“Plotter” or “Pantser”: Finding A Writing Process That Works For You (With 4 Useful Exercises)

If you’re new to writing, you may have seen people posting that they are a “plotter” or a “pantser” when it comes to writing their WIPs. A plotter is someone who creates a plan for their WIP, although the extent to which they do this will vary from person to person. A pantser (coming from the phrase “flying by the seat of their pants”) is someone who doesn’t plan at all. The term “plantser” also exists – a hybrid of the two terms to describe someone who does a little bit of both.

I don’t really like these terms because I don’t find them very descriptive of the actual process of writing. Moreover, I think these ideas can be a little intimidating to a beginner writer – they may panic that if their favourite writer is a plotter that they should be too, or vice versa.

I think what is useful is having a few different processes to fall back on. Variety is the spice of life but it’s also the spice of writing. As a professional fiction ghostwriter, I have to plan, plot and outline my stories for clients to give them a sense of the scope of the text and the amount of work necessary. Doing so has taught me a lot about my writing process, and the processes of other writers. It’s not as simple as “plot thoroughly” or “make it up”, there’s a degree of both, and lots of different methods within those. My article about writer’s block gives some exercises which can be used for free-writing (writing which isn’t planned). These exercises are intended to give you a variety of ways to approach the task of writing without a strict plot plan.

This article will talk about how to experiment with your writing process in order to work out a way that will suit you in the future.

Routine

Some writers like a routine, some don’t. I personally don’t think that you can plan the creative process into a routine, but I do believe that getting into the habit of setting time aside for both thinking and writing is really important, even if you don’t get the tasks done in the time that you would like to.

Exercise One – Time Away

Time without distraction is vital to writing whether you plot or not. You could have a screen ban for an hour, have a long bath or even meditate if you find that useful. The key is to turn off you brain from thinking about anything other than your work in progress. This can be totally abstract – perhaps you want to imagine your characters interacting, or perhaps you want to work out a pivotal plot point.

Try this – turn off your laptop, phone and shut yourself in a room where you won’t be disturbed. Sit somewhere comfortable and stare at a wall (as blank as possible). Choose a scene that you’ve already written and write it again but in your mind. The word choices you will use are likely to be different, you might add in a detail that you hadn’t thought of before, and the scene is likely to be more vivid in your mind’s eye. You may even have an idea for a new scene.

Now, go back to the scene on your laptop/notebook and read it through (resist editing it the first time around to see the difference between your daydream and the text!). Once you’ve read it through from start to finish, then go back and make changes based on your imaginings. If you had a new idea, note it down in a notebook or write it now.

The point of this exercise is to get you away from thoughts of word count and staring at your screen.

Try this again with a new scene, one you haven’t written yet. Use your time away to write it in your mind and then put it to paper.

Exercise Two – Speed Writing

Plan a block of time in your routine for speed writing. Don’t plan, just set a timer for 5 minutes or 10 minutes and open a blank document. Write whatever comes to mind – literally anything, it doesn’t have to be your work in progress.

The first day that you do this it’s likely to be a mess of stream of consciousness and half-baked ideas, but as you fit this into your routine over time, you’ll start to find ideas flow and the words come more easily.

Learning to Plan

Once you have a way to use your routine effectively, you need to experiment with lots of different types of plans. Here are two that I think are useful to get you started.

Exercise One – Timelining

Timelining is different from a chapter plan. Rather than plotting what you want to happen in each chapter, plot what happens at each time chronologically. How you decide to tell the story (flashbacks, starting in the middle etc.) is up to you, but starting with a chronological timeline can be really useful.

Take a piece of paper. On the left hand side, write the main plot threads (see below for the example). At the top, write the months, years or other measures of time (school terms, dynasties, eras, etc.)

You now have a table to work out the events of your narrative. Remember, not all of these events need to be told explicitly in your story – in fact, it’s good to timeline everything, especially those things which happen “off page” so that you know what has happened and when.

This is a very simplified version of a plot timelined in this way:

If nothing happens in a particular plot line in that month, leave it blank.

This is just an example, you can tailor a timeline to reflect your own work and how you would like it to be set out.

Exercise Two – Chapter Plans

Chapter plans are different to the timeline in that you can change the order of the events and omit anything that needs to be left as read between the lines. For example, here is a chapter plan for the simplified timeline above:

Chapter One – July 2019 – Argument between A and B in which A leaves. Allude to their relationship issues but leave out the details.

Chapter Two – April 2019 – A and B are happy. They attend D and E’s wedding, dancing with G and other family members and having a good time. B gets drunk and proposes to A. A isn’t happy about being proposed to at their family members’ wedding and says no.

Chapter Three – April 2019 – B is promoted, giving them a position involving working closer with C. They hit it off and start working together closely.

Chapter Four – May 2019 – D and E tell A they are moving to a different country. A is furious, feeling that their family is leaving them behind. B has to fire F and feels terrible about it. B comes home to tell A how upset they are, but A is too consumed by D and E’s news. B rings C and C consoles them instead.

Chapter Five – June 2019 – B finds it difficult to be in charge of their employees, leading to working even closer with C. D and E move away and A becomes so lonely with B working long hours and no family around that they decide to sleep at a friend’s.

Chapter Six – June 2019 – B comes home to find A gone. Fearing the worst, they invite C round and they sleep together. B immediately regrets it.

Chapter Seven – July 2019 – A gets a phone call from D and E to say that G has died and had been ill for a while, choosing not to tell A so as not to upset them.

Chapter Eight July 2019 – A goes home to tell B that G has died and finds B and C in bed together. C leaves and A and B fight (same fight as chapter one). B admits they have feelings for C.

This is a very condensed plot, but you get the drift. The differences between the timeline and the chapter plan are subtle, but you’ll notice the chronology has changed – the text opens in July before going to a chronological chapter structure. Some details are “off page” like the actual marriage of D and E, their move etc. and G’s illness.

These two exercises combined might be useful for you, especially if you’ve never plotted a text before. Try to think about your main narrative threads as stories of their own and then think about how they interweave. Will some narratives combine in some chapters, or are they separate? How will they function chronologically?

Conclusion

However you enjoy writing, try out a few of these exercises and see how they fit you. You may find them useful, or you may find that they confirm that a different style of planning (or not planning!) is right for you.

Looking for more content? Read my series of writing articles for beginners and experienced writers alike. Click on each photo to read the article.

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