1st Time NaNoWriMo Observations: Pansters vs. Planners

So like a good little NaNoWriPar (National Novel Writing Month Participant) I’ve been following my local activity threads on the NaNoWriMo website. The first thing I notice is that there are few first-time participants like myself and these seem to me much younger than me. Oh well. C’est la vie. I didn’t get into this to hang out with any particular crowd. Our Municipal Liason (ML) is the owner of a local book store in her tenth year of doing NaNoWriMo. In an event where it seems that one is considered a winner simply by finishing, this seems to be big deal. And believe me, finishing, is no easy feat. We are talking 50,000 words in 30 days (November 1 – 30). Around 300,000 writers will participate and about 10% will actually finish. Pray for me people. Pray really, really hard!

An interesting dichotomy has garnered more of my attention as of late that is basic to writing and yet nonetheless fascinating. It is the division of the “pansters” and the “planners” otherwise known as “plotters” (suddenly I’m hearing the battle of the pugs and the poms from the musical Cats in my head). It’s not a new concept and much has been written on the subject. Basically, some writers write by the seat of their pants, throwing everything out there and seeing what ends up sticking during the rewrites, yes plural, meaning several. Obviously if you throw so much spaghetti at the ceiling, you’re going to have to clean it up. Others, opt for a more organized approach, these are the planners. Planners write outlines, make meticulous character development charts, create complicated story trees, map plot points, and basically leave as little to chance as possible. There are pros and cons to both approaches making neither one necessarily right or wrong except in the eye of the person doing the actual writing.

Pansters experience the divine art of creation through sheer imagination. A panster doesn’t think about where the story is going, how many scenes it’s going to take to develop each chapter, whether or not he is hitting plot points at the right time or if the character that just appeared out of nowhere is actually necessary to the story or what kind of ice cream she likes. Pantsters just write. In fact, the less thinking there is, the better. This allows for a purer channel for the story to come through and pantsters live on a kind of faith that their characters will come through and introduce themselves in all their idiosyncratic glory when the time is right. Of course this means tons of work on the tail end in the form of re-writes, but allows for a free and flexible flow of creativity. Sometimes pantsters don’t even know how a book is going to end until they are quite a ways into it. Hence the pantster runs a high risk of getting hopelessly lost in the big, scary forest of a story of her very own making <shiver>.

Planners/Plotters on the other hand, plan as much as possible on the front end of a project. They are the ones busy making outlines, developing story trees, mind-mapping and using any number of other ingenious organizational tools to map out a book long before any actual writing begins. By the time a good planner is finished with her planning, why, the book has nearly written itself. Unfortunately, writing this way doesn’t leave a lot of room for creative flexibility and when new material shows up that doesn’t fit into the paradigm of the world already built, it often must be scrapped or tabled for use somewhere else rather than be explored. However, Planners usually have little to do once the first draft is written as they’ve already planned out the entire thing and know how everything is going to turn out.

Who are these pantsters and plotters? Well, I’m about to drop some heavy duty, maybe even surprising names on you here:


Stephen King –

Preeminent “King” of horror, notorious pantster

Ray Bradbury –

Science fiction writer extraordinaire, pantster

Kim Olgren –

NaNoWriMo participant, multi-genre writer and blogger, pantster (okay, maybe not that big of a name…yet)


Charles Dickens –

Master Storyteller, planner

Edgar Allen Poe –

Yes, really, despite spending most of his time in one intoxicated state or another, planner

J.K. Rowling –

as with many fantasy writers, planner

Most writers fall somewhere in between the two. pantsters might use some plot points or a loose outline and many planners are not nearly as structured and rigid as the tools of the trade may indicate. However, I’m learning that many pantsters and planners are quite passionate about their particular approach to writing.

If you are a writer, which method do you prefer? Are you a pantster, riding the wave of the story and seeing it through to the end? Or are you a planner/plotter, putting things together with an end already in mind? Why does your particular method work so well for you?


5 thoughts on “1st Time NaNoWriMo Observations: Pansters vs. Planners

  1. I’m a pantser! I’ve tried plotting before, but it is so frustrating for me to sit and plot when I could instead be writing the actual story. It feels restricting and I do like to enjoy my freedom while writing. Mostly I go in headfirst with just a simple plot and the main characters, and everything comes after that. The ending I usually only figure out when I’m two chapters or even a chapter away, haha.

  2. The first book I completed was planned pretty thoroughly. The second was a sequel, and was um… pantsed? I wrote one of the crucial final scenes first, then wrote other scenes in semi-random order until the book was finished. It required a rewrite that mostly consisted of adding more material so the reader didn’t have to guess so much (I added 20k in the rewrite but deleted virtually nothing, although I did have to make some changes to the scene I wrote first).

    I think my best work comes with some planning… I need to let things percolate, but when they do finally come out on the page/screen, they’re pretty clean. The planning helps me get things started in my mind.

  3. I guess I would fall mostly into the panster category, I kind of feel like I have to just close my eyes and feel what the character would be feeling and go from there – having characters respond in an emotional way to the actions of others. That said, I am only 1/2 done my first attempt at a novel…

  4. I fall somewhere in between as I usually write notes in concern to what my story is about, get to know my characters, situations, and settings. From there I just let the story go as it plays out in my head. Sometimes the ending is just as I initially predicted and sometimes not. It always depends on the story.

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