Two Types of Writers: Plotters and Pantsers

Plotter or Pantser

Writing has always been a passion for the UK-based former journalist Amanda Wills, who now works part-time as a police press officer. Her latest book, Flick Henderson and the Deadly Game, was published in December last year, with a cover design courtesy of Reedsy artist Rachel Lawston. In this article, she talks about two types of writers, Plotters and Pantsers, and the pros and cons of both.

Plotter or Pantser

Do you plan your novel to the nth degree before you type a single word, or do you sit at your computer, take a deep breath and fly by the seat of your pants? If the former, you’re a Plotter; if the latter, you’re a Pantser. 

We all know there are pros and cons to both. Knowing exactly what’s coming next means that Plotters are less likely to suffer from writer’s block. They also tend to write faster and more efficiently. Pantsers, on the other hand, have the freedom to let their characters take control, which can be both terrifying and exciting at the same time. 

I should say now that I am your typical Pantser. Don’t get me wrong, I am in awe of writers who spend months plotting scenes on timelines and building detailed biographies for their characters. When I start a book, I know how it begins, and I normally know how it’s going to end. It’s just the bit in the middle that’s, shall we say, fluid.

Pantsers let characters take on a life of their own

Take my latest novel, Flick Henderson and the Deadly Game, for example. I first had the germ of an idea back in April 2014. After writing a series of pony adventure books, this was my first venture into mainstream middle grade fiction, and I knew it had to be pacey and compelling.

Plotter or PantserIn the early days of writing, I called this novel Write Club and my fourteen-year-old heroine (let’s call her Flick Henderson, because that’s her name) was the leader of a group of misfits who started an underground newspaper at their school.

But, as all you Pantsers out there will know, characters dictate their own destinies, thank you very much, and it quickly became apparent that Flick wasn’t interested in a tinpot school rag — she had much loftier ambitions.

She wanted to be a crime reporter for a national newspaper, like her mum’s glamorous best friend, Lexie Collins.

I’ve long been a fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. You feel a sense of satisfaction when you complete one of his books because the main plot has been resolved, but the underpinning subplot keeps you reading and motivates you to continue his series. In each book, the reader has the opportunity to move between both plots, giving the separate stories time to breath and lightening the tone between light and heavy.

Inspired by McCall’s mysteries, I did do one little bit of plotting before sitting down to write. I gave Flick two mysteries to solve: who was behind the theft of the town’s population of pedigree pets, and the disappearance of her sister, Kate.

The writing process of a Pantser

I launched into the book with the optimistic, devil-may-care attitude of the seasoned Pantser. Things were going well. The kidnapping of the pets was my main plot line. What happened to Kate when she disappeared four years earlier was just another conundrum for my feisty heroine to solve along the way.

The story changed and evolved. Occasionally, I lost my bearings, had to backpedal and try something else. Sometimes the story meandered aimlessly. Some days I sat in front of a blank page with absolutely no idea what was going to happen next.

But Flick had such a big personality that she drove the story on, and finally, after seven long months, I had finished the first draft.

The downside of being a Pantser

I let the manuscript marinate for a couple of weeks, then re-read it. And realisation dawned. By not plotting, I’d got it all wrong. Flick had obsessed for four years about what happened to her sister; discovering how Kate died had to be the main plotline. It was a complete no-brainer. She cared about the pets, of course she did, but they had to play second fiddle to the main storyline.

I can fix that, I thought. Both stories were there, after all. But the timeline was completely skewed. I had issues with continuity and scenes that needed switching. Basically, I had 50,000 words in the wrong order.

I also had a little voice in my head saying over and over, “That’s why you should have planned it.”

How to go from Pantser to Plotter

The thought of doing a major re-write on a Word document seemed impossible, so I summed up each scene in a single sentence which I scribbled on a slip of paper. I numbered each one in chronological order and laid them out on the dining room table.

Plotter or PantserI then spent about a week playing a kind of story jigsaw, rearranging the scenes until Kate’s disappearance became the main plot and the disappearing pets became the sub-plot.

This kind of low-tech approach might not be for everyone, but it worked for me. It helped me spot continuity problems and holes in the story. It became blindingly obvious where I needed more action, and where I needed to slow the pace down.

And once I had the scenes in the right order it was a pretty straightforward task to reassemble them on my Word document.

Flick Henderson and the Deadly Game was released both as a paperback and ebook this past December, nearly three years after I had that first seed of an idea.

Do I regret not plotting the book properly in the first place? Probably. I’m sure it would have saved a lot of time. I’ll definitely use the giant word jigsaw approach again. Being able to play with scenes in such a tangible way was immensely useful.

Will I spend weeks planning every scene, every nuance, every character arc, before I start writing my next book? Probably not. I’m a Pantser by nature. But one thing I have learned is that a little planning goes a long way.

So that is exactly what I plan to do.


Flick Henderson and the Deadly Game is available on Amazon in paperback and on Amazon Kindle!

Are you a Plotter or a Pantser? Or, like Amanda, have you found a way to straddle both styles of writing? Let us know, and leave any thoughts, experiences, or any questions for Amanda in the comments below.

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  • Javed Jiskani Baloch

    I am also a pantser. I love to fly and find it hard to plot but I know full well as to how to go about. I know where to start and how to develop without knowing where to end. My flow and climax decide my end. Writing fiction is great feeling as you become your own in creating a world though fictitious yet in your own way as you feel like. nothing stops you to enjoy complete command and control on what is going on in that particular story. Its amazing. I am just done with my first novel: “Whiter than White: The Daughter of the Land of Pure” which has been published simultaneously at UK and PK and I am launching it on 17 March 2017…let us hope for the best. More details are at my website http://www.javedjiskanibaloch.com

    • Amanda Wills

      Like you, I am naturally a pantser but I am coming to realise that we can all learn how to plot if we really put our minds to it. I guess the trick is not to be constrained by our plotting so we can still allow our stories to evolve and grow. Good luck with your book, Javed!

  • Daburcor

    I tend to kind of straddle the line between the two. Sometimes I’ll plot a story so tightly it’s basically done in my notes, and other times I’ll know where the book starts and where it ends, but only have peppered vagaries in between. Other times, I’ll plot as I mentioned, then halfway through earnest writing on the book, chop the bottom half off because the narrative demanded it.

    At the end of the day, I believe being open to both styles of writing can take you a long way, creatively speaking.

    • Amanda Wills

      Hi Daburcor, I totally agree! I think a happy medium is always the best way. We can then allow our pantsing tendencies to let the characters dictate the story, reining them in where necessary with our intricate plotting. The best of both worlds!

  • F.A. Ellis

    I’m definitely a pantser! I say five or six years ago I challenge myself to try and write a book. Well first off,I didn’t know where to begin (and I still don’t), but I started writing anyway. The problem is, the manuscript has been sitting idle for such a long time,that’s hasn’t been completed yet. I just went the flow of writing I didn’t plan anything. But,I knew what type of book I wanted to write. Ideas for writing different types of books always pops in mind. I write them down,but that’s the end of it.

    • Amanda Wills

      I just went with the flow when I wrote my first middle grade pony adventure book. It meandered aimlessly and took over a year to write. Five years and ten books later, I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that planning is good. I wrote my last pony book in three months, mainly because I spent time plotting it before I began. So it does work, painful as it is! Good luck with your writing. Maybe this is the year to dust off your manuscript and get it finished!

      • F.A. Ellis

        Thanks,I hope so!

  • Wendy Pearson

    I’m a full blown Pantser and binge writer. I sit down and write 2,000 to 3,000 words regularly. I’m on my second novel and at 95,000 word count. I honestly don’t plan a thing. My first novel was my dry run, so to speak. It definitely needs to be edited and restructured. But in the last two years, I’ve learned a lot about story structure. Will I ever be a plotter/planner or what they now call a Plantser, I have no idea. With my second novel, it took me 27 chapters in to realize I had to change chapter one. Living on the edge…is never easy but it can fun at times. But remember, no writing is ever wasted. You do learn and improve. And all writing after all, is rewriting as Ernest Hemingway says.

    • Amanda Wills

      Flying by the seat of your pants is always exciting – I’m with you on that Wendy! But I also think that some of the best scenes I’ve written are ones I have planned before I’ve actually started writing them. So, for me, a mixture of both is best.

  • Isabeldora

    Only one thing to say – S c r i v e n e r!

    • Amanda Wills

      I have just started using Scrivener. Still getting to grips with it, but I think it will be a great tool for writing!

      • Isabeldora

        You will wonder how you ever did without it! Well worth the time invested in exploring the features. As with any new program I always recommend playing around with each item on the tool bar. Another benefit of Scrivener is compatibility with Scapple – mind mapping and Aeon timeline for timelines able to track events such as sub-plots within main story. I had best shut up as am avid promoter verging on – can’t find the word so it must be something I don’t want to recognise about myself …

        • Carol Cronin

          I now use Scrivener almost exclusively. I have a separate project where I write my blog posts, which makes it easy to see what I’ve published and also keep track of ideas/partial posts. I don’t miss Word one bit.

        • Amanda Wills

          I am using it very basically at the moment – I am the kinda girl who can only learn one thing at a time! – but I can see how useful it will be.

  • Carol Cronin

    Scrivener will help the jigsaw issue, though it doesn’t solve the basic challenge of being a pantser. My characters don’t read my outlines, so every time I try to plot out a book they take off in a totally new direction. If your plan to start plotting works please let me know!

    • Amanda Wills

      I feel your pain, Carol! Flick definitely did not enjoy being told what to do! But I think there is room for planning, if only to nail the main skeleton of the book. And then you can let the characters run riot – as long as they promise to stay inside your novel’s beautifully-planned framework!

      • Carol Cronin

        I definitely agree there’s room for planning, especially to nail the skeleton. And the funny thing is, once I get to know my characters they remain amazingly consistent! It’s almost as if they already know their role in the story and are just waiting for me to figure it out. Anyway thanks for the reminder that we pantsers are not alone!

        • Amanda Wills

          My pleasure, Carol! My husband (fellow indie author Adrian Wills) is a plotter through and through and he utterly despairs of my pantsing ways!

  • A small indie publisher published my debut novel last year. It’s selling well and has over 200 Amazon reviews, so I know I can WRITE a novel, but I’m struggling with the sequel.

    I’m a Pantster, for sure. I want to be a Plotter, but my problem is that I do not “see” my story until I start writing. Like you, Amanda, I know the beginning and end, but it’s the other 220 pages that I don’t know. Sigh. Advice?

    • Amanda Wills

      Fantastic news about your debut novel, Marcy! I really struggled with my second book, too. To the point where a close friend asked why I was ploughing on when I was so obviously not enjoying it. Being a fairly stubborn sort of a person I persevered and reached the end. Eventually.
      I did plot my last children’s book and wrote it pretty quickly, but I am afraid to say that I have reverted to type and have launched straight into my current WIP with very little planning. I have markers I know I must hit, but that’s about it. I also know I have much pen-chewing, head-scratching and aimless gazing out of the window ahead!