Pantser or Planner? What Your Writing Style Says About You

Pantser or Planner? What Your Writing Style Says About You

As you’re reading this post, I’m knee-deep into my first try at National Novel Writing Month.

It’s a climate fiction story that started as a kernel of an idea this summer. I scribbled the first 10 pages or so, then left it to rot until November 1. (Not for lack of love, just for lack of time. You know how it goes.)

Now, each day, I open my story document and…make it up as I go along.

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a pantser.

The idea of outlining a plot, crafting character profiles or weaving story maps bores me. So I fly by the seat of my pants and let the story take the controls.

Does this sound like you? Or are you a planner?

Let’s take a look at these two writing styles and how they can benefit your craft.

Planners: small steps toward big ideas

Planners are methodical writers from start to finish. Sometimes before there’s a lick of dialogue on the page, a planner knows the key plot points of the story.

Take J.K. Rowling, for example. One image that floats around the web features a handwritten looseleaf page organizing plot points and characters for her epic Harry Potter series.

Rowling’s idea for the boy wizard popped into her head during a train ride, and she immediately got to work scrawling the first few pages of what would later be her first book about Harry and company. As she considered how to mold and shape that first book, Rowling also plotted out major events throughout the series, including the ending.

After all, with a magical world and host of characters, many of whom came of age over the course of the seven books, it behooved Rowling to have her outline as a guide. Otherwise, Harry and the rest of those wizard kids could have ended up printing t-shirts on the Jersey Shore instead of going to Hogwarts. You never know.

Planning isn’t just for the type-As and overachievers among us. It’s for anyone who doesn’t want to sit down in front of a blank page without help. It’s for people with minds too busy or preoccupied to keep track of the nuances of an entire story.

If you’re a planner, remember that your notes, outlines and resources are a guide, but not a turn-by-turn GPS unit. Deviating from your planned route — perhaps as a brief experiment to get your wheels turning on a tough day — could lead to some interesting discoveries for your characters.

writing style Pantsers: It’s all under control

Stephen King is my favorite pantser. He’s got the chops to prove it, with more than 50 books on the shelves — many of them major horror favorites.

How did some of King’s most famous supernatural tales form? Organically, it turns out. One day at a time.

“I distrust plot for two reasons,” King says in On Writing. “First, because our lives are largely plots even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” The stories make themselves, he argues.

He goes on to explain that stories are like fossils. You find a piece of one and start to carefully unearth the rest of it. When you first discover the fossil, you don’t know what the final specimen will look like.

You don’t know if your own kernel of an idea has potential for a full novel, or maybe just a blip of flash fiction. You have to play with it (carefully, because it’s a fossil, remember) until the full story shows itself to you.

Pantsing is about trusting yourself. Trusting yourself to come to your writing desk regularly, to test ideas, to be willing to scrap entire chapters — or entire ideas — if they don’t work. By committing to your creativity, you give yourself room to play with the words until you’re satisfied.

So, which kind of writer are you?

This is not a debate about whether you like wizards or creepy clowns better. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King could both teach us lessons for days.

But if you’re still figuring out your writing style (Hint: many published authors are still working on this), it can help to bring awareness to your planning methods vs. your …well, your planning avoidance.

Author Heloise Jones recommends keeping an evidence journal, or a log of each time you sit down to write, in her book The Writer’s Block Myth. By keeping notes about each session, you can look back at the time you spent, what time of day you were productive, what you worked on, and how you felt about it.

You can also keep notes about your current project. Pay attention to how your plot develops during a writing session. Did you mull over a piece of dialogue or a key event on your walk to work in the morning? Did you dig through your purse to find a scribbled note to guide your next writing session?

Use the hints your life leaves you (yes, sometimes crumpled up in your purse) to determine whether you’re a pantser or a planner.

Maybe you’ll find you’re a little bit of both. Either way, if you’re sitting down to write, you’re a winner in my book.

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  • Bryan Fagan says:

    My editor and I finished up work on the final draft of my first novel. Soon it will be sent out to agents. Fingers crossed. Most of it was written on the spot. I was a pantser.

    I have also worked on two other projects and they have flopped. I loved the idea but it was poorly written. Just ask my writers group.

    The reason I feel I succeeded in my first was due to the fact the characters were taken from real people I knew many years ago. Note to self: Know your characters before you write.

    Now that I’m a planner the plot and the writing are much better.

    Excellent article. Thank you!!!

  • Heidi says:

    Definitely a pantser here. I just WRITE! In high school, I’d write my paper, then create the rough draft & note cards. Planning stifled my creativity…at least IMHO.

  • Val Vassay says:

    I’m definitely a pantser. Trying to plot and plan stories before starting to actually write them bores me to death, and any time I did try to do that I ended up binning it and started writing something completely different. Can’t stand mind maps either – don’t find them helpful at all!

  • Taren Randal says:

    I’m a little of both. I have an outline, but it’s not very detailed. And if the characters want to do something different, well they are in charge.

    I find it interesting that some people think that Stephen King starts with a blank page. He does not. He starts with a character and a situation rather than a plot. but that is still not nothing.

  • Wendy says:

    If it’s NF, I might have some idea of where things should go, but even then, well “If you look, you might not leap.” I’m over 15,000 words into a heavy-research book I started almost last year Longer, if you count gathering sources), and in the last few days, I’ve only JUST figured out where to put three chapters so they make sense to the chronology. If I’d have tried to work out the chapter order before I started, I’d be at least another year away from publication! No sense letting the “inner editor” in before you have to!

  • Suzanne says:

    Non-fiction pantser for sure. Great to know there is a name for this affliction!

  • Am a pantser I imagine real things in life and write about their cetainity because writing a story based on reality is really fun since no fictious aspect of the story leaves the reader in doubt in regard to credibility of the story. Thank you so much!

  • Stu says:

    I’m a Pantser. I like the ending to creep up and surprise me.

  • Latanya says:

    Pantser. Every time I try and write an outline I stop. However, I keep a sense of where I want to go as I’m pantsing to kill any rigidity.

    • Brian says:

      Good call. I’m a pantser until the plot gets away from me, then I need to reel it in a bit. I save everything in chapter phases, so I can always revisit them, but rarely do. But I like unleashing the horses and let them run where they want to. Getting ’em back in the corral is sometimes difficult, but rewarding. So, a bit of pantsing to find out what’s what, then narrowing the field. B

  • I was a pantser when I started writing and wrote several chapters. Then, I got stuck where to go next. Researched for help online and found a Story Structure Elements outline. Made perfect sense 25 pages later! I plotted the whole book and became a happy, converted planner. Now I can choose a scene and free write like a pantser. The best of both types! ? Christine

  • Eric Hottel says:

    F. Scott Fitzgerald planned “The Last Tycoon,” his potentially-great unfinished Hollywood novel, posting notes around his writing room. It seems like it would have certain benefits. I’ve been writing spontaneously without any idea as to where I’m going.

  • I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I can’t manage a solid outline but I use lists and summaries to know the story path. I know or believe I know, where the story is headed but often a character surprises me.

  • PJ says:

    Good article and good question, Lisa.
    For myself, if it is non-fiction, I plan. I know the thesis, the argument, the points I want to make, and the conclusion before I begin. Using a plan makes sure I don’t forget anything. Occasionally lightning strikes while I am writing and that is a bonus, but I stick to the outline.
    Fiction is a different. I prewrite a bit in my head, I know how the story begins, and I know how it ends, but getting A to B is always an adventure. Like Vivienne, I have had unforeseen characters or events hijack my narrative and, because I don’t have an outline, I can follow that path and see where it leads.
    The only time I outline fiction is when I am knee-deep in writing one story and get a great idea for another story. Then I write down everything in my head, adding names, possible subplots, etc. just to refresh my imagination.
    I don’t think there is any ‘right’ ‘write’ way, the magic lies in the writer…not on the path.

  • Charysma says:

    I’m a mix of a Planner and a Pantser. Sometimes I need to map out certain ideas if I feel a little lost as to where I want to go with the story line. Sometimes I go as far as playing certain scenes out in my head, and writing them down on paper (which looks like a bunch of incomplete thoughts, crazy musings, and situations that make me scratch my own head).

    But, when I’m really in the groove of the story, I just let the characters take me wherever they want to take me. I love the feeling of that, because it gives me the sense of surprise and curiosity that makes me keep asking “What’s next?” In a way, it allows me to view the story from the reader’s perspective.

    • Muriel Clubbe says:

      I’m with you, maybe ‘cos I’m Pisces. I need the rough outline of the plot & the ending, but allow the characters to write their own dialogue. Maybe if I ever get published I’ll know if this is the right technique for me. Good luck with your writing.

    • Brian says:

      I’m with you because I’m a pantser (panzer?) by nature. But I left my novel alone for awhile and had a chance to regroup and figured out I left the main impetus out and had to ditch the tangents and get back on the original track. BTW, I save everything, that’s what a TB and a TB backup is for, right? I love going back and reading the older stuff, but if it doesn’t fit here, it might some other time. And I love this album title, it’s so perfect for writers. To paraphrase: You’re never alone if you’re a schistophrenic. Ian Hunter. My band played ‘Bastard’ for years. Sorry about the misspell, outatime. Brian

      • Brian says:

        BTW, cool name. And if it means anything I’m an Aries and in Chinese astrology, a Rabbit. Their astrology is fun, as well.

  • C.B. Matson says:

    For most of us, Pantsing is wonderful for the author – ‘…that dizzy dancing way you feel…’ – but Plotting (planning) improves your readers’ experience.

    Okay, some authors, particularly authors with 50+ books to their names, plot as a subliminal reflex while their creative mind pantses away in story bliss.

    Fantastic if you can do it, but if your plot bunnies and non-essential characters tend to multiply faster then your delete key can eradicate them, then try outlining the story first.

  • Deanna says:

    Hi. My name is Deanna Blanchard. And I’m a Planner.

    LOL! I almost feel like I need to seek help for that! Maybe I should join “Planners Anonymous”!

    But, here’s the thing… I “pantsed” my way through my first novel and had to go back and change a bunch of things after the story was written. And, finding all those things I had to change was downright stressful. (Not to mention time-consuming!)

    I wanted things to go more smoothly with my second novel. So, I spent time upfront outlining it. If things change as I write it, fine. But I’m hoping to end up with a cleaner first draft.

    Another bonus of having the outline is always knowing where I’m going with the story when I sit down to write. I’m extremely busy working full-time as a copywriter, so I need to make my small amount of book-writing time really count.

    All that said… if I had the time to do it, I’d prefer to be a Pantser. It makes writing more fun.

  • I call myself a pantster. Having said that, I know in my head, roughly where the plot is going. I write nothing, or very little down, though. Sometimes I need to write a timeline, though.
    When I return for rewrites, I can tidy things up.
    Often, during my writing sessions, things happen I’d not thought of before. This happened in my first book when one character came out with a bombshell I didn’t know until that moment. It changed a lot in the book. Similarly, in the second book something happened I had no idea about until it happened. I have got 2 chapters in my Nano novel I hadn’t thought of before beginning to write.
    I think if I wrote detailed plans, these things would not happen. I would want to stick to my plan.

  • JOHN T SHEA says:

    Planner. But not rigidly and religiously so. I keep a weather eye open for serendipity, the inspiration of the moment, and incidental pleasures.

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