Finding Yourself as a Writer: Plotter or Pantser?

Over the past three or four years I feel like I’ve been on a journey of finding myself as a writer. I’ve been learning how to tailor my writing time and projects to fit my natural instincts, and sometimes trying to overcome my instincts if I feel like they aren’t serving me well. I’d like to share some of that journey with you, and maybe it can help you along your own journey.

Today I feel like revisiting a topic we discussed in one of our earliest podcasts, at the beginning of last year: Plotting vs. “Pantsing.” In other words, do you plot out your stories ahead of time, either mentally or in an outline, or do you write by the seat of your pants (a technique sometimes called “discovery writing”)?

I’ve experimented with both styles over the past few years to see which works best for my writer-self. For years, ever since my creative writing classes in college (no—I won’t admit how long ago that was) I’ve been attempting to write by the seat of my pants. I’d get a great idea, sit down, write a chapter or two, and get a little lost. Then I’d get frustrated. And then I’d think the whole story through in my mind until I’d figured out the most important details. But by then I’d be bored with the story or unhappy with the chapters I’d written and I’d give up. You’d think I’d have learned a long time ago that I’m more of a plotter/outliner, but instead I just decided that I needed to put up with a crappy first draft and push my way through it.

So that’s what I did—I started another novel, I stopped editing as I went, and I pushed my way through seat-of-my-pants style. But, as I wrote, I found myself making notes about things that needed to happen in future chapters so I wouldn’t forget. Before I finished even half of the manuscript I had a brief chapter-by-chapter outline.

I kept following inspiration as it struck—in true pantser mode—however, if my new inspiration altered the flow of the story I’d go through and update my outline before continuing. By the time I finished the manuscript and faced the daunting task of revising a manuscript that was written half by the seat of my pants and half according to an outline, I’d learned my lesson. I’m a plotter. I should have been a plotter all along. And nearly two years of laboriously revising that manuscript has solidified that realization. If I’d planned beforehand, I’d be done by now.

So with my latest projects I’m outlining and planning before I begin writing. So far my first draft of my latest novel is coming out more fully formed and polished the first time through, thanks to my outline. Even with some short stories I recently wrote, extensive pre-planning helped me churn out a more polished and effective first draft that needed only minor revision in just a few hours. The writing happens faster, and I’m way more satisfied with the result.

I think the key to this stage in discovering myself as a writer was being willing to experiment. I didn’t get stuck on the idea that I had to be a pantser or a plotter. I tried both ways until I found what worked best for the way my mind and my writing process works.

So don’t be afraid to experiment—don’t think it will waste your valuable time. In fact, it might just save you time in the long wrong.

Have you discovered whether you’re a plotter or a pantser yet? Share your stories in the comments.

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About Jocelyn Nash Carlin, Writer

Jocelyn Nash Carlin writes speculative fiction for children and adults. She also co-hosts the Writing Snippets podcast and blog at www.WritingSnippets.com. View all posts by Jocelyn Nash Carlin, Writer

7 responses to “Finding Yourself as a Writer: Plotter or Pantser?

  • Heather Ostler

    Great post! I think I’m more of a plotter.

  • alicebeesley

    I didn’t plot my first novel and it’s still not done. I finally gave up on it. I made a very loose outline for my second novel and had to do tons of revising before I was finished enough to sent it out. My third novel was a nanorimo book. I did a little plotting before hand, but after finishing the first few drafts I did more extensive plotting and that has helped with recent revisions and I feel like I’ve accomplished more in less time with that one. I”ll definitely plot out my next book with some plot outlines I’ve found on line and some character sketches, but I still like to leave some of it to my imagination and discover new things as I write that I hadn’t planned and I keep my outline flexible and change it as I go.

    • Jocelyn Nash Carlin, Writer

      I feel the same way about my outlines–I want to have key plot points figured out and a pretty good idea of my character arcs, but I leave plenty of wiggle room. Sometimes inspiration strikes, and you can’t be so bound to your outline that you can’t follow it where it leads. Some outliners are crazy rigid–like, I’ve heard Brandon Sanderson does extremely detailed chapter by chapter outlines that are almost 1/4 the length of the novel. I would get so bored of the story after writing one of those that the novel would never happen!

  • Kris Ellsworth (@dancetechie)

    My first novel had a mental semi-outline of the plot, but it was more writing the first chapter, then the last, then a random middle chapter, backtrack to an earlier chapter, etc. etc. Sadly, that novel needs extensive editing to help with the flow. My next novel was nanowrimo and I wanted to try from start to finish. I had a bare minimum idea of the plot, inspiring it from my favorite fairytale. I was amazed at how free my writing was. So many things came out I had never expected, but it also had nine main characters, so not very organized. My upcoming nano is going to be better organized and based of historical events so my outline is more detailed. I’m curious to see what I learn from this writing. So, I’d say I write better with an outline, as long as I have enough room to freely let the story flow wherever it needs to make it come alive.

    • alicebeesley

      Outlines are hard for me. Most of my ideas come from actually writing that first draft, which is also hard, but having a structure and direction to go helps. Once I have the first draft out it’s easier for me to do rewrites and make a more solid outline.

  • Mark L Forman

    Interesting thoughts. Myself, well, I’m a seat of the pants kind of guy, or at least I have been. Now, as I struggle through edits and rewrites, I start to think a outline would be useful. I think it might help to keep me focused on where the story should be going. Then of course, I don’t write anything in stone, so the outline can easily be broken.

    I have noticed that while writing by the seat of my pant, I often add things in early chapters and I don’t know what they are for. I’ve been lucky so far, as the early plants have always been for a reason that I understand before I get to the end of the story. I think I would be really annoyed if something I add early on had no meaning to me at all when I got to the end, so I guess I’ll have to be careful.

  • Lauren T Ritz

    I’ve tried it both ways. Maybe some day, 836 years from now I’ll look back and say “I should have been a plotter.” But at this point, SOTP all the way!

    I’ve tried plotting, but it doesn’t fit the way I work. I naturally go from a to k to z with periodic detours through 7 and 31. Although pantsing does take more effort after the fact, I still end up with stories I like and I don’t spend 8 years (or six months) getting a first draft out!

    I tried plotting for NanoWriMo last year, and the story is still stuck.

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