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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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