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Are you a planner or a ‘pantser’ – and does it really matter?

The easiest step towards refining your writing process is determining what kind of writer you are. But worrying too much about method can distract you from actually telling your story.

The other day, I started jogging. As an unfit man, I wasn’t anticipating stratospheric levels of success, but even I was surprised by how risible my performance was. I managed less than half a mile on the first outing before I needed to stop for air. The second outing was similarly ill-fated.

Looking back, I think the issue was partly to do with planning. There wasn’t any. I bought the first pair of running shoes I found and kept them on until I found an excuse to use them. When the opportunity came, on my rucksack went and off I set.

I did not warm up, I did not stretch. I did not plan my route and I did not read up on technique. I still had a lingering chest cold and was mildly hungover. The enterprise was doomed from the beginning.

I am certain that there are individuals who could decide on the fly to take up jogging and become consummate athletes within a month. Conversely, there are those who couldn’t go on a pub crawl (something I could do in my sleep) without a colour-coded itinerary and CAMRA tasting notes. Identifying the approach that works best for you is instrumental to success in any endeavour.

To plot or not to plot?

This brings us onto the art of writing, or specifically, the art of planning what you write.

Conventional wisdom groups writers into planners and ‘pantsers’, a term that originated in the National Novel Writing Month community. Planners outline their story chapter by chapter, scene by scene, beat by beat. They might use detailed timelines or create family trees. They might work from in-depth character sketches. They might even devise a whole new language for their characters to speak before they pen a single word of actual narrative.

Pantsers “fly by the seat of their pants” while writing, relying on their intuition and judgement to shape the story as it unfolds. Pantsers need only the core of a story to start writing. The foundation of an 80,000-word manuscript could be something as simple as a loose character concept or a “what if?” question.

Procrastinator General George R.R. Martin once volunteered the analogy of architects and gardeners. Discounting the fact that building and gardening are not two means to the same end (perhaps ‘landscape architect’ would be more appropriate), he sums up the difference quite well. Architects work from a blueprint; gardeners plant a seed and watch their plant take shape as it grows.

Most writers are one or the other…

In their creative lifetime, a writer will dabble with both plotting and pantsing. American novelist Joseph Finder usually outlines his novels. But under the advice of fellow thriller-slinger Lee Child, he wrote 2007’s Power Play without an outline. The result was several extra months spent cutting out unnecessary characters and scenes and trimming meandering story threads.

Finder posits that outlines are necessary for thrillers, with their complex, tangled plots. But I disagree. I think that a pantser can no more sit and plan their novel from start to finish than a gardener can contrive the angle and reach of every bough of a tree. Most pantsers would have departed from their outline by the second or third scene, having intuited a more fresh and exciting direction for their story to take.

If you pay a visit to the NaNoWriMo boards, you’ll see occasional enmity between the two camps. Planners might consider pantsers amateurish and unrefined. Pantsers might consider planners, working diligently as they do to a template, to be more like translators than true creators.

None of the above is true. A good pantser is as consummate a craftsperson as a devoted planner, and puts just as much work into their writing. A planner is just as creative as a pantser, and is just as prone to those fabled flashes of inspiration; only these tend to come much earlier in the process.

…but try to avoid black-and-white thinking

I don’t wish to suggest that writers shouldn’t try new things or refuse to grow. Exploring new territory is, after all, our remit.

I do think that most writers have one method to which they are best suited. And I do think that the end goal of any experimentation should be to identify how best you write, to enhance future productivity.

But I also consider planning and pantsing little more than tools. One could equally argue that writers should identify whether they are more comfortable using a PC or a pen. A typewriter or a Macintosh. A desk or an office wall.

You can find the most ergonomic tools, but until you put your story to paper (or Word document, or emulsion paint), you are not a writer. And unless your writing method helps you get to the heart of your story, your novel is just a sequence of events – whether you planned it beforehand or made it up on the fly.

The ubiquity of the ‘planner or pantser?’ question has almost created a false dichotomy. Many writers believe that whether they plan what they write defines what type of writer they are. What type of story they tell. But if a plot is hollow, it doesn’t matter if it is lively and organic, or methodical and meticulous.

The heart of a story is difficult to pinpoint. It lies in its cadences and rhythms, its characters and conflicts. It lies in what the protagonist wants, what they will do to get it, what obstacles keep them from it and how they do or don’t reach it in the end. It lies in the questions the story asks and the answers it does or doesn’t provide. It lies in its themes, big and small, its conclusions and observations, its ruminations and speculations.

1984 is a critique of totalitarianism and the story of two people struggling against a tyrannical regime. But it is also a parable about freedom and the endurance of the human spirit.

Slaughterhouse Five is a nonlinear satire about war, with a sci-fi element that may or may not be PTSD-induced hallucinations experienced by the protagonist. But it is also a discourse on determinism, an examination of the effects of war, and a commentary on life and death.

The Catcher in the Rye recounts the protagonists’ expulsion from boarding school and his subsequent misadventures in New York City. At its heart, though, it explores several themes. The fear of anonymity and the fear of failure. Identity and alienation. Interpersonal connections and the meanings we derive from them. Loss.

Whether or not these great stories were written from strict outlines or plucked from the ether is academic. Grand questions and poignant themes are what drive them.

Writing is work, and finding the right tools – be they a 100-page outline or a blank pad and the kernel of an idea – will make the job much easier. But the tools determine only what happens on the surface: far more fundamental is the meaning beneath. Before you decide whether to plan, determine what it is about your story that makes it worth telling. Then you can decide how best to tell it.