There is an age old debate about if you’re a plotter or a pantser as a writer. Basically, plotters are those who find it very difficult to write fiction unless they’ve developed richly detailed outlines that break down every single action in every single scene, and the reactions and the transitions to the next scene, etc. They map everything out.
Pantsers, on the other hand, are so named because they ‘fly by the seat of their pants,’ so to speak. This means they don’t outline as they find that process to be too restrictive, or they have a few bullet points or write a few paragraphs but that’s it. Instead, they sit down with maybe a general idea of what they want to write about in a given project (and sometimes not even that) and they wait to see what comes to them, relying on unpredictability and the flexibility for changes to keep popping up.
There are countless debates about which method is “better”–that is to say, which method yields more writing output or enables more creative flow to facilitate the writer’s process so that they’re able to maintain a momentum once they’ve started their project.
I’ve recently come across the idea that outlining is too restrictive and can be a major reason for impeding a writer’s ability to keep up a momentum within what they’re working on. It’s too stilted and forced for some writers. Others go as far as wondering how plotters ever get anything done. Plotters wonder the same about pantsers.
This blog post isn’t going to try to tackle that debate–that’s been done in many places before and on a much bigger (and more comprehensive) scale. But what I am driving at is wondering if one of the reasons writers get stuck on a manuscript (or indeed, stalled altogether) might have a relationship with the fact that they are too rigid in their role as plotters and perhaps they may need to experiment with pantsing, no matter how uncomfortable that may seem at first.
Some writers must know the ending of their book before they even begin to write it. They work backwards, or they shuffle up and randomize the order of chapters they start (so instead of following the conventional and linear pattern of writing Chapter 1, 2, and 3 when they start a book, they might start with Chapter 10, make a detour to Chapter 18, go to Chapter 6, then tackle Chapter 2 and leave Chapter 1 last).
Different things work for different writers. No two processes are exactly alike. However, there is a tendency to associate plotters with “paint by numbers” kind of plotting, while some writers are quick to point out that while they are plotters, they don’t chart out every little single detail of their manuscript in excruciating detail necessarily.
Some people refuse to even “start the car” (or begin a book, to extend the metaphor) without having a map to guide them or without making sure they’ve got a GPS system installed because without those things, they know they would be completely lost within seconds and have no idea where they were headed.
Another school of thought argues that writing is like driving at night–you can only see what’s directly in front of you and the darkness and shadows of the night cover up the rest, so you must rely only on what you can immediately see (perhaps plotting one chapter at a time) else you’ll risk swerving out of control if you try to arrive at your destination too fast.
In my experience, pantsing to me feels like “winging in,” as in the writer just randomly deciding “Okay, cool, I’m going to go into this project and just go with the flow of whatever comes up.” I’ll admit I haven’t tried this method hard enough, or perhaps it could be that I’ve misunderstood how to go about pantsing (in which case, someone please tell me what the dynamics of pantsing are!) But what I do know from winging it in other areas of life like at work or school presentations is that it’s a 50/50 thing: either it can go really, super well or it can blow up in your face and show the obviousness of the fact that you’ve done zero preparation and that you have no idea what the heck you’re talking about.
Still, there is also the prevailing argument that outlining in too much detail can be too stifling and can lead to writer’s block because in essence, the writer is trying to exercise too much control, and forcing things to go unnaturally where she or he wants things to go, so…ironically, there is such a thing as plotting things out too well, which leads to bouts of hair-pulling and existential crises.
So, what’s the best solution? Is it a combination of both approaches? Is the answer to use neither of these approaches but something completely different? Is one method superior to the other? I’m very curious to know what writers think of this! Sound off below!
“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
It’s no secret that writers oftentimes focus on laundry, washing the bathtub, doing their taxes, and pretty much anything else that can get them out of writing. This has been the subject of several blog posts related to why writers procrastinate. I’m interested in exploring why writers de-prioritize their work and put it at the bottom of their to-do lists in a given day. What makes writers say yes to everything else but not their writing?
Before I launch into my suggestions/theories, I’d like to point out that this list does not account for things like chronic illnesses, recent traumatic events in a person’s life, dealing with the loss of a job or a divorce, and things of that nature.
- We’ve been told that writing is a selfish activity: Chuck Wendig has spoken about the fact that writing is often seen as an egotistical indulgence, a needless luxury that gets a lot of flack from non-writers because while there are firefighters and doctors out there in the world who are saving lives, what writers do is seen as the equivalent of kindergartners frolicking during playtime.
- One of the ways to get over this, as Wendig suggests, is to be aware of these types of criticisms but to blow past them and to make art anyway. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s something writers must learn how to move past in order to move forward.
- We fear that our writing is no good at all and never will be, so why bother with it at all: This is equal parts insecurity and Imposter Syndrome, but also stems from a misguided idea that writers have–the expectation that our first drafts should spring fully formed as of the first draft, like Athena from Zeus’s head. In reality, it doesn’t really work like this.
- In addition, writers fear that their work will get torn apart by critique groups and beta readers so their creativity shrinks away and they’re left feeling deflated.
- I’m not sure what a way around this is except to say that it’s the nature of the beast. Unless critique partners/beta readers/editors tear apart what you’ve produced, you’re not going to learn to spot patterns in your work of consistent issues that keep coming up again, and you’re not going to be able to improve.
- It’s downright painful to implement revisions. Some writers recoil from it like cats from water, but despite the fact that it’s difficult and grueling to get through, it’s important to realize that there are ways of breaking it up into smaller pieces so it doesn’t come across as completely overwhelming and undoable.
- The Personality Factor: some writers are predisposed, as part of their personality type, to naturally put the needs and wants of others before their own. For people who are codependent or who have other personality disorders, their tendency to focus on the needs of others and to put their own at the bottom of the totem pole comes from a desire to take their focus away from the pain and self-hate that is waiting for them if they give way to their own thoughts and consider their own needs. It’s easier to focus on others, so they delay writing for a long time (sometimes permanently), and part of this is tied to the “selfish/indulgent” argument from the first bullet point.
- In this case, it is incumbent upon the writer to understand that they have this problem and to seek help for it, either through self-initiated channels or through therapy or group settings. This one is something that a person’s parents and/or teachers have usually programmed into their brains, so they need to take years to un-learn this way of thinking.
The root of all of these things is fear. That and insecurity. Worrying about what others will think of us. Worrying that we’re inadequate. Worrying that we’re never going to reach the same levels of the writers who came before us that we idolize.
However, it’s important to recognize these things, understand which is the culprit for why we keep putting writing off, and to find a way to work around them.
What about you, fellow scribes? What are some of the reasons why you put writing last on your to-do list? Sound off below!
I had a nagging doubt that though I’ve been on a productivity kick for a while, at some point, the words would stop flowing because of my re-entry into school. And that’s exactly what happened. I finished a huge chunk of my current project, but writing has taken a backseat to school.
This isn’t surprising. Any time someone goes through a major upheaval like moving houses, getting married, starting school, etc, writing takes a while to adjust.
Unfortunately, that’s a surface interpretation for why my writing brain has shut down. The deeper reason is that I relied too much on a morning routine that was not sustainable.
The problem with productivity suggestions like the ones outlined in the course I’ve talked about in my past 2 posts is that they reinforce the idea that writers have to meet specific conditions or they won’t be able to write, period.
I’m not going to deny that I got great word count mileage out of following advice such as writing first thing in the morning, listening to binaural beats, wearing the same outfit, and similar guidelines.
The problem is that these productivity suggestions train writers to be able to write only under a specific set of circumstances. Writers can apply these routines later in the day, but when my day has already gotten going, I don’t stop to write. It doesn’t happen that way for me, plain and simple.
One of the best bits of writing advice I read many years ago was something to the effect of: “If you have to wait until you have your favourite scented candle, this brand of coffee, this specific pen, this specific computer, this specific music, etc., before you write, your won’t get your writing done and you’ll use these things as excuses.”
One of the most crucial abilities for writers is to be able to write during less-than-ideal circumstances. Some people write when they’re at the doctor’s office, over their lunch break, while at a sport or activity for their child, waiting for laundry to finish up, and so on. Going forward, my goal is going to be to write in these stolen snippets of time.
Although I thought I had found a new way to write that was working for me, I have to start from scratch again. Some writers work best with rigid rules and schedules, but I have learned that although I’m like that in other areas, I’m not like that when it comes to writing.
The advice about getting up at 5 or 6am to write isn’t new. John Grisham is one example of someone who used to do it when he was still a practicing lawyer. That doesn’t work for me, and that’s okay. There are other ways. I’m skeptical of all the writing websites that repeat the idea that it’s been “scientifically proven” that writing first thing in the morning is the best time. I tried it, I did it, and for me, it just wasn’t sustainable. That’s okay.
I want to focus on the school of thought in the writing community that tells writers to challenge the assumption that we need hours and hours to write anything worthwhile. I’ve had periods of my life when time was not an issue and writing still didn’t get done.
When we know our time to write is limited, we get more done. The course I took uses a great example of this involving an old laptop the instructor used–she knew it only had an hour or so of battery life before the battery would die, so she would write on this device. The result? She still got plenty of writing done.
Other writers use snippets of time here and there, and I know people for whom this works very well. I am not one them, and that’s okay. A few years ago, I read a blog post talking about how one writer admitted she doesn’t write fiction every day—and that’s perfectly valid. Another author, Daniel Jose Older, wrote an impassioned plea to writers to stop beating themselves up about not writing fiction every single day. He makes a valid point.
Many writers chastise others, saying that if we don’t all write fiction every single day of our lives, that we “don’t count” or that we won’t have careers. I get where this advice comes from. And I agree that a regular writing habit is essential for any writer–but it looks different for everyone.
Lucy A. Snyder, one of my favourite horror authors, and a writer with a day job like most of us, tends to write in binges over her weekends, something she talks about in her indispensable writing how-to guide, Shooting Yourself in the Head for Fun and Profit. I’m more of a binge writer myself, so I’m going to give her method a whirl even though I also have a lot going on during the weekends.
What about you? Does anyone out there have any thoughts when it comes to productivity, whether it’s a system that works for them, or other helpful tips and hints? Sound off below!