Plotting vs. Pantsing

With NaNoWriMo just around the corner (a Marmite issue, I know) I thought I would talk about planning…or lack thereof. Writers are shoved mercilessly into one of two groups: Plotters and Pantsers. Now I know it’s not as simple as it sounds – that’s like asking if you’re a cat or dog person. You might be neither, or both. Or you might prefer unicorns.

But I thought it was worth discussing the two groups just in case it helps you figure things out with your writing. Who knows, maybe you’ll realise you’re far too regimented and try winging it more often. Or you’ll realise you’re writing approach is far too “the Dude abides” and you’ll rush out to buy some brightly coloured post it notes and a whiteboard. Maybe you won’t give a flying monkey which group you “belong” to and you’ll just have a chuckle at the word pantser. As with any writing advice (and I use the word “advice” in its loosely), it might work for you or it might not. Feel free to ignore everything I say…ever.


People who stick their flag in the plotting camp like to plan their novels in detail. The amount of detail varies from person to person but they will generally have a plot, rough timeline, a breakdown of chapters and scenes, and some idea of how the novel will end. Über plotters may break down their novel into minute detail and know how every teeny tiny bit of their plot will work. Easy-going plotters will have an approximate idea where their novel is going and they may have planned out some disjointed scenes with a kinda sorta maybe idea how they will fit together.

Whilst plotting in detail it will be easier to spot mistakes in your novel. You’ll find it harder to paint yourself into a corner, although I’m sure some of you will still manage it. You can organise the three acts of your plot and build up to them at the appropriate time, when you finally knuckle down and start writing.

However with this approach sudden changes in the storyline can throw a spanner in the works. If a strange dream compels you to add a giant bunny called Frank to your novel then you’re going to have a few sleepless nights rearranging your post it notes and updating the complex timeline. It all depends how rigorously you stick to the plotter’s code.

This method is great if you find your mind rambling when you write, and tend to end up with three-hundred characters and eighty-seven subplots all clambering for your attention. You can consult your charts and spreadsheets, pluck a scene from your plot timetable, and tell yourself “get this finished and you’re 14.2% closer to dénouement. You’re a man/woman/undecided with a plan; you are Writer GOD of Plot!


Across the lake in Camp Pantser are the people who like to see themselves as free spirits, skipping merrily through the fields of plot and plucking flowery scenes and prose from their lush surroundings. But this doesn’t mean they have no idea where they are going. They will see inspiration in everything and form random snippets and flashes of ideas on a daily basis. Think of them as a distracted puppy “ooh, what’s that that’s going in my nov…ooh, look some snappy dialogue I like snappy dia…what an awesome building my MC is going too…oooh…”. I am more of a pantser than a plotter and I’m constantly struggling to remember ideas I didn’t plot out in detail.

Some people believe this is the best way to remain creative and finding out the plot as they go along is the best way to write an interesting book. I don’t understand this argument as plotting involves ‘making shit up’ just as much as pantsing.

Pantsing can be a good way to keep your word count up, and you do experience genuine WTF moments as your own creations shock you with their actions. I can honestly say I have sat, fingers on keyboard, jaw hung slack, thinking “my MC is doing whhaaaatt??”.

It’s an…erm…interesting way to write.

The biggest problem with writing so freely, and without back up, is that your novel will be a bitch to edit. New characters will pop by for a visit without introduction, existing characters will disappear without a trace as you promise yourself this new idea is much better and you’ll write them out later – when you have time. You’re too busy right now being free and shit. If you stop to plan then the creative juices sloshing in your noggin will start to leak out of your ears.
The best example of Plotter vs. Pantser…

So maybe you fall into one camp more than the other. Maybe you’re still giggling at the word pantser (seriously, grow up!). It doesn’t matter if you don’t recognise yourself in either of the two groups. Writing is more important than thinking about how you write. But if you’re finding your motivation waning or your enthusiasm flagging why not try hopping into the little boat – just down there, past Jason’s rotting corpse – and sail on over to visit your rival camp?