An Editor’s Perspective: Plotters vs Pantsers

This post needs some warnings. Maybe I'm insecure, or maybe I'm just aware that I'm about to stir a bee's nest, but I'm going to post warnings.

Warning #1: These are my observations after working with a lot of clients. Some are plotters, some are pantsers, some fall somewhere between the two, taking advantage of the best of both worlds. These are also my observations after working with a lot of people from varying critique groups.

Warning #2: These are my opinions. It's not fact. It's not law. It's nothing more than me expressing my thoughts. You don't have to agree with them. Feel free to disagree in the comments–just take it that second step and explain why you disagree. We may not agree at the end, but the discussion is fun.

Warning #3: I'm not out to offend anyone, but I expect I will ruffle feathers with my stance on this issue.

Now with the warnings out of the way, there are a few definitions I want to cover before I talk about this subject.

Plotters: These are people who, to some degree or another, plot their novels out before they start writing. For the sake of this discussion, plotters refers to people who do more than a very brief book blurb or mini outline of the novel. This is referring to those who will plot each chapter or scene of the entire novel before they write. Plotters will also detail their characters far in advance of writing.

Pantsers: These people are those who sit down and write. They do very little preparation before they start writing. They may take a few notes about the characters or general concepts of what they are going to do in the novel, but they do not take detailed notes prior to writing.

These individuals may take notes after they write though.

Pantsers may also take notes in their head as they write.

The Median Crowd: These are people who are both plotters and pantsers. They may only plan a chapter ahead, or they may only keep notes for certain things. Their characters are often not outlined extensively in advance, though some do. These people borrow from both categories. And yes, you can do this. This is my method of writing currently.

I fall somewhere between plotter and pantser. I don't plan far ahead, but I know where I'm going in the novel. I may have certain scenes planned out before I write. But I am constantly replotting what I do because of the pantsing element.

I will often start a project with little to no preparation and plot it as characters make decisions.

But since this isn't about me, I'm going to start with my observations regarding my clients.

Most of my clients are plotters. While I have a few pantsers in the lot, most of them like knowing where they are going when they write a novel.

Many of them have had middling to moderate issues with characterization in their novels. This can range from the character just not being sympathetic to the characters making decisions that are so outside of their normal operative that it makes them look really unrealistic. Characters make or break a novel, in my opinion. They are why we read.

We don't read for plot. We read for characters. We want to read about people. The plot can take our breaths away–if harnessed to a character who makes the plot feel real. The plot, in my opinion, is the consequence of choices made by all characters involved in the story.

Some plotters can manage to develop their characters as they plot in realistic fashions.

Many don't.

This is a generalization, but bear with me a moment: Inexperienced plotters often have really poor character development.

This is a generalization, but bear with me a moment: Inexperienced pantsers often have really poor plot development.

Well, well. What do we have here? A mirror image of flaws? Yep. Plotters often have really strong plot lines, with stories that could have the potential to carry through from the first page to the end–if those blasted characters didn't feel so flat or like they existed for the sake of the plot.

Pantsers often have these amazing characters who naturally develop through the course of a story, but the plot often has more holes than Swiss cheese.

Now, of course there are exceptions to this. Experienced plotters can manage to somehow (through magic, I'm convinced it is through magic) capture character development and plot. They create really strong stories. From what I know of them, James Patterson and Brandon Sanderson are two plotters I know of who have this magical ability.

(I have a serious amount of respect for both of those men.)

The same also applies to pantsers, by the way. There are talented pantsers who can figure out the plots as they go, using the characters they have built to create strong plots from start to finish of a novel.

But there is one key point about both of these exceptions: These people are experienced.

Experience matters. Learning matters. Skill really matters.

You can argue pantser or plotter all day long, but both camps, I believe you are both wrong. There are weaknesses and advantages to both of your methods. There are weaknesses and advantages to taking the middle ground.

If there weren't weaknesses, everyone would write books using the same method because that method would be the only viable one.

So instead of arguing that your way is the right way, take a close look at the inherent disadvantages of your way, and figure out how to fix them.

Until you do, you'll end up as yet another manuscript on an editor's desk (or an agent's desk) riddled with stereotypical weaknesses because you aren't experienced enough–or too set in your ways–to overcome the challenges of your writing style.

Characterization is hard for everyone.

So is plotting.

Specializing in characterization (pantsing) or plotting (plotters) can give your story great strength, but also great weakness.

You don't need to change how you do things… but you should be aware of the risks your type of method has. And if you think your way has no disadvantages, you're likely doing yourself–and your novel–severe injustice.

What is your method, and have you had similar experiences? Do you struggle with your characterization as a plotter? Do you struggle with your plots as a pantser?

How do you intend to address the inherent weaknesses of your method?

Leave a Comment:

Jazz says May 9, 2014

personally, i don’t think i really fit into either category, so i must be more of what you refer to as the ‘median’ crowd…however, i don’t even know if that’s quite a right fit for me.
i do tend to be a ‘pantser’ more than a ‘plotter’, but in the end, my stories kind of just write themselves. i start off with a general idea usually, and my characters and plot have a vague basis, but i find that as i write, the story just starts to take on a mind of its own.

now, i understand that its me who is doing the writing, but on more than one occasion i’ve found myself saying ‘why are you doing that!! don’t do that!’ to one of my characters, but whatever it is just happens, and it ends up weaving into the story in some strange way that i never actually (consciously) thought of.
there have been times when i’m writing and some random event occurs and i’m completely confused as to why its happened when i meant to make the story take a different turn, but when i continue on, it loops back to connect to something that happened earlier in the story and makes total sense, but i’m not consciously writing or planning these things.

i don’t have any professional experience writing, nor do i have the opinions of others to see if my writing can even hold its own amongst published authors, but i do know that i love to read a huge variety of books spanning hundreds of years, i love shakespeare and austen and agatha christie and dickens, and i love children’s books and teen books and probably one of every genre…
but in the end, when i read (and edit) my own novels – i love them! despite my characters taking themselves wherever they want to go, and my plots fooling me until the end, i love my own writing and my own stories. so i’m not a professional, but i know its good writing (because, i too hate plot holes and inconsistencies and characters that don’t know themselves).

so in the end, i don’t think i fit into any of your categories, but for people who actually know me, there aren’t a lot of categories i DO fit into. i’m the farthest from normal you can get, and i’m fine with that. 🙂 but i’m a good writer…or at least, i am in my own opinion.

    RJBlain says May 9, 2014

    That’s almost a textbook case of what a pantser really is, Jazz–the stories are written organically as you go, with very little plotting work in front of it. Possibly a little more towards median, but… that’s typically how pantsers operate. They start writing, and that’s it. It can go all over the place, without sticking to an outline. It’s a spectrum, really. There isn’t really an outside of the spectrum thing, it’s just varying shades of median before the extremes (mainly because there isn’t actually a fourth option, as the case may be.. because it’s a two sides of the same coin issue.)

    The unconscious sense of plot as you’re writing is a pretty stereotypical trait of someone who can pants/write off the cuff really well.

Linda Maye Adams says May 22, 2014

I’m an extreme pantser and I’m good at both character and story development. Where I’m not good: getting any setting into the story. That may be a pantser trait — hard to tell since so much information comes from people who tell us we need to outline. I try to get some in when I write a scene — usually still too little — and add more after I finish the scene. That’s been a challenge because it sometimes sounds like I just added it, or I tend to add to much.

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