habit, but inspiration keeps me frantically pantsing.

At the end of the day, however we choose to go about the writing process just that: a choice. And it's not right or wrong or better or worse than anyone else's method. If it works, you're relaxed, you're consistent, and you're churning out results, feel free to pants or plot as you wish.