Methods of Writing: Plotter, Panster, or In-Between

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund
Some writers are plotters. They thrive on planning out their books in great detail, making outlines, filling out note cards, and making story boards.

Other writers are pantsers. They write by the seat-of-their pants. They start with a blank slate and let the story and characters take them where they will.

I’ve seen both types of writers—plotters and pantsers—do very well. If you were to read their final manuscripts, you likely wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. They both end up in the same place—with a delightful well-told story.

With that said, however, I will admit I’m neither of the above, that I’m really more of a combination. You might call me a plantser (plotter + pantser).

Before I start my first draft, I do a TON of research (as in weeks of reading and scouring books). But most historical writers have to do that. It’s just part of the nature of writing a book set in a different time and place.

And before I begin writing, I also do a TON of brainstorming. I pull out a new spiral notebook and jot down ideas as they come to me or as they arise from all my researching. I fill pages with lists of all kinds of wild and crazy possibilities.

Eventually I narrow down my plot and come up with a very rough sketch of how I’d like to see my book progress. I write a few brief ideas for each chapter. But usually those ideas are fluid and vague.

Of course, I also get to know my characters before starting the first draft. I need to have a good grasp of each of my characters' backstories, their personalities, quirks, goals, etc.

Once my characters come to life, I usually begin to have the feeling that I’m ready to write the story. I have a pretty good idea of the plot and where I’d like it to go, but I’ve also left plenty of room for the story to develop as I write (and my characters too). For me that’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing—seeing the story and characters become bigger and more dynamic than I could have ever initially imagined.

Yes, I love the freedom that comes from not having things too planned out. That’s the pantser in me. But I also need a simple road map for my story. And that’s where the plotter in me comes out.

As I begin the actual writing of the story, the pantser in me likes to go off on detours, try unexpected twists, and meander at times. But to help me from getting too far off track as I'm writing, I take a little time before I start a new scene to write a brief sketch of what I hope to accomplish with that scene.

Here are some of the things I jot down in outline format before I write a scene:

Time and Place: (This helps me keep track of the story timeline and how well I’m varying my setting.)

Point of View: (This helps me monitor how often I’m switching POV; I try to keep it fairly even throughout the book.)

Hook: (How can I initially grab the reader’s attention at the beginning of the scene?)

Intensity: (Will this scene be high action or more contemplative? I want this to vary.)

• Read on Prompt: (How will I end the scene so that I make the reader want to keep going?)

Mood: (What kind of mood do I hope to portray and what kinds of things will help with that?)

Sensory details: (I brainstorm ways I can get most of the five sense into the scene, hopefully in ways that will match the mood.)

Goals: (This is where I list any and everything that I hope to write in the scene including character details, plot points, minor characters, etc.)

Once I pencil these details out, then I refer to the “outline” as I write the scene. It helps give gentle direction and keeps me from leaving out important points. By doing the plotting in small increments as I go, I’m able to allow the story the breathing room it needs to develop, but I’m also able to keep myself on track with where I need to go next.

How about you? Are you a panster, plotter, or a plantser? What’s your method for getting through the madness?


  1. Oh my, I think you nailed it. I'm (big gulp) a "planster". Awesome!

  2. I agree. I'm a "planster." To spend days, weeks, months on a detailed outline would bore me to tears. However, I can't simply sit down and write without a little planning and plotting.

    1. Yes, finding a balance is key! We don't want to over-do it, but it does help me to have a simple road map. :-)

  3. Jody, I generally start with a single sentence or hook. Then I populate the story, figure out a bit about the general flow, but don't decide on a villain or an ending until I'm near the actual end of the story. As the late Donald Westlake said of this method of what he called "push fiction," if I don't know what's going to happen, the reader probably can't guess either.

  4. I tend to be in between, but I think I lean towards pantser. I tend to get my ideas in large chunks. Usually the premise for the book, the beginning, and the ending hit me all at the same time. I mull these over for a while in my head. When I have a vague idea of the middle and the characters, then I start writing. Since I'm a plot-first writer, I tend to write the plot and let the characters begin to develop from there. After I've written the first draft, I go back and develop the characters, start making an outline, and make notecards. I use all those things for revision, but not for the first draft.

  5. For my first couple novels I was a total pantser, but I began realizing I had to do too much work during revisions getting plot kinks ironed out. I've evolved into your plantser. My ideas usually start with a visual image of my main character doing 'something' and I ask questions about who it is, what is he or she doing, where, why, when is it happening. Instead of jumping in at that point as I used to, I now do a bit more story planning first so I have a general direction or destination. I still like the excitement of letting the characters and their story lead my writing but they're less likely to lead me off on unrelated tangents. :)

  6. I'm also in the middle while at the same time trying to find my place in the spectrum as a new author. I like how you jot notes about a scene before you start. I'm going to give that a try!

  7. I'm a total Plantser! I thought it was just me. I usually find that once I start writing, the characters develop and the story goes off on wonderful new adventures, so there's not much point in keeping my outline too tight. Good to know I'm not alone.

  8. Thank you for sharing, it's really helped me...
    Very nice article...

  9. This article is very useful, and can add to our knowledge, thanks

  10. Hi Jody, this was such a helpful post! Do you do this for each chapter before you even begin the first draft, or do you do it one chapter at a time?


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