Are you a plotter or a pantser?
This question comes up a quite a bit in the online writing community, drawing a distinction between the writers who painstakingly map out their plot before writing (the “plotter”) and those who write “by the seat of their pants” and dive into writing without planning (the “pantser”).
At first glance, this distinction seems useful. And in many ways, it is.
But there is a lot more to this question than people realize—and a huge missed opportunity in the way it’s currently being asked!
Writer, know thyself
Knowing how you work best is a crucial step in cultivating a writing practice.
This of course includes basic things—like what time of day you do your best writing, where you like to work, etc.—but it also includes figuring out how you approach a writing project, how you overcome obstacles, and what tools you have in your toolbox (as well as which tools don’t do squat for you!).
The “plotter/pantser” question invites us to look at our own process and think about how we write and what we do to produce our best work.
It also recognizes that neither approach is “better” than the other—they are just different ways of writing, different ways of working. As long as we go into this question without judging ourselves or others, the introspection this question offers can be incredibly productive.
That said, if we stop the introspection at “I’m a plotter” or “I’m a pantser,” we’re missing out on the true benefit of asking the question in the first place!
Here’s the problem
If we say “I’m a plotter” or “I’m a pantser” and leave it at that, we turn “plotter” and “pantser” into static identities—one either is or isn’t, you’re one or the other, and there’s no changing that.
And while there’s nothing wrong with claiming an identity, this can be incredibly limiting if we’re not careful.
If you say “I’m a pantser, so I can’t plot,” you’re eliminating a whole slew of strategies from your arsenal that actually might help you “pants” better.
Likewise, if you say “I’m a plotter, so I can’t start writing until I have everything planned,” you’re restricting yourself to a particular approach when you might be able to “plot” better by dipping into a different set of tools.
Let’s remove the limits
I want to propose a new paradigm: “plotter” and “pantser” are not static identities, but instead are processes that can be broken down into tools and skills.
Our work as writers is not merely choosing an identity, but deciding when to employ different tools and strategies to serve you and your writing best.
While I will always advocate for introspection when it comes to your writing process, recognizing when you need to plot and when you need to pants is actually the more valuable skill.
Why limit yourself to “plotter” or “pantser,” when you can both recognize your strengths and free yourself from limitations?
Plotting Strategies for Pantsers
If you find that you write best when you’re flying by the seat of your pants, plotting strategies can help you get unstuck when you hit an obstacle or aren’t sure where to go next.
The challenge of pantsing is, after all, not always knowing where you’re going. While this can be freeing, it can also be daunting.
One plotting strategy that can help is the “reverse outline.”
Normally, you’d write an outline first and then write the story based on that. In a reverse outline, you create an outline based on what’s currently on the page.
This can help you get a big-picture sense of a story arch, character development, and/or general structure so you can more clearly see the forest through the trees and figure out where to take your story.
You also might try engaging in some plot work (outlining, planning out scenes, etc.) once you have part (or all) of a draft on the page. This can be a helpful checkup for your work to make sure you’re hitting the points you need to hit and creating the experience for your readers that you want.
Pantsing Strategies for Plotters
If you know that you need to plan and outline so you can see where you’re going when you write, pantsing strategies can help you clear your head, come up with ideas, and get your thoughts on the page fast.
A simple example is freewriting.
One of the challenges of plotting is that sometimes it requires you to hold ideas in your head while you’re trying to plan everything out. But you don’t actually have to!
Try setting a timer for 5-10 minutes and write (longhand) without stopping. Just brain dump everything in your head, even if it’s not related to your work.
This can help clear space for the plotting work, generate new ideas, and get your thoughts on paper so you can more easily sort through them while planning.
You might also try “pantsing” a scene when you get stuck in your outline, or if you’re not sure what direction to take your story. Try writing a couple versions of the scene (without judging the quality of the writing) and see what fits your plan best. You can always refine later.
The Bottom Line
Introspection is and will always be valuable to us as writers. But we should never allow that introspection to limit what we can and can’t do.
Pantsers can plot; plotters can pants. And there is so much variation between these two ends of the spectrum—it would be a crime to restrict our practice when the possibilities are, in fact, endless.
We open ourselves up to all of those possibilities when we turn “plotter” and “pantser” from nouns into verbs.
After all, complete sentences need both.
Need more ideas for busting through your blocks? Whether you’re looking for plotting strategies to help you pants, or pantsing strategies to help you plot, you’ll find both in our writer’s block strategy cheat sheet, available for free download here.