Friday, July 8, 2011

Plotter, Pantser, or Quilter?

If you're new to the lingo, no, I'm not making a reference to evil pranksters who dabble in arts and crafts. Today I'm talking about writing styles!

Why? Because understanding how you (and others) naturally operate can go a long way toward helping you improve on your writing methods.

Note: I'm not going to claim to be an expert on this, I'm just going to lay out some observations I've made of my writing peers along with my interpretation of the available definitions.


By all definitions I found, a Plotter can't stand not to create an outline for their book before they actually begin writing. They may even go so far as to outline their individual chapter scenes. They see the whole picture ahead of time, and may feel compelled to create goals and checklists to help them track and quantify their progress. As a result, they are more likely to write in chronological order, from start to finish. I tend to associate Plotters with the OCD inclined, although this isn't always the case. If you need to feel precise or 'in control' with your writing, then you may innately lean in the direction of Plotter.

Advantages: When it comes time for the dreaded synopsis to be written, they have a distinct head start in the form of an existing outline. Plotters also tend to catch logistical errors and lags in pacing early on, saving themselves a great deal of trouble later down the writing road.

Disadvantages: Plotters can sometimes plan their story to death. They may get so bogged down in the details, chronology, and backgrounds involved that they take forever to actually start writing the meat of the story. They may also be tempted to cling to a predictable, formulaic approach, which can handicap their creativity.


To the best of my understanding, Pantsers derive their name from the implied 'fly by the seat of their pants' tendencies. Born improvisers, they don't entirely know what's going to happen next in their story, and they like it that way. Some insist that it ruins it for them to know the ending to their own story ahead of time. They also tend to have a knack for downplaying the more tedious elements in story structure, which seems to maximize their enjoyment of simply writing for writing's sake. If you like surprises and don't like to feel constrained, you may be leaning in a Pantersly direction.

Advantages: The general assumption is, if the author doesn't know what's going to happen next, neither will the reader. Their more haphazard approach often grants them a freer flow of creativity, and most don't seem to agonize when it comes to corrections.

Disadvantages: Heavy revision load. Plot holes and character inconsistencies may go unnoticed until the novel is finished, and correcting that late in the process carries the potential of a domino effect on other logistical complications.


Quilters (I've also seen them called Plottsers?) are something of a hybrid between the first two styles--trying to strike some sort of balance between calculated organization and imaginative spontaneity. They usually begin with a solid idea of what they want to write and how it will end, but they remain flexible to a plotline or character developing in an unexpected direction as they go. While they look before they leap, that doesn't mean they've decided how they're going to land. They prefer to write scenes as the mood strikes them, but not in any particular order. For a Quilter, a novel ends up being much like stitching together a series of interconnected short stories. They don't mind throwing characters and situations together just to see what happens, but because of the scene-jumping, they also like to create orderly references to keep their train of thought from derailing.

Advantages: The best (and worst) traits of the two previously mentioned styles, depending on the person.

Disadvantages: They may lack a sense of accomplishment until they've been able to piece together significant sections of their story.

I've personally found myself to be a Quilter, though I'm certainly not advocating one style over another. (I'd like to thank the warring effects of OCD and ADD for nurturing my particular 'technique.' >.>) I'm convinced that one's writing style is whatever comes most naturally to you, and forms as a result of your personality and ingrained habits. So, go with what works! There are plenty of exercises out there that encourage you to stretch yourself and/or determine the approach that's most effective for you.

Pantsers, don't squelch your creativity just because those nifty craft books recommend strategic outlining and formulas. And Plotters, don't think you need to take a Xanex and throw your punctilious caution to the wind just to get your muse to return your calls.

So, tell me about YOUR style. :)



  1. Great post, RedPeril! :D

    Like you, I'm a bit of a mix, quilter, plotster, whatever. I need to know what the story is about, mainly my characters needs and desires, and then the setting comes. Since I write historicals, setting plays an important part of my process. Setting can and will lead my characters goals and conflicts, and act as an extension of their personal goals.

    I've tried different types of process, storyboarding works well for me, outlining doesn't. Journaling bits and pieces and then adding them in also helps. I am a linear writer too. Writing a synopsis beforehand is very helpful but I have to be careful not to allow myself to think the book is written once that is done, because I have a tendancy to think that way.

    As writers, we're charged with making magic happen! ;)

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by, Kathy! :)
    I'm glad you mentioned the storyboarding. I think it's something that greatly aids visual learners, in particular. I much prefer them it outlining, and as it turns out, it's something I'd been doing long before I knew what to call it. I never feel like I really KNOW my characters until I've sketched them and made up at least a page worth on their physical stats, personality, and background. (Of course, that could also be attributed to certain geekier habits of my youth. >.> I still like to break out a good dice roll when I can't decide on something trivial in a plot line. ;))

  3. I'm a Patchwork Pantster! I have scenes in my head, things I know are going to happen but I don't know exactly how they came about. I get character resumes, but not full portfolios until I'm writing and I don't know how it ends, or if I do, I don't know why it ends that way. I like to write in order when I can, but when I can't, I don't sweat it.

    I edit as I write, so I actually don't end up with major rewrites at the end. It came this way naturally, so I know it's the truest interpretation of the way I'm wired. :)


  4. X,
    I like your choice of terminology! You sound like you've got yourself pretty well figured out. :) All of the laid-back perks of a Pantser with a bit of pre-formed basis to anchor you.

    I should make some sort of a rating scale for people:

    Pantser Quilter Plotter
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

    I like to edit as I go as well. It's slow going, but the results feel more immediately satisfying.

  5. I don't think edits slow me down, fortunately. Rereading and doing the edits helps me to pick back up the threads of the story, so I'm never left lost as to what to write next.

    Now, on the patchwork side of things, it can be interesting. Most works go from beginning to end, but ever so often you get things like my current WIP. I started it in what I felt was a solid beginning. Then I got to chapter seven only to realize I'd actually started at more of a chapter three. So I went back to the beginning and wrote a new chapter one, that then revealed itself to be chapter three or four. Finally, I have another chapter one that makes a great introduction, but honestly, it's likely chapter two. But chapter One-ish works enough that I can blend everything forward to the point where I stopped and go forward until I hit the detail that lets me know what the REAL Chapter One has to cover.

    It's been a while since it's been this crazy, but I'm enjoying the story a great deal, so I don't mind. :)


  6. Great post. I especially liked the style of the quilter. :-) I think that may be more what Jean and I do since I am true plotter and she is an oh-my-god-what-will-happen-next pantster.

    Thanks for sharing blog with us. I have added you to my list of blogs to check out often. Good thoughts!

  7. Well thank you, Stephanie! I'm flattered. :) Don't worry about me taking up much of your time--I only seem to get to these things once a month on average. So much for building a platform! >.<

    I actually thought about you and Jean while I was writing this. You two have a true partnership going on there, me thinks. May your polarized cooperative ever complement each other's strengths and smooth over each other's weaknesses! :D

  8. I had to google punctilious and Xanex :P But I thought you made a good point and I didn't realize there were different styles. I like to think about the ideas of the story for a while and I'll wright bits that come to mind where ever I am I've got a pile of notes I made while I was at work, and I also like to draw and map out who the characters are though it's more just for fun kinda part of fantasizing being in the story and then I usually like to start at the beginning of the story. I usually write in a notebook and I usually re read a lot of what I wrote previously and then cross things out and rewite sections if I think of something better. But mostly it's just to reread the previous scene to try to get back into the mood of the story before writing again. However I am not strict on most of this and I am usually pretty random :P