Planners and Pantsers: Which are you and Why?

Scott Leonardi

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If you haven’t heard the word ‘planning’ before, and English isn’t a second language you’re struggling to learn, you’re going to need more than one sort of help than is ever going to be found in this single article.

If you’ve never heard of ‘pantsing’, on the other hand, I wouldn’t blame you.

I’ve only just heard the term for the first time last year. Upon doing so, however, I was really able to get a much stronger grasp on how I write and what my strengths and weaknesses are.

Oh, so flying by the seat of my pants is normal then? Phew!

Understanding these two types of writing and which you relate to more can truly help you in ways that you may not have even thought of otherwise.

The term Planner should be fairly self-explanatory. You plan. Simple as that. You’d most likely rather take the time to outline your words and formulate a strategy of attack before you just go storming the blue-lined gates of a notebook page or traverse the uncharted territory of a glaringly blank Word Doc.

Planners are like literary engineers. They’re labs are clean and organized. Their experiments checked and double checked. They know every formula and measurement, every percentage and action. Nothing is left to chance as to ensure quality. They see and understand their story first. They’re sentence snipers. Only after they see a clear shot do they squeeze the trigger. I’m sure if they were painters their work would radiate photorealism, their brushes not touching the canvas until they were absolutely sure of their subject’s dimensions.

Pantsers, however, are quite firmly planted on the abstract side of that acrylic spectrum. They paint(write) more through feeling and allowing their creation to guide them where it wants to go rather than the other way around. They let the path form as they walk it, barely taking the time to look where they’re going. A direction is chosen, and they hack and slash their way through the overgrown forest of their subconscious, finding long-hidden trails or carving out their own on the way. Half of the fun for them is the mystery of not knowing where they’re heading. They’re not engineers but mad scientists, conducting half-baked lunacy that takes them to places only dreamt of by secret cubicle snoozers.

These two types of styles have their pros and cons. Don’t think you have to identify as one or the other, either. Plenty of people consider themselves “plantsers.” Which, I suppose, is a fitting name because, although you build a garden and plant your seeds, you still have to let the nature of the plants themselves take their shapes organically.

We’re just full of useful metaphors today, aren’t we?

The best part, of course, is not knowing I was going to make those metaphors until they got sweaty sitting around and decided to go for a dip in the cooling stream of consciousness. Oh, to such heights these denim wings carry me!

If that didn’t make it obvious enough I’ll just say, I am a proud Panster. Like I said before, I’ve only recently even learned what the term was this past year or so. But, until that moment, I would always find myself beating myself up over not being able to follow through with plans and outlines.

I thought I was a bad writer because of this.

I thought that real writers have notebooks and files full of practice pages and character outlines and plot structures. They made legible lists of ideas and they went through each one diligently to make sure every lightbulb moment was unscrewed, saved, and labeled so they could best be used in radiant harmony with the others at some later date.

I had none of this and I felt like a fraud because of it.

I didn’t realize how much of an impact this kind of thinking had on my mind and my creative work.

When you’re convinced that “authentic” artists do things in a certain way, and you find yourself not being able to do it in that way, you tend to start thinking that you are, in fact, not authentic. There’s a deep sense of imposter syndrome that latches on and doesn’t give you the satisfaction of ever learning how to do something in a way that doesn’t come naturally to you.

Before learning the word Pantsing I did already have a decent writing habit. Unsurprisingly, it was only because I had come to realize that the only way I ever got anything done was if I just started and didn’t think. Otherwise, I wouldn’t write for weeks. After learning that flying (writing) by the seat of your pants was a perfectly normal way that many writers write, I felt such a weight lift from my neurotically paralyzed mind.

I realized it wasn’t that I was struggling to write, it’s that I was struggling to write in a way that didn’t come naturally to me and, as a result, felt burdened by guilt that I wasn’t doing things the “right” way.

This would cause me to hesitate, to fret and second guess myself. Always thinking that every line needed to be the right one. Everything feeling false and forced. Never taking the leash off and giving myself the freedom to just run.

After understanding that writing freely in a continual string of thought — unbound by the worries of presets and roadmaps — was how I best expressed myself and what I naturally gravitated towards, the time I spent writing nearly tripled and my output of work has only gotten better.

I’ve been able to grow and evolve as a writer and creator at an exponentially faster rate than I would have had I continued trying to follow maps that I couldn’t draw.

Don’t get me wrong, those who plan reach distant land.

They have one huge advantage over us lost sailors, they know where they are.

Their map is accurate and they know the quickest way to find their X-scratched treasure trove. Their ships are large and impressive. Their plans complex and their minds focused and fine-tuned. It’s a bit intimidating, to be honest. Any time I see someone writing a book or screenplay and they have pages and pages of notes and rewrites and outlines, I still can’t help but think, Oh, I’m doing this wrong. I’m doing this all very wrong.

But, I’m not. Neither are you.

I’m not sure what your situation may be when it comes to your writing habits and your creative process, but I can tell you from experience that, although the idea of labeling yourself as one thing or another seems arbitrary and dismissible, it really unclogged the pipes and let the words flow much more freely for me.

Which way would you say you write best?

Do you prefer to have a solid plan before you set out on your journey? Or would you rather let the word wind blow you where it wants?

In trying to understand the different kinds of mindsets a person must have to be either a Planner or Pantser, I’m stuck wondering where the real focus lies in the mind of each type.

In an article by Greg Hickey called, Planning Versus Pantsing: Why Writers Should Learn to do Both, he explains the nuances of both types and how they each relate to writing both story and characters.

More conceptual writers — planners — focus more on plot structure and writing characters who fit into their laid out plans, while intuitive writers— pantsers — create deep emotion-driven characters first, letting the developed characters carry the plot themselves, guided by how they would naturally act and not conforming to a destiny already determined by the writer.

Both have their advantages and disadvantages, according to Hickey. Planners are skilled at constructing sound story arcs and plot structures while their characters can lack the depth and connection that would be easier for most Pantsers. Meanwhile, the Pantsers have more difficulty creating storylines that tie together neatly or plots that eventually develop into something more than interesting dialog.

Hickey uses two quotes by screenwriter and writing teacher Corey Mandell that I think accurately describe the two mindsets. Planners(conceptual) think, “I need to figure out my story so that I can write it,” while Pantsers(intuitive) think, “I need to write out my story so I can find it and I can figure it out.”

I understand that these descriptions sound like their orbiting the world of novel-writing, but I’m sure that the same applies to any kind of written word, whether you’re a tinkering technical writer, or live on Planet Journalism, or are just striving to be a jet-setting blue jean blogger like so many of us out here.

Once you can learn to sync up your style with what feels most natural to you, everything else starts to fall into place.

Hickey ends his article by explaining why it’s a good practice to learn both types of writing to be a more well-rounded writer.

“Think of learning to dribble a basketball. Almost everyone starts by using their dominant hand. But if you never practice dribbling with your non-dominant hand, you won’t get very far as a basketball player. The same principle applies to writing.”

Maybe I’m so used to using metaphors that it’s the only way I understand anything anymore, but either way, makes sense to me.

In honor of that cross-dribbling practice, I actually read about both styles and decided to do a little “plantsing” of my own by preparing a bit beforehand. How are the flowers looking?

Figure out your style. It could open up a world of relief for you to find out you’ve been grinding yourself to pieces against the grain of your natural instincts.

No matter if you plan or pants, the most important thing is that you’re being true to yourself and allowing what comes naturally to grow and thrive while also not forgetting to shine a light on the bad habits that could use a little more water and attention.

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Image from Unsplash.com

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I write a lot about self-development and personal growth. I want to help people uncover their authentic selves through creative expression and in the process understand their place in the world a little better. I also enjoy writing screenplays, short stories, and poetry. All of which can be found at MossManSupreme.com

Imperial Beach, CA
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