We all have our writing pet peeves. Here’s one of mine: “plotter vs. pantser.” I’m not sure the origin of these twee terms, but I cringe every time I read them. In recent years they’ve infected almost every corner of the writing world so that you’ll see people debating “is it possible to pants a whole novel?” or declaring “I’m a plotter for short stories and a pantser for poetry” everywhere from Comic Cons to MFAs.
I find the terms ugly and twee—and isn’t “pantsing” what middle school bullies do?—but mostly it’s just a false binary. There might be a handful of writers out there who are pure plotters or pure pantsers if you squint, but almost everyone else is a mix of both at all times. Writing is always a balance of planning and improvising. When one works on a story, one inevitably starts to think about future plot beats and also inevitably adds material on the spot. How else could it be done? If a plan was so detailed it contained the entire work, it would be the work itself. (Isn’t there a Borges story about this?)
As if the binary wasn’t reductive enough to begin with, it’s been further reduced in the discourse to basically one thing: outlining.
Here’s how the terms are defined by Masterclass in “Plotters vs. Pantsers: What Kind of Writer Are You?”: A plotter is someone who meticulously plans and outlines their story before they begin writing. … 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.”
Most writers are doing both at once and/or alternating between the two. One might write a dozen chapters to get a feel for the characters before creating a loose outline. One might write a full first draft and then reverse outline. One might never outline yet jot down notes that amount to an outline (or merely keep the plot beats in one’s head without writing them down). And outlines themselves come in a huge range. The outline for my novel—which I didn’t write until maybe 50k in—consisted of only a few sentences per chapter. It was maybe four pages long. At the time, a good friend of mine was planning a novel with an extremely detailed outline that itself ballooned to almost 60 pages.
On top of all that, many writers find that each book demands its own process and the writer must change and adapt from project to project.
I’m really interested in different writing processes (and spend a lot of time here writing about them for this newsletter) and love thinking about the infinite ways stories can be constructed. While it’s not a great harm in the world, I do think it’s unhelpful to reduce writing this kind of simple binary. Some emerging writers seem to identify so strongly with “plotter” or “pantser” that they can’t adapt their process when it isn’t working. The binary binds them up.
If one must use a process binary I prefer George R. R. Martin’s “architect or gardener?” framing. First, because the words are much more interesting themselves. Secondly, because they actually do describe some different author (or really human) tendencies. Do you thrive on structure or work better with improvisation? Do you like things to be clean and symmetrical? Or do you prefer a bit of mess and tangle? And lastly, because the metaphors imply something different about the work. The kind of creations made from architecture blueprints are obviously quite different from those made by planting seeds in a garden. Not better or worse, just different possibilities.
Yet even here the binary is an obviously false one for all the reasons listed before and also another one: many writers would argue that blueprints are what allow spontaneity. Or to continue the metaphor, gardens grow best when seeds are put in pots and planters. This is basically the entire premise of Oulipo: using rigid constraints to free one’s wild creativity. An author like Italo Calvino used mathematically planned structures to create very freewheeling works. The reverse can work too, of course. Freewriting and improv can create structure.
To come to a point in this rant: don’t tie yourself up in a label. And definitely don’t worry about the “right” way to plot, pants, architect, or garden. Create your own process. Change it if it doesn’t work. Try something new. Keep going, changing, and writing.
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