Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’m a sucker for any conversation that begins with the words “there are two types of people.”

We’ve explored some of these fault lines in humanity on the blog in the past. Are you a finisher or abandoner? (Abandoner.) Savorer or speed-reader? (Speeder.) Sprinter or marathoner? (That depends.)

Today, with a nod to National Novel Writing Month, I’m thinking about another divide: plotters and pantsers.

They say there are two types of novelists. The first type doesn’t start writing until she has a meticulous, detailed outline. She knows how her story will begin, end, and everything in between. This is the plotter.

The second type begins with an idea. Maybe she has the loose plot in mind, or she sees who her characters are, or who they could be. She’s not sure where her story will go, but she knows there’s one way to find out: to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and start writing. This is the pantser, as in, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants.

It turns out novelists aren’t always so different from the rest of us. Some of us like to plot and plan. We want to know where we’re going before we begin, whether we’re redesigning the company website, redecorating the living room, or pulling out of the driveway for date night. As the saying goes, plotters enjoy spontaneity, as long as it’s carefully planned. But these plans make the spontaneous pantsers feel stifled and constricted. They like to begin, and then see what happens next.

(I used to think I was a plotter. Nope. I definitely lean pantser. I love a good outline—metaphorical or otherwise—but only if I have the freedom to change it as I go.)

Neither style is right nor wrong, though you can probably see how you wouldn’t want an organization—and probably not a family—run by all Plotters, or all Pantsers. The key is knowing which style best describes YOU.

So, which is it for you: plotter, pantser, or somewhere in between?

Tell us all about it in comments. 

P.S. I wrote a book about personality! In Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, I walk you through 7 different frameworks, explaining the basics in a way you can actually understand, sharing personal stories about how what I learned made a difference in my life, and showing you how it could make a difference in yours, as well.

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  1. I would definitely be a pantser, if I were ever to write a novel.

    By the way, I would love to see you write a post about another “either you’re a ___ or a ___” about Asking versus Guessing.

    I am an asker, my husband a guesser, and it leads to MUCH consternation! There are entire cultures that are guessers – the Japanese being one. Reading about asking versus guessing made me understand exactly why my husband and I have difficulties communicating. Guessers find Askers too blunt, Askers find Guessers manipulative. Argh!

  2. Jamie Langley says:

    I’m close to the pantser. Though I call it evolutionary. I work for a while. Step back to see what still needs to be done. Assess where I’m going. Have some sort of a plan. Just not one that is fully fleshed out. I may not even know how it will end.

  3. So this is weird. I’m an INFJ and I love a good plan–especially when it comes to big things like world travel or goal setting. But I’m also a novelist and when it comes to my stories, though I have *desperately* tried to become an outliner (it’s so much more efficient, so clean, so linear), I cannot seem to generate a well-ordered, pre-fab plan, much less to follow it. This means I spend waaay more time than I think is decent changing things in my WIP’s, wondering what will happen to my characters, biting my nails, etc, etc, etc. I wouldn’t stand for this level of angst in my real world. But in the imaginary one? Standard operating. Sigh.

  4. Kathy says:

    I am definitely a ‘pantser’ although people are always telling me I’m a planner. The way I see it is, I love the idea of a plan but the reality of going with the flow. I found this to be true when I recently tried to organise my tasks with a to-do list…I just couldn’t get enthused about sticking to the list. But when I changed it to a ‘goals for the day’ list, I found that it was much easier to stick to!

  5. Wyndi says:

    I wonder how this divide changes based on genre or the decision to write a novel vs. series. I can’t imagine some of my favorite authors being being pantsers. I mean, can you imagine a wizarding world being created on the fly??? Then again, I’m a plotter, so maybe I’m drawn to plotters. So many fascinating ways to take this conversation!!!

  6. Hmmm, I have never tried to write fiction.

    In academic writing, I was always a plotter/pantser combo (not that those kinds of pieces have “plots” necessarily). Definitely needed a framework/outline heading in, but I liked to leave the door cracked for the learning and insights that come as you write. That’s the fun of it!

  7. Erica says:

    I’m definitely, in writing & in life, a “plantser”. I have to have a skeletal plan or I won’t start, but if it’s too structured I find it stifling & I won’t move. (For reference I call myself an INFJ but have always struggled with the J/P)

  8. Hannah Beth Reid says:

    I am a plotter all the way! And my husband would fall more into the pantser category, so I try to back off a little when we are working on plans together. I love Plan A, simply because it is Plan A. If we switch to Plan B, I have a hard time coming around, even if Plan B is better.
    I don’t write, but I’m more of a mind map type plotter than an outline plotter. It would be interesting to know which category an author would consider themselves when reading their books. I often have wondered if an author always planned a certain ending, especially in a series.

  9. Katharine says:

    Hah, I came into this article with a different assumption based on the title. I expected it to be: are you a plotter – a schemer who plans thing out, or a pantser – someone who just sees the opportunity and “pants” the guy – aka pulls down their pants. I thought you were going to talk about pranks 🙂 Those who plot, and those who pants!

  10. I plot by the seat of my pants! I never start a book without an outline, a fairly extensive one, but it’s always in pencil. As I start writing the outline begins to morph. I can’t write without a map to the destination but I discover new and better ways of getting there only as I’m writing. But I still want the map. Must have it.

  11. Heather says:

    In the rest of my life, I am definitely a planner. But I wrote my first novel very much in a pants mode. Now I’m kind of in between – I like to plot out at least the big milestones.

  12. Liza says:

    I spend so much time plotting nothing gets done, so I end up pantsing something together in the end and am never quite happy with the results.

  13. Julie says:

    Plotter, all the way, in life and in my writing. I go completely off the rails without a structure.
    When Pantster friends chafe at the notion of being stifled, I try to explain it like this: If I go into the grocery store with a list, I will come out with dinner. I might not buy the items on the list precisely (sub ingredients if something is cheaper or looks better) But I will have a meal by the end of the trip. If I go to the grocery store without a list, I’m coming out of there with nothing for dinner (and I will have spent $500 on junk.)
    A structure, in my books and in my day, gives me an overall goal. I can be as creative as I want on my way there, but I will still end up where I need to be.

  14. Erin says:

    My natural state is to be a pantser. I like to have an idea of where I’m starting and where I’m going, but to leave the stuff in the middle to get there in its own way and time. But the reality of my very busy motherhood/homeschooling/ministry life is that I have to be a plotter, at least for my daily life. I have found that the best way for me to get things done is to have a very detailed schedule for every day. Otherwise my pantser tendencies take over and I end up spending the whole day procrastinating, following rabbit trails, or in other ways derailing all my good intentions. And I can’t live like that, because my life is just too full and busy right now. So. Pantser by nature, plotter by necessity. 🙂

  15. As a NaNoer myself (who had recently dropped “pantser” into a conversation to my mother’s chagrin), I appreciate my two writing worlds colliding for a day. 🙂 The world of fiction and the world of blogging/non-fiction rarely coincide, but it’s so much fun for me when they do!

    • Madeline, you’re so right! They hardly ever collide outside of craft related posts. But I wrote a whole post on how blogging made me a fiction writer. You can check it out here:

      Myself, total pantser. I rarely outline or even do a loose plot chart for short fiction, but with my novels I know the ending and a little bit of how we’ll get there. Today for instance, I wrote a scene that won’t occur until the climax and I’m only 10,000 words in. I’m a big believer of writing what and when the spirit moves.

  16. Leigh Kramer says:

    I lean toward plotter. I know the beginning and the end and a few key plot points but I don’t map out every step in between. That I figure out as I go: what will move me closer to Point A?

  17. Jordan says:

    When I signed in for NaNo this year I chose the ‘plantser’ badge, which describes those of us that fall somewhere in between. I lean heavily towards planner in my everyday life, but for writing I like to have a loose outline and then build as I feel like it from there. I’ve tried following a detailed outline before and I find myself getting frustrated because I feel constrained, like it’s set in stone or something (I know that’s silly, but sometimes humans don’t make sense). Thanks for the NaNoWriMo shout-out! Finding this post in my inbox made me feel more motivated to write today.

  18. Dana says:

    Total pantser here. I did NANO 3 years ago totally pantsing. I ended up with a completed first draft of 50,000 or so words. I am now in an editing/critique group that is helping me get the final draft all polished up. The essential story has not changed from the original bare bones draft. I have just added details for character development, setting and so on.

  19. Plotter in general. For me, plans allow for spontaneity because I’m relaxed about knowing when the major things will get done.
    As for writing, with non-fiction I’ve almost always had to turn in a chapter outline as part of getting a book contract. Not so much pants-ing possible in that situation. As for fiction, I generally start with a rough outline. I figure out more about my characters and what should happen as I go. I think part of the revision process is figuring out more about one’s characters as you go, which would make some pants-ing necessary.

  20. Definitely a hybrid here. In real life, I’m an ENFJ and love your approach of having a plan as long as it’s flexible. But as a novelist, I’ve “pantsed” two of my novels out of order and totally flubbed my novella until I stopped trying to write it sequentially.

  21. Cori says:

    I am more of a plotter, especially for new ideas and projects. If it is something I have done before, I am more apt to relax and adapt on the fly. In other “there are two types of persons” conversations, I always say it with regards to eating/food. You have those that eat to live and those that live to eat.

  22. Jamie says:

    I would be a plotter and my husband is a pantser. In Myers Briggs: J and P. We joke about it now that we know our preferences, but it still sneaks up on us sometimes and catches us by surprise. I was listening to an explanation of the DISC styles (another temperament/personality assessment) and the speaker said a ‘high I’ (my husband) would be the driver who is lost in their favorite song and remembering the last time they were in this city and, oh, what was that great radio station they found…and then cut across five lanes to get their exit because they were lost in the moment of living life. A ‘High C’ (me) would NEVER BE IN THAT SITUATION IN THE FIRST PLACE, the speaker yelled comically, because they would have planned various routes and checked the traffic flow patterns and merged a mile before their exit…I laughed out loud because IT IS SO TRUE.

  23. Anne Blythe says:

    My sister just introduced me to your blog. I LOVE this post! I love your point about starting and seeing where it goes. I’m not necessarily spontaneous, I start, then plan, then see where it goes, then plan from there. I’m a pantser! When I started my nonprofit for abused women, I had no idea where it would lead, and everyday is an amazing adventure. Thanks for sharing this concept. Your writing style and insights help me grow:).

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