Plotters, pantsers, pokers, poppers

Yet another thing J.K. Rowling and I have in common.

In the writing world, there is often only one p-word that matters: published. But to get there, you actually have to write something. From beginning to end. Sometimes in that order! And while the path to published can have many different bumps, brusies and (hopefully) breakthroughs, the approach you take to getting there falls neatly into one of two camps: pantsers or plotters.

Writers who are pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They start with an idea, nothing more, and just write until eventually, hopefully, miraculously, it turns into a fully realized story or novel. Margaret Atwood is considered a pantser. (As a writer. I’m not sure if Margaret Atwood has, you know, pantsed someone. But who can be sure.)

Plotters, on the other hand, work with an outline. They have plot structure, characters sketches, and perhaps even a planned novel ahead of time. I think of complex works when I think of plotters (like J.K. Rowling), but I’ve heard many writers of every genre tote the merits of plotting, just as I’ve heard many authors swear only by pantsing.

I first heard these terms debated at a writing conference in Edmonton last May. I was attending a session on structure, and the accomplished panel of authors began by outting themselves as pantsers or plotters. I immediately identified my free-flowing style of writing as pantsing. Then I considered the pages and pages of outlines, character sketches and plot structure I had developed for my manuscript, and I thought, “No, I’m a plotter.” Then I realized the session had ended and I was sitting alone in a hotel conference room talking to myself.

(Of course, because everyone loves making up words, even writers, there are indeed plantsers. Those who both write by the seat of their pants and follow some sort of writing plan.)

It’s now a year later, I’m still working on that same manuscript, and I’m no longer sure what type of writer I am. Flying by the seat of your pants seems to imply some sort of accelerated motion forward, as if you’re writing at great speeds. That’s not me. That’s definitely not me. And sure, I plot (usually against people who have wronged me). But plotting doesn’t seem to increase my word count where it matters. Instead I’m spending time revising my very detailed sketch of a tertiary character. (This may actually be called procrastination.)

I think I’m a picker. I slowly pick away at writing. Or a poker. My story just pokes along. Or maybe I’m a potter. I plant a great idea, fail to find the time to water it and hope to the high heavens that it will eventually grow on its own. If there were a magic pill I could take to finish writing this book, I would be a popper. (Oh how I wished for this while writing my masters thesis.) Maybe I’m a prayer-er. As in, when it comes to finishing this novel, I haven’t got one.

Who knows. I’m starting to realize that how I write isn’t as important as what I write. And you’ll never get to the what if you don’t make time for the when. It seems simple so I will treat it as such, and just keep writing. Eventually, I’ll get there.

At least I’m not pessimistic.*

*It’s quite possible that I am also pessimistic.

One thought on “Plotters, pantsers, pokers, poppers

  1. I have never thought about this….I might be a pantser. I don’t have pages and pages of outlines and plots floating around the house. I have ideas floating around my head trying to poke their way out and onto paper. That’s it – I’m a “poker”! Thanks Shannon…you always make me think about something in a new way.


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