If you’ve been around the writing community for a hot minute, you may have heard people compare plotters vs pantsers when they talk about writing stories.
The terms themselves are pretty self-explanatory (and we’ll get to them in a minute), but how do you know which one you are? And more importantly, in the battle of plotters vs pantsers, who would win?
All this and more shall be revealed!
Simply put, a plotter is a writer who is prone to plotting out a story before they write. Whereas “pantser” comes from the term “flying by the seat of their pants…” meaning they go into a story with no plan and hope for the best.
For the record, I am a pantser all the way. At least, mostly.
Because really, these are just two opposing sides of a spectrum. You may lean more towards one writing method or the other, you may be a mix of both, or it may depend on the story.
Also, keep in mind that this is your writer personality, not your actual personality. For example, even though I write like a pantser, I’m actually a Type A personality who plans out her week in a physical planner and has to be organized or she’ll implode. It’s very individual.
If you want to know whether you’re a plotter or a pantser in life, I’d recommend checking out Gail’s article over at Fictitiously Yours, Stop Plotting Your Life Like Your Novel, for some real-world application.
So with all that said, let’s dive into the major characteristics of a plotter vs a pantser and determine who, in a fight to the death, would emerge victorious! (Just kidding… mostly.)
Characteristics of a Plotter
A plotter by another name is a planner. They enjoy thinking through the details of the story, from the characters to the plot to the worldbuilding, and writing it all down in a detailed outline.
How extensive this outline is depends on the person. Some plotters just want the basic structure, characters, setting, etc. Others dive into the nitty-gritty and create a veritable divine blueprint for their story.
Plotters tend to be detail-oriented, imaginative, and deep thinkers. A story is like a puzzle to them, and each element of their extensive plan is another step closer to completing the picture.
A plotter doesn’t have to be anal retentive or Type A, but… it helps. Maybe.
Because they’re planners, plotters often excel at plot structure and worldbuilding. However, they do have to be careful that their story doesn’t feel too stilted or staged. An easy way to avoid this is by making sure character decisions and motivations make sense.
There’s nothing wrong with a plot-driven story, but if it’s at the expense of the characters, it’ll feel like nothing more than a puppet show.
Plotters often want or are willing to do the heavy-lifting up front so you don’t have to worry about getting stuck later. The downside to this (one of the cons) is that changing one detail in a story might cause a domino effect throughout the plot… which could mean going back to the drawing board and reworking the outline.
Another possible downside of being a plotter is that they may use plotting as an excuse to procrastinate. Instead of ever actually writing the story, they may just keep adding details to their outline indefinitely. (Shoutout to my sister, who will feel personally called out by this.) The vicious cycle continues as they find more things to add and more things that need “tweaking.”
Just write the dang story already!
However, once plotters do dive into a story, they are often less likely to experience writer’s block than a pantser because they know exactly where they’re going. Plotters are natural navigators and probably the friend on the road trip who handles the itinerary.
Just don’t forget to enjoy those unexpected detours, too. After all, not everything can go according to plan.
Pros of a Plotter
- Makes an outline
- Often excels at plot and worldbuilding
- Willing to do the heavy-lifting up front
- Less likely to experience writer’s block
Cons of a Plotter
- Have to watch out for stilted or staged plots
- Characters can suffer at the plot’s expense
- It might be hard to revise plot points
- They might procrastinate in the name of worldbuilding
Characteristics of a Panster
On the flipside, a pantser is a go-with-the-flow adventurer. They enjoy the journey, not just the destination, and they really really want to write shit down. They are more likely to start with one character or plot idea and run with it.
A pantser likes to see the story unfold in front of them, as if they’re discovering it for themselves. It’s highly unlikely that they’ll try to come up with an outline, and if they do, it’s probably vague and half-formed.
Pantsers tend to be spontaneous, relaxed, and curious. A story is like a hidden trailhead to them, and they want to see where it goes even if they don’t have a map.
Because pantsers don’t like having a plan, they often excel at character development and imagery. They like exploring the ins and outs of their characters’ psyches and seeing how they react to different situations, which often means that the plot will in turn feel more natural.
Or it can meander. Like a lot. Which is why in a lot of character-driven novels, it feels like nothing happens… but good God, are the characters nuanced and the imagery beautiful.
Pantsers often like to write for the sake of writing, which means that, for lack of a better phrase, you feel their enjoyment of the craft in it.
But perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks to being a pantser is that the risk of running up against writer’s block is significantly higher when you go in without a plan. I mean, have you ever tried to make a speech without notecards, or cook without a recipe?
It’s a gamble.
And when pantsers do get writer’s block, they’re likely to bounce to the next project, or start anew with a fresh idea, and never finish anything… because they never take the time to muddle through how they got stuck in the first place.
So whereas plotters can excel at middles and endings, but frontload exposition into their beginnings, pantsers can excel at beginnings, but shortchange their middles and abandon all hope of an ending.
Just finish the dang story already!
But when they do finish a story, it can be a richly crafted, organic, emotionally captivating experience. Pantsers are natural wanderers who probably take the scenic route and look for those hidden roadtrip gems that most people would drive right on by.
As long as they keep in mind that you do have to get to your destination… eventually.
Pros of a Pantser
- Enjoy the journey, not just the destination
- Often good at imagery
- Write for the sake of writing (enjoy the craft)
- Natural, organic flow to the story
Cons of a Pantser
- Character-driven plots can meander
- Or there’s just no plot whatsoever
- Prone to writer’s block
- Never finish a story, just bounce to the next idea
Pantser vs Plotter: Which is Better?
The answer: neither! And also both!
Seriously. What does it matter as long as it works? I’ve heard both sides say theirs is the best writing method, but that’s like saying one learning method is the best, right? Everyone’s made differently and thinks in different ways.
Great books have been written by plotters and pantsers alike, and with a combination of the two.
The most important thing? That you enjoy the process. If you’ve always forced yourself to plot stories but you can never seem to translate them to a narrative, try writing from scratch. If you always write by the seat of your pants but find you always hit a dead end, try planning it out.
But if we’re gonna be honest, for most people, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. A.k.a., a “plantser,” which is the happy union of the two. But that’s not a hard and fast rule, and most writers probably fall somewhere along a spectrum.
Find what works for you, experiment with different writing strategies, and most of all, have fun.
Which are you, a plotter, a pantser, a plantser, or neither? Let me know in the comments!