Plotter v Pantser: the battle within

I’m an organised person.

When working full-time in the marketing industry, I was known for it. When becoming a parent, I underwent a phase of forced and rigorous readjustment because kids don’t fit neatly into spreadsheets and are known to be on the unpredictable side. I’m still recovering and my son’s four.

Anyway, you would think that when I write a book I’m a plotter, right? Well, yes…but actually no.

You see, I’m also creative. And herein lies the problem.

Hopefully a few other writers are nodding their heads along with me right now…

A split personality approach to plotting novels…oh, wait, I’m just creative

Plotter v pantser

Plotter! Pantser! Now, now there’s no need for name calling…both of you are right.

With my first novel, I plotted heavily. I had exhausting chapter summaries in Word and detailed descriptions of everything. I was new to novel writing, plus my book was a thriller, so the hard work paid off.

With book number two, I discovered Scrivener. I was also more confident and my plotting was a decidedly relaxed affair. It was a contemporary romance so nifty little on-screen post-it notes with a line or two sufficed for my chapter outlines. Or at least I thought…

The interesting discovery was that each approach has its issues. In fierce plotter mode, when I eventually got around to writing my book, the times when my characters did something unexpected was both extremely exciting and harrowing. Why? Because it veered me off my very strict outline, dammit! And then required lots of refining and readjustments to my original plan.

With book two, I was faced with more finessing during the editing phase. One of my beta-readers politely suggested it looked as though I’d done my character outlines in the first few chapters. Who me? She was right. I needed to go back and strip out unnecessary backstory and fine tune more than I had to with my first book.

Time for a reality check on the plotter v pantser debate

Now I’m staring down the barrel of book three, I find myself evaluating my approach. Do I revert to a strict plotter model so there’s less rewriting in the editing phase? Or do I spend ages plotting only to find my characters take me on unexpected twists and turns and I need to re-evaluate it all anyway?

I figured it was time for a reality check on the constant plotter v pantser debate, so here’s my perspective on the battle:

Fact 1: there is no right or wrong way to write a novel. Some hard core pantsers swear by writing now and thinking later. They’re the type who also don’t write chronologically and send my head spinning (alright, I do lean more toward the plotter team, I admit). Then there’s the plotters who spend literally months in the planning stages. That’s enough to make me scream, quite frankly, because I just want to do some writing, please! The thing is, what feels right for you, will not work for someone else. The key is to figure out what works for you.

Fact 2: every novel is different. This came as something of a surprise to me. I figured that once I had a book or two under my belt I’d have a whole system, a detailed approach for undertaking every novel, because old habits die hard, I guess. What I’m discovering, is that every story is different, so it requires an adaptable approach. Sigh.

Fact 3: your best writing will happen when you embrace both possibilities. Plotters need to shake off their self-imposed restrictions every now and then and let the creative juices flow. Without it, your writing may lack soul. So instead of berating yourself every time you need to adjust those carefully written chapter or character outlines, remind yourself that creativity and the process of writing is an adventure. As for the pantsers, accept that you might need to stop and occasionally do some research or planning, to ensure that your exciting creative journey is credible and consistent.

Fact 4: writing involves revisions – at every stage. That’s the hard truth, I’m afraid. Whether you’re revising plot outlines or rewriting during the editing stage, there’s more to writing than simply writing. I still have trouble with this. For some reason my brain thinks that I’m not doing any constructive writing unless I’m writing, but this is so not true! Researching, planning, spending countless hours online considering names or finding photos that look like your characters, or editing, editing, editing – you are still a productive writer! (well, mostly).

Embrace the plotter AND the pantser in you, and you’ll reap rewards

I think the heading above sums things up neatly. In order to be a good writer, you need to embrace both approaches and be prepared to be adaptable. It may feel uncomfortable at times, but generally I find that means I’m learning something new and challenging myself.

And the benefit of that? Growth.

Would you describe yourself as a plotter or a pantser? And have you ever been able to embrace both approaches to the benefit of your writing?

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9 thoughts on “Plotter v Pantser: the battle within

  1. Huw Thomas says:

    Excellent summary – can’t argue with your four facts. Particularly number four.
    I’m definitely of the ‘get on and write’ school (hate that ‘pantser’ term – can we use GOAW instead?) but agree that some planning is essential to avoid continuity errors and other credibility lapses.

  2. Sue says:

    I’m a total pantser (I just wrote a blog post about it here http://wp.me/p3pKcS-4v before I came across yours). I’m currently writing my 6th and 7th books (at the same time – I don’t make life easy for myself) and had hoped that by now I’d be able to work to a sensible outline and the writing would flow easily. Nope. I’m still making it up as I go along. I think the greatest point you make is Fact 4 – the craft of writing is in the revisions and that is going to happen whichever writing method you choose, unless you’re some kind of freaky genius. But what really popped out for me was when you said, “For some reason my brain thinks that I’m not doing any constructive writing unless I’m writing, but this is so not true! Researching, planning, spending countless hours online considering names or finding photos that look like your characters, or editing, editing, editing – you are still a productive writer! (well, mostly).” That’s something I struggle with, too. Unless I’m making my daily word count I feel like I haven’t been properly working, but it is important to remember that sometimes the word count might have gone down, but the quality of the work has gone up. Thank you for that reminder!

    • belindawilliamsbooks says:

      Hi Sue, nice to meet you. Wow, two books at a time! I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels when I’m not writing I’m not being productive! It’s definitely important to remind ourselves this isn’t the case, isn’t it?

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