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Plotters vs. Pantsers: What Kind of Writer Are You?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Mar 30, 2021 • 5 min read

A pantser is the type of writer who likes to fly by the seat of their pants and write without an outline or roadmap for their plot.



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Writers generally fall into two categories when it comes to planning their novels: “plotters” and “pantsers.” As a new writer still developing a writing style and finding your place in the writing world, it can be valuable to take some time to figure out which approach best fits you.

What Is a Plotter?

A plotter is someone who meticulously plans and outlines their story before they begin writing. If you’re a painstaking outliner who spends a large amount of time in the prewriting stage charting out plotlines, devising characters, and worldbuilding, you fall into the plotter category. Most successful writers do plotting to some extent. If you take any bestselling published author, chances are they’d fall into the plotter category. If you’re new to writing, trying out writing as a plotter can give you a good sense of how pre-writing can prepare you before you dive into the writing process.

How to Approach the Writing Process as a Plotter

There are many ways to approach plotting, and you will probably experiment with many different techniques over the course of your writing life. If you’re just getting started trying out writing as a plotter here are some steps to get you on your way:

  • Generate ideas. The first step in writing a novel is generating story ideas. Some writers like to freewrite and brainstorm, others prefer working with writing prompts. Whichever approach you take, it’s important to spend time coming up with a variety of ideas and choosing a strong premise that lends itself to an effective plot.
  • Start with a simple, compelling premise. Once you have a basic idea, it’s time to develop a story premise. One way to develop a small idea into a basic story is called the snowflake method. The snowflake method involves starting with a core premise or theme upon which you build every other aspect of narrative and character as you flesh out the big picture.
  • Trace out general story arcs. Start to lay out a storyline. You don’t have to worry about building the whole thing at once. Rather you can focus on each act within your story arc—or even simple scene descriptions—and piece these together as you build out a full-length narrative.
  • Don’t neglect character development. Character is an incredibly important part of a story and helps to balance out plot-based narratives. Before you start writing you should make sure that you have detailed character arcs and a main character with a clear motivation and backstory. Part of building a good character is choosing a strong and nuanced point of view. Balance out the plot portion of your writing process by taking some time to analyze your characters and make sure they are strong, realistic, and nuanced.
  • Build subplots. Once you have a good sense for your main plot it’s time to layer in subplots. Subplots can often be character-specific, so this is a good time to think a bit about the characters you’ve populated your world with and how each individual backstory might come into play. Good subplots will weave seamlessly through your main arc and help advance your action rather than distract from it.
  • Write a detailed outline. Before you start writing, you should have a detailed plot outline. This should catalog the main story and individual plot points. It should be comprehensive enough that someone who has no knowledge of your story could look at the outline and piece together the narrative of events, identifying your inciting incident, rising action, and climax. It can also be useful to write individual smaller outlines such as a chapter outline or act outline that you can piece together to create a macro story outline.
  • Tie up loose ends. Once you have a detailed outline, it’s time to tie up loose ends and fill any plot holes. One common misconception about writing is that editing comes at the end of the process. Editing is something you should return to throughout your writing process, and it’s important to edit your plot and outline before you start writing in earnest.

What Is a Pantser?

If you’re the type of writer who likes to fly by the seat of your pants and write without a roadmap, chances are you would identify as a “pantser.” A pantser doesn’t spend a lot of time evaluating writing methods or planning out story structure, nor do they follow a paint-by-numbers approach to novel writing. Pantsing is the preferred method for Stephen King and many other successful writers. Pantsing can be a great way to quickly get into the writing process and beat writer’s block. Whether you are working on your first novel or a followup to your most recent bestseller pantsing can be a great method for jumpstarting your process and getting your creative juices flowing.

How to Approach the Writing Process as a Pantser

There are many different ways to approach pantsing. The most basic principle of pantsing is to just start writing. Pantsers fly by the seats of their pants, whether they’re writing a full-length novel or a short nonfiction piece. That being said, there are some basic steps you can follow as you launch into writing a novel as a pantser:

  • Start with a concept. When you approach the blank page, it’s good to have at least a vague idea of what you want to write about. Part of pantsing is allowing your impulses and feelings to guide you, but having a basic sense of what inspires you can help focus your writing.
  • Follow your impulses. Once you get into your project, feel free to follow impulse and get lost in your project. One of the joys of writing fiction as a pantser, whether you’re working on short stories or a full-length novel, is to immerse yourself in the work and discover where your mind takes you.
  • Take pauses to evaluate your work. It’s important to take stock of your work as you go. This way you won’t leave any plot holes or loose ends that you forget to tie up in the second half.
  • Don’t be afraid to edit. Just because you are essentially freewriting doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t edit your work. Editing and revising can help you work out of dead ends and structure your story around a cohesive arc with a clear turning point.
  • Come to a resolution. Part of being a successful pantser is sensing when your work is approaching its endpoint. Pay attention to how your story is progressing and find a natural place to resolve your plot and tie up loose ends.

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