For my semester abroad, I lived in Ireland with twenty students in one house. We did everything together, and we had to learn to live “by the seat of our pants” because we rarely knew our schedule more than two weeks in advance. For the most part, I thrived on this pace, because I’m what some would call a “pantser.” For one of my roommates, however, this was a huge adjustment. She wanted to be able to organize her future without surprises ruining her plans.
Reading this brief story, you likely cringed at one roommate and nodded with the second. Most of us lean in one direction or the other.
If you’re an active part of the writing world, you’re probably familiar with the idea of outliners and discovery writers – also often called planners and pantsers.
As their names imply, outliners take an organized approach to their storytelling, while discovery writers let their words lead them into a relatively unknown adventure.
Much like introvert or extrovert, these categories are good at painting a broad image of a writer’s personality, but they are not a doctor’s diagnosis. Understanding the difference between a planner and a pantser is a good jumping point into exploring how your craft and personality join.
“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” – Michelangelo
I’m not sure where I first heard it, but Michelangelo has many such quotes attributed to him, and I’ve always identified with it so strongly. I could easily change it to read:
“Every blank page has a story inside it, and it is the task of the writer to discover it.” – Stephanie H. Warner
When I approach a story, I rarely start with an outline or with intentional thoughts on craft. I just grip my pen in my hand – or stare determinedly at that cursor blinking on my screen – and follow the words where they lead me. I always have a vision for what the story and its world look like, but I feel far more like an adventurer than an architect. This makes me a pantser.
However, I have never completed a novel without first stopping to outline it. Outlining for me is systematic brainstorming. I need to write and live in my world before I understand it well enough to outline. And, my outlines are not straight jackets. They’re just a means of organizing my thoughts and seeing if the story is actually cohesive and coherent.
One of my best friends – also a writer, and a self-professed planner – says the discovery process happens in her outlining. Once she gets to the actual narrative writing, she knows exactly how the story unfolds, and she doesn’t deviate too much from the path she’s trail-blazed in her outline.
I’ve thought I had a fool-proof outline only to have my characters run away cackling with my plot. That being said, I still place a high value on the outline process. I am a pantser with a plan. Rather than write a rough draft without an outline or a full outline without a sample narrative, I fall somewhere in the middle.
How about you? When it comes to life or to writing, are you a planner? A pantser? A pantser with a plan like me? How does this affect your routine and your writing style?