If you read 100 different guides to writing, you’ll get 100 different theories as to the “right” way to write a book.
It can be confusing and frustrating, since all you want out of those guides is advice from a pro about how to change from being somebody with an idea for a book to somebody with a finished book.
Thing is, there’s no wrong way to write a book.
It’s a matter of personality, of your relationship with your muse, of how the story inside you is trying to claw its way out.
None of those guides are wrong, despite saying different things. Each was right—for the writer who wrote it.
They key is figuring out which kind of writer you are, and then following the advice of the writers who are most like you.
So, are you a pantser or a plotter?
Plotters and Pantsers: How to Identify Your Writing Personality
You may have heard these terms before: plotter and pantser. Sometimes called outliner vs. pantser. But I like alliteration, so we’ll stick with “plotter” for today. These are two labels often applied to two widely different methods of writing a book.
A plotter starts writing with the major pieces and parts of the story already known. He plans out the action, plot, character elements, and all the rest ahead of time. When he starts the actual writing, he’s turning that strong outline into elegant prose…but the framework is already solidly in place.
A pantser writer starts at the beginning and lets the characters and situation determine what happens next. She might have some general idea of where the story is going to end, but how she’ll get from A to B is up to what she discovers as she writes.
Both are legitimate ways to write a book. Plotting takes more work up front, and sometimes loses some color from lack of spontaneity. Pantsing can have more powerful characters because they’re given more autonomy, but runs a serious risk of writing thousands of words that don’t make the final draft, or of writing yourself into a corner.
The choice boils down to which you’re more comfortable with as your fingers hit the keyboard.
The Plotting ←→ Pantsing Spectrum
Another important point: nobody is 100% a plotter or 100% a pantser. The most buttoned-down, anal retentive plotter in the business will still abandon a scene or ending if he has a sudden and brilliant inspiration. The most open and flowing pantser writing still begins a tale with some goals about theme and setting, and with a handful of characters in mind.
So. We know that you’re neither a 100% plotter or a 100% pantser. But where do you fall on the spectrum in between?
Plotter or Pantser Quiz
Chances are you already have a general idea of where you fall on this spectrum, but it’s nice to confirm where you stand.
- Do your characters surprise you with what they do?
- When you travel, is your itinerary already figured out?
- Do you have trouble finding in your notes details about the world in your story?
- Are you generally organized in your non-writing life?
- Do you enjoy being lost?
- Do you go through your “to read” pile in order?
- Do you often improvise dinner based on what you find in the fridge?
- Is your library alphabetized?
- Is emotion more important than structure?
- Do you often know the purpose of each chapter before you write it?
- Does your dialogue often make you laugh out loud?
- Do you spend more time outlining a book than writing the first three chapters?
- Are you capable of doing real work on your novel without your notes handy?
- Have you ever created a wiki or other resource file for your novel?
- Do you dislike outlining?
- Is “plan your work, then work your plan” a mantra you sometimes repeat?
- Are you more creative than you are disciplined?
- Do you know your characters’ backstories before you write them?
- Is dealing with continuity errors a major part of your revision process?
- Is engineering your story as important as other elements?
Give yourself one point for each even-numbered question you answered with a “yes.” Subtract one point for each odd-numbered question you answered with a “yes.” Give yourself zero points for anything where you had to think a while, or the answer is truthfully “well….uh…sometimes” or “I’m not sure.”
8 to 10
You are a born plotter. Your plots are laid out before you type the first word of chapter one, even to the point of knowing who says what in which conversation. It’s possible that you color-code your notes. Your plots and pacing are top-notch, though sometimes your dialogue seems flat or your character actions forced. Continuity is flawless. You can grow by learning to recognize when a great inspiration is more important than your finely tuned plot.
4 to 7
You favor plotting, but you are open to spontaneity from time to time. You go to work with a strong outline, but let the points between your bullets take care of themselves. Plot and continuity are still strong, though still clearly more important to you than character autonomy and dialogue. Sometimes your pacing falls flat. You can grow by identifying which parts of the pantsing approach you do best, and building those skills up.
3 to -3
Sometimes you plot. Sometimes you pants. It depends on the needs of the story, the characters, the pacing, or the details of your workday. This can give you the best of both worlds, since you are able to apply equal effort to all aspects of the writing craft. Occasionally, you end up trying to write a scene in one way which you really should have written another. Grow by adding some analysis of whether plotting or pantsing is most appropriate to a specific session of writing, and coming to that session prepared.
-4 to -7
You are a pantser. Mostly. You prefer to let the characters do the thinking, and to let inspiration rule the plot. But that doesn’t mean you’re out there without a net. You have a general idea of the lynchpin moments in your story, and you built your characters to help make those linchpins happen. Continuity is your biggest boogeyman, since you have just enough outline in place to be confident when you probably shouldn’t be as sure. Grow by biting the bullet and adopting tools for tracking the most important elements of your tale.
-8 to -10
You love being surprised by what your characters do and say, and how the plot twists sometimes surprise you. This infuses your writing with more realistic personalities and a level of excitement and discovery. You do lose time and words to literary dead ends, and need two beta readers specifically for continuity. Grow by keeping a writing notebook where you jot down the basics so you can keep track of fundamental pieces of your story and your world.
Remember earlier when I said there was no wrong way to write a book? Actually, there is one.
The only way to write a book wrong is to try to write it using methods that don’t work for you.
That’s a one-way trip to frustration (and ultimately to giving up on your book before it’s finished). Avoid that. Instead, figure out where you fall on the plotting vs. pantsing spectrum, then identify the writers and writing methods that work best for you.
After that, it’s just a matter of following the path other writers have already cut out of the woods for you.
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