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This or That: Plotter or Pantser?

Updated: Jan 9, 2022

Approaches in the Art of Writing

by Gabrielle Lopez

If painters make images using their paint brushes and palettes of colors, writers do the same though with a different medium.

Writers paint worlds through words, but instead of these creations coming to life on a canvas, they come alive in our minds. Needless to say, writing is an art—and just like all other art forms from paintings to sculptures, in writing, there are also different styles of making masterpieces.

In the art of painting, we either paint by the numbers or paint alla prima (at the first try). In the art of writing, on the other hand, we are either Plotters or Pantsers.

Design by Gabrielle Lopez

Who are Plotters?

Plotters. From the word itself, we can already think of what it means to be one.

Plotters are writers who plan and outline their story down to the smallest detail before writing the story itself. If pre-writing was a coffee shop, Plotters would hang out there all the time sipping their Master Plan Macchiatos or Chronicle Cappuccinos because they are the scribes who take initial ideas for stories and turn them first into a thorough plan complete with research, character backgrounds, story arcs, and what-not. Plotters love to be certain of their story; they get to know it deeply first before bringing it to life for others to explore. These are the kinds of writers who like to foresee the events in their narrative before actually living them through writing.

Just as some painters like to draw first or to paint by the numbers, Plotters prefer to write according to their elaborate outlines. They follow certain steps and sequences in the making of their story. The colors of their tales are not randomly selected, the characters do not appear out of the blue, and the chapters are not written on a whim.

Who are Pantsers?

Pantsers. People who write “by the seat of their pants”. Imagine that you have an idea for a story, then you go over to your desk or your creativity couch, and you sit down—and that is just it. That is all it takes for you to write: an idea—then you are off to the pages.

With Pantsers, there is little to no in-between planning after they get even the vaguest story idea and before they write their story proper. They let the sentences and chapters write themselves, and they let the characters come alive on their own. Pantsers love surprise and freedom. They love to explore their story as it goes and not before it takes place. Whereas writing is a deliberate voyage for Plotters, writing is an unexpected adventure for Pantsers.

Pantsers are the alla prima painters of the writing world. They paint stories without any underlying drafts. Pantsers are all about the liveliness that comes with spontaneity—they jump right into writing, capturing the essence of a story through their first impression of it.

Design by Gabrielle Lopez

Which are you?

So, are you a Plotter or a Pantser? Or are you a Plantser, the best of both worlds?

It is important to know which of these approaches to writing we prefer more because it is through our style that we are able to write in the first place and that we can stay writing in the long run. However, being a Plotter does not necessarily mean that we are better writers than Pantsers just because we have plans. Just the same, being Pantsers does not make us better writers than Plotters because we are spontaneous. Our success in the art of writing—or in any art for that matter—is not determined simply by what style we use, but rather by our passion in effectively applying and mastering the style which we believe is the best to work with.

If you do not know yet which style you prefer, then you can always try them first and see not just which one you enjoy better, but also which one of them you think can make you a better writer. The bottom line, however, is the answer to these questions.

When you get an idea for a story, do you delve deep into it first or do you stick to it immediately even if it is just a vague possibility?

Do you prefer to make plans and outlines or skip right into the act of writing?

Do you like to make character sketches and backgrounds, or do you prefer to figure them out as you write?

Does researching for a story help or hinder you?

Design by Gabrielle Lopez

Plots and Plans

If you turn out to be a Plotter, then these tips can help you with your “plots and plans” as you write your artful masterpiece from first drafts to manuscripts.

Make the promise of a premise—particularly, a strong premise. All stories are based on ideas, and writers, being creative thinkers, get a lot of these. But if you are a Plotter and you like to sort through your thoughts, then make sure to choose a concept that is sure to grow into the story that you really want to tell. Ask yourself, what do I want to say? What is my message? Then, go on to ask yourself, How can I say this? What story needs to happen in order for me to reach people with this message? From there, choose a simple but compelling plotline idea, which you can slowly build on and explore, basics first: what happens, where, why, to whom, and how. When you lay a strong foundation to your story, especially one that you care about, the elements will keep adding up and you will—sometimes mindlessly—continue to dive deeper until you finally get to the bottom of things.

Book spines are good outlines. Write a “backbone” outline. Write the parts of your plot in simple, direct terms. It can be in list or narrative form, it is up to you. It does not have to be lengthy and detailed yet, as long as the major events of your story are present. Once you have completed this initial outline, you can now make “outlines within your outline”. For every part in your plot, expand on the details. What are the various sub-occurrences in the beginning, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the conclusion? How many climaxes do you even want your story to have? How does one minor event contribute to the next major one? What happens so that your story leads into the next parts? Do this gradually so as not to overwhelm yourself. Take it step by step; detail your story until you are satisfied with it.

Remember who your characters are. Character development is an essential part of a good, effective story. Being a Plotter yourself, although you might be busy setting up how your story pans out, in both outlining and the main act of writing, still remember to give your characters the space and opportunity to exhibit who they are and to develop—be it for better or for worse is up to you.

Revisions for better visions. Even if you are still in the outlining phase, revisions are key to a better perception of your story. In fact, as a Plotter, you have an advantage because you get to see if there are any plot holes in the story even before you write it. Make use of this advantage and polish your story as much as needed so that once you are writing, the process will be smoother and there will be less hassles in terms of plot shortcomings.

Design by Gabrielle Lopez

Just Write It

If you are a Pantser, on the other hand, as much as you prefer spontaneity, these guides can still be useful for your writing process, inspiring you to just do it.

Go where the wind—or the words—take you. Although you are a Pantser, it is a given that stories always start from somewhere, be it an idea, a real-life event, a person that you know, or elsewhere. Once you know what you want to write about, even without knowing exactly where it will lead you, embrace it and do not be afraid to follow your impulses. Listen to the voices in your head, no matter how absurd or out-of-this-world they may seem at first—what are they telling you to do about your story? As a Pantser, your instincts are your key to your story, so stay tuned to them. But if you follow a line of thought into your story, and it turns out to not fit right, then it is okay to explore other courses of action to advance your plot.

Write is as soon as you think it. Pantsers write to capture the essence of an idea, and so, it is important that you write it “in the moment” because otherwise once the time has passed, chances are that you will have forgotten the exact meaning or importance of that notion. Moreover, the feeling that you could have pursued in order to write a plot event will no longer be there. If for some reason, you cannot write fully yet, then at least take note of the concept first and commit to coming back to it later. In your notes, jot down the key words and the important things to remember about that idea, so you can expand on them later on.

Consistency is key. Despite having impulses as your main motivation in writing, being consistent, especially in terms of characterization, is significant. Though you may not plan your characters—who they are and where they come from—, make sure that they still embody distinct personalities that will set them apart from others. Identify their core personalities so that even as you let your characters come to life out of their own accord, you also let their actions revolve around a certain spirit that will be sure to make a mark on your readers.

Have a break, have a quick scan of your work. Because Pantsers have little to no exact plans of where the story is going, writing based on impulses might make your work more susceptible to plot holes because there may be parts that you have missed or details that you have not foreseen. So, every now and then, take a break and look back on what you have written so far. See if there are any missing pieces or out-of-place and irrelevant parts that you can do without. As Pantsers, you write as you go—but don’t forget to edit as you go, too.

Design by Gabrielle Lopez

Artists at the End

For both Plotters and Pantsers, a common advice would be to keep a notebook as a safe space for your mind. Jot down everything from imaginations and musings, to random conversations and poems, to scenes you see on the street and other inspirations—basically anything that can fuel your art. It does not even have to be just a literal notebook; it can be anything where you are most comfortable to express yourself like a notes app on your phone, a doodle sketchbook, a freedom wall, even a camera.

Whichever one you are—a Plotter, a Panster, or even if you are a mix of both, just remember that at the end of the day, for some reason you choose to be a writer. Writers are artists. Every artist has their own unique style of making and imparting meanings to people, be it through colors and canvasses or through pages of words. Know your approach, explore that style, grow in it, build habits, and keep writing.

No matter what your style is, always remember to make your art with your heart. In the end, we are all artists as long as we love what we do and we hone our personal crafts.

Get more writing tips here!


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