Plotter or Pantster? Two Roads to a Final Product — Guest Post

It is my great privilege to host Skylar Hamilton Burris today. I featured her last week in my post: Life’s Shiny Facets and Dark Pain. Along with the books mentioned in her post, Ms. Burris is also the author of Conviction.

When it comes to the writing process, there are two primary types of writers: the plotter and the pantster. The plotter meticulously plans her novel from the beginning, outlining the skeleton of the story and then weaving the flesh around it as she writes. The pantster, as the odd name implies, tends to fly by the seat of her pants. She simply begins writing without an outline and sees where the story will take her.

I’m a pantster, and I have been ever since I began to write. Even in high school, when we were assigned to turn in outlines for papers as part of our instruction in the “writing process,” I would first write an entire draft of my paper without an outline. Then I would write the outline by referring to my paper, so that I could get credit from the teacher for that first “necessary” step. When it came time to officially write the paper, I simply revised it.

Being a pantster may sound like a less painstaking approach than plotting, but in fact it tends to require a lot more revision. When you follow the story wherever it takes you, sometimes it takes a windy and disjointed path. At the end of that path, the writer has to go back and cut out dead ends, eliminate inconsistencies, and add a few bridges. When major changes happen halfway through your writing, that means major revisions at the end of the first draft. Whereas a plotter may simply be touching up his final product in the revision process, a pantster is often rewriting.

When The Heart is Laid BareWhen you’re flying by the seat of your pants in writing, sometimes minor characters become major characters. That happened in the course of my latest novel, When the Heart Is Laid Bare, a contemporary tale of friendship, grief, and love. I originally intended a small supporting role for Father Jacoby Reynolds, a quirky Anglican priest who witnesses the death of the wife of the main character. Instead, Jacoby developed a story of his own and became a sort of co-lead. In the revision process, this required me to go back and give him a greater presence earlier.

Sometimes a pantster realizes halfway through that the novel would sound better from a different point of view. That happened while I was writing An Unlikely Missionary, which was originally told in third person omniscient instead of from the point of view of Charlotte Collins. After completing my first full draft of An Unlikely Missionary, I completely rewrote the book in first person. This required me to remove a number of subplots that did not involve the point-of-view character. The painful surgery, however, did give me new material. I was able to take the shredded scenes and reform them into The Strange Marriage of Anne de Bourgh, a collection that includes a novella and two short stories born of once discarded material.

The plotter puts more time in at the start of the novel, while the pantster puts more time into the revisions process. I can frequently pound out an entire first draft in two months, but the rewriting often takes me another ten months or more. Writers will argue about which method is the best, but I think neither is inherently superior. They are just different paths to the same end – a novel that moves and entertains.

Skylar Hamilton Burris