Knowing Your Writing Process: Plotting vs. Pantsing

I came across an advice column recently where someone wanted recommendations on books and resources as they considered whether to have children or not. They wanted to be prepared.

Whew. That’s a big ask.

As a parent, I can tell you, no amount of research prepared me for the real life experience of parenting. Sure, there were books that helped me know when the color I saw in my baby’s diapers was normal or offered tips on new positions that helped with nursing, but the becoming a parent? The sheer weight of the responsibility? How that level of exhaustion feels in your bones? What my baby’s cries specifically meant? No one could have prepared me for them. Or for my youngest’s milk allergy. Or when he developed migraines as a toddler. Or my oldest’s refusal to nap after age two. Or the bonked head or the fire ant incident or the pain of recovery from labor with 17 stitches in my nether regions or a hormone triggered Afib incident landing me in a hospital twelve days after delivery or how to comfort your child after a code red lockdown in middle school or any number of the challenges we’ve faced (and continue to face) in the sixteen years we have been parents.


I did know myself. I became acquainted with my child. And together, we were able to cobble together something that resembled a parenting strategy. I understood what felt comfortable for me, what my child needed, how to give that to him, and how to ask for what I needed from others in return. I’m still learning these lessons, but having a firm understanding of my values as a parent helps me to navigate the never ending challenges that come with raising humans as well as understanding when something that worked before no longer serves that child. Or figuring out that just because sleep technique one worked with kid one doesn’t mean it’s going to work with kid two.

It’s similar with writing.

You can read all the books and try to implement all the grids and misbeliefs and hero journeys you want, but at some point, too many strategies can muddy the work and you’re left not knowing anymore how to tell a story.

These resources are important. I am not recommending that you give away your shelf of craft books (I mean, unless you want to send any I haven’t read my way), but I am suggesting that when you read them that you do so with your individual writer lens on.

Understanding your own personal process is important. Not only to find what works, but to eventually identify the parts of your process that aren’t working.

Let’s start with the dreaded Plotter vs. Pantser debate.

A plotter likes to outline. They sketch out their entire novel before they even start writing. They know where they are going and how they are going to get there. That might look like a chapter-by-chapter outline or even just a beat by beat outline to hit milestone markers in the story. A plotter has a vision and is prepared with line-by-line directions to get there. 

A pantser, on the other hand, starts with a character or a scene or a vague idea of their story and writes to find out what happens. Pantsers enjoy seeing where their characters lead and letting the story evolve on the page. They hop in the car without a map and enjoy the ride.

There is nothing inherently wrong with either approach. There are pros and cons to either process. But it is important to take a step back and see if your approach is still serving you as a writer.

If you are a plotter:

  • Does your outline leave room for creativity?
  • Does your writing feel flat because you’re forcing yourself to write a particular scene because that’s what you’ve plotted to come next?
  • Is your outline a fluid document or do you treat it like the Bible of your story with little room for change?
  • Do you fear the freedom of writing without a direction?
  • Does your writing still surprise you?

If you are a pantser:

  • Do you ever feel lost at points in your manuscript, unsure where to go next or what your character should do?
  • Do you follow every shiny object idea?
  • Does your first draft end as a different story than the one you started?
  • Do you lose track of subplots and characters as you write and struggle to figure out what to do with them in revision?
  • Do you feel an outline would restrict your creativity?

Again, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Understanding the answers to these questions, however, will help you determine what is working for you using your current strategy and where there might be room for improvement.

Next week, I am going to talk about the importance of writing with a road map. I know it can scare a lot of pantsers, but I encourage you to think about your pantsing process and the specific places where maybe it fails you then come to next week’s post with an open mind.

And for plotters, this may seem like old hat, but the strategy I present may also open opportunities for experimentation. I also encourage you to see where your outlining strategy becomes a hindrance and let’s see if next week’s post offers some ideas on how to approach your outline differently.

Remember, every writer and every book is different. Just like every parent and every kid is different.

Get to know your process. When you get stuck look for patterns…is it always at the same part of the story or the same time of day or writing similar kinds of scenes? When imposter syndrome strikes is it because you’re writing a hard/emotional scene or because you just attended a conference and realize your process is very different from the NY Times bestselling author’s keynote process or did a friend just land an agent/a book deal/an award and you’re comparing your journeys? There are so many variables.

Understand your process. Dig into your writing goals. Own your title as a writer and hone your craft with intention.

So, this week, take a look and see where you fall on the pantser vs. plotter spectrum and come back next week and let’s see how we can start our projects with intention to make both processes more efficient.

As a book coach, I read a lot of manuscripts and see many writers making a lot of the same mistakes. In this free guide, I cover 5 Common Manuscript Mistakes.

Get your copy here!

Published by Monica Cox

Monica is a writer and book coach who helps writers get unstuck so they can reach their writing goals.

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