Why Can’t You Be a Plotter and a Pantser both?

In this business we’re all a little odd, some more so than others, and we each have our own peculiar way of doing things, don’t we? A little bit of lunacy is a prerequisite, I think, to even consider embarking on a project as daunting and all-consuming as a novel.

There is a great deal of chatter out there in the ether about this plotting vs pantsing business, and on which side we happen to fall.

For some, a book’s plot is hatched whole in a revelatory flash – driving, or on the toilet, perhaps – and they have only to pull over safely, or make a mad dash with pants around ankles for a notepad, or a computer, or lipstick on a wall to capture it. And they’re off – the thing unfolds largely as they’ve mapped it. For others, it might be a character or two who pop into their minds, say hello, have a little chat (the line between writer and schizo is nebulous), and they seem like interesting folks, worth getting to know, so the conversation is continued on paper, or onscreen, to see where it leads. Both approaches have yielded astonishing works – the trick is to figure out, before you write half-a-draft and are forced to start over, which works the best for you. Perhaps, like me, you’re a little bit of both? 

One of my favorite authors, David Mitchell, whose books are unlike any others, even amongst themselves, talks about david-mitchell-7f170c34ca0736ffd3b0bc1e1323a38d4b17b3da-s6-c30the role structure plays in his creative process in The Paris Review’s, The Art of Fiction no 204. I first discovered this article when I was having a crisis with the structure of my own manuscript. An idea had come to me, after already writing (pantsing) more than a hundred pages and finding myself at an impasse, an idea that was thematically perfect, that would resolve all those niggling doubts about what I had written and where I was going, but… and it was a BIG but… there was a catch: this idea was incompatible with how I had begun. In order to make the book what it should and could be, I’d have to start over. What’s worse, the structure I was envisioning was unlike any I had seen before, so I had nowhere to turn, no trusted book I could open for reference to re-assure myself I could pull it off. It was unsettling and intimidating, to say the least. I waffled for a month, hashing out the new structure to see how it might evolve, when I stumbled onto that article from David Mitchell. It was like he was speaking to me directly. I knew then, if I was going to do this thing, I had to do it right. I had to write the best book I possibly could, a unique book, my book, and never have a doubt that I’d left a stone un-turned, or an avenue unexplored in the process.

“Get the structure wrong and you blow up shortly after takeoff. Get it right and you save yourself an aborted manuscript and months and months of wasted writing. Make your structure original and you may end up with a novel that looks unlike any other.”  – David Mitchell

It turns out, for me at least, David Mitchell was right. That structure, the bones of my book, set me free. In order to pants it, I had to plot it. I firmly believe in keeping the structure malleable, letting the characters take the story where they will, but without a lighthouse cutting through the fog I’d ended up on the rocks, and my ship had sunk, and all the characters with it. I still have a long way to go to finish this thing, but at least I’m still afloat. All crew accounted for.

I hope, if you’re stuck and struggling with how to proceed, or you’re having a tough time getting started, this will inspire something in you, help you see your way through the fog.

I’d love to hear how others’ processes have evolved. What works for you?





  1. Plotter first, pantser second. I started as an improvisor, but that led to two disasters (re: David Mitchell, above). Later, I developed a rigorous outlining method and wrote my current manuscript using that. Well, it held together, but on the way I still pulled all sorts of things out of the air when I felt the story called for something different.

    What I’m finding now is that to get to the heart of my writing, I need to connect to my deepest intuition, and that means dashing around between plot notes (often re-writing plot notes because I got them all wrong), inventing, being willing to tell the story all over again because I just didn’t get it when I sketched it out. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with writing seven drafts, or seventeen, so long as each time you get closer to the story in its purest form, and sometimes you need all those previous drafts to get the right perspective. The result is worth it.


  2. Absolutely with you. I always have a vague outline but if it gets too vague I write thousands of redundant words…. About 70,000 in the case of the two books I’m about to release. You have to know the bones of something to write knowledgeably enough about it to make it stick.




  3. I’m so glad I discovered your blog! Between this post and the word arsenals, you have a new fan. 🙂 I used to have only a vague outline in my head, but then I’d get five chapters in, change everything and get seven chapters in, change everything and get ten chapters in . . . and so on. I now have a more detailed but still flexible outline that makes it much easier to avoid having everything blow up in my face.


  4. ‘the line between writer and schizo is nebulous’ just love that line 🙂 I’ve never been a plotter, though I try so hard to be (it would certainly make the edits easier!). I usually get a character in my head, who won’t leave me alone until they’re free and have taken form on the page. Sometimes that isn’t even enough. One in particular, Lance Legion, decided he deserved his own blog and there wasn’t much I could do but comply!

    But seriously, I usually go with the flow, having a vague idea of where I want to go and letting the ‘other guys’ lead me in the right direction. Then the real work starts, because I have to start at the beginning and try to salvage what I end up with 🙂

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.


  5. I used to have chapter outlines because I’m a Virgo and like to stay organized. It worked for a while… until it didn’t. Now I just free-write. It’s terrifying, but my characters know what they’re doing. I’ve written three books this way and although I knew the basic idea of what needed to happen in each story, I let my characters take the reigns. They knew more about what was happening then I did.

    Thanks for sharing!


  6. It’s definitely a mix of both for me too. I need that rough plan to guide me through the story and keep things on track so they can get where they ultimately need to go, but the characters need room to develop more organically.


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