Professional writers are often asked about two things: their ideas and their process. Stephen King jokes that his ideas come from an idea factory in Ohio. In reality, writers often have an influx of ideas. They soon learn not all ideas are strong enough to develop into a novel and although the idea might seem shiny at first, you have to put it through the fire to see what it’s really made of.
That brings us to the second commonly-asked question - about a writer’s process. The writing process is often an elusive and complex concept for creative writers. In the fields of writing studies, there is a minimized, simple explanation of process as:
Prewriting - Drafting - Revising - Editing
Prewriting encompasses those tasks writers complete before actually drafting the scenes of their stories; it could include outlining, plotting, character development worksheets, rehearsing scenes or concepts through mental staging, and more. Drafting is as it sounds - actually “writing” the scenes whether that be with pen and paper, computer, or even oral dictation. Revising occurs when a writer rewrites previously written parts of the novel. Finally, editing is the polishing of style and correctness.
However, we know these four tasks - prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing - are recursive, so they aren’t always linear. For instance, a writer might develop a project by:
Drafting a scene that came to mind - Prewriting ideas to make that scene fit into a larger whole - Drafting more scenes - Revising the original scene to fit into the new vision - Drafting more scenes - Prewriting to sort through some of the themes and concepts - etc.
As you can see, the process for the writer in this hypothetical example was not a linear: prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing. It was more: drafting, prewriting, drafting, revising, drafting, prewriting. Therefore, the tasks involved in the writing process should be viewed as able to be manipulated by a writer’s particular vision and needs.
That brings me to you; what is your vision? What are your needs as a writer?
Since the process is often recursive, developing writers cannot follow a simple formula. They must identify how they write best, but beyond that, they must be able to assess a writing project to determine what step they should take next. Should they draft a few scenes to explore ideas? Or should they prewrite by brainstorming ideas or even journaling in a character’s voice? Should they stop drafting to revise? Or if they do, will they end up stuck in revisions without ever finishing their project?
Writing a novel is a complex task that requires much dedication. However a writer can get from the starting point (blank page) to the ending point (polished novel) is a victory. The steps in the journey will not be the same for every writer or every project. That is why one of the most critical lessons a creative writer can learn is what kind of writing process works best for their individual writing styles.
That’s where the concepts of pantser, plotter, or plantser come in. Perhaps you haven’t heard these terms before. Let me explain.
Pantser: a writer that does not plot prior to writing but instead prefers to “fly by the seat of their pants.”
Plotter: a writer who plots every turning point and scene in their novel, sometimes to impressive detail.
Plantser: a writer who embraces a bit of advance planning, but not to extensive detail and instead “pantses” their way through the rest.
A pantser approaches novel writing with little preparation. They may have an idea, and they sit down to a blank page and start writing. The act of writing is an exploration for them, and the story takes shape as they write. They don’t know where it’s going. They have an inner sense of the novel structure, how to build scenes, etc., and they do so naturally as they write. Of course, they also make a mess with a first draft as all writers do. The term pantser refers to these writers writing “by the seat of their pants.”
With that context, then, you may be able to guess the kind of writer the term plotter refers to. Plotters like to prewrite to the extent that they know exactly where a story is going. They may have a detailed outline they follow. They may have a detailed beat sheet. No matter what they have, they will use that to guide them in the writing process. Some writers find that having a detailed structure before they write diminishes the joy of exploration that is part of writing. Others argue that exploration already occurred during the prewriting process.
Writers tend to agree that plotters can draft more quickly because they have a clear guide while pantsers may find themselves “stuck” during the drafting process, not sure what to write next. That said, pantsers are able to jump into the writing without the days, weeks, or months spent plotting and planning. Like all things, there are potential benefits and drawbacks to both approaches.
Plantsers—a third approach—represent a combination of pantsers and plotters’ styles. Plantsers may have a few general ideas—they may know some of the turning points in the story and the ending—but they don’t iron out those details to an extreme. They have a strong sense of direction, and then they start writing.
I strongly encourage you to study yourself as you read this text, especially if you’d like to continue writing and publishing novels throughout your life. Work to understand and refine your writing process. Are you a pantser? A plotter? Or a plantser?
As a developing writer, I had attempted to outline my books because I thought that was the way authors wrote. That did not work for me. But when I sat down to write “by the seat of my pants,” I struggled with a sense of direction. It took several years for me to work through these challenges, and through that process, I realized that I’m a plantser.
It was the discovery of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat that shaped my writing process the most. The beats of Snyder’s suggested structure offer me enough direction to write quickly, but they don't require extensive plotting, which I found overly boring.
The beat sheet approach also suits my writing style. I like to “high point.” That means when I draft, I see the book globally, specifically the high points of the story. I write those scenes that speak to me the most, even drafting them out of chronological order at times. As a result, I write very quickly, but the result can sometimes become a jumbled mess I have no choice but to sort through in revision. Nevertheless, it is a system that works for me, and my challenge is to determine a system that works for you!
My process looks something like:
- Brainstorm Save the Cat beats to give myself a general idea of the high points in the story.
- Let my mind wander on those points.
- Write whichever scenes come to mind, leaving major holes between them in the document.
- Read through the document, adding bits and pieces to start connecting the scenes, still leaving some holes.
- Read through the document, adding character arcs to ensure the scenes connect in a logical way for the characters.
- Read through the document, smoothing over the scenes, so everything connects, and adding relevant emotions, settings, and other aspects, so there are no more holes.
So as you can see, I have a combination of prewriting (plotting my beat sheet) and then exploring through writing (pantsing). And there is significant revision to connect everything. It has taken me many years of writing and learning about writing to understand this part of my process. Learning that writers could be a mix of pantser and plotter and discovering the concept of high pointing helped me to better understand myself.
And that’s why we read books about writing and books about craft! As we continue exploring concepts of novel writing such as premise, plot, character, etc. explore your own interests and process. The value of identifying the ways in which you write best cannot be overstated. Learn about yourself as a writer as much as you learn about the novel in this class.
- Set a timer for five minutes, and write about prewriting strategies that you have found effective and also those that you have not found benefit in. Then, set the timer for another five minutes, and write about times you’ve written without prewriting. Which strategies have been the most effective for you? If you had to label yourself, which you don’t, would you identify your style as pantser, plotter, or plantser?
- Think about a scene from a book or movie you love. How would you rewrite that scene? As you answer that question, are you: a) breaking down the scene, analyzing, and planning your rewrite, b) diving right into writing the scene without much planning, or c) planning some elements while rolling with the others, letting them come to the surface of your mind more organically? What does this exercise help you understand about your own inclinations in terms of identifying as a plotter, pantser, or plantser?
"Chapter 2: Pantser, Plotter, Plantser: What is Your Writing Style?" was created by Tamara Girardi and was licensed as CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 in October of 2023.