If you read writing blogs or follow writers on social media, you have probably seen writers describe themselves as a plotter or a pantser. These terms refer to how you write, and it’s become something of an either/or situation.
If you’ve never heard these terms before, here’s your introduction. Plotters plan. This could mean loosely following the hero’s journey or planning every scene from the beginning to the end. Pantsers, on the other hand, are rather free spirits. They fly by the seat of their pants and let inspiration take them from scene to scene until the story is finished.
Like quizzes that tell you which Disney princess you are based on your ideal weekend plans, writers divide themselves into teams Plotter and Pantser based on what kind of writing experience they gravitate to.
It’s true that certain personality types are more likely to plan or not, but a more healthy approach to the idea exists on a spectrum. We all likely swing to one side or the other, and maybe a choice few of us live in the middle ground, able to pick and choose the best parts of each.
Gardeners and Architects
George R. R. Martin famously likened writers to architects and gardeners, which offers more balanced imagery than “plotter” and “pantser.” I tend to prefer the architect and gardener comparison because it describes the mindset of the writer in a way that seems more authentic
Architects are plotters. Constructing a building that is aesthetically pleasing requires a lot of careful planning. In fact, the construction is almost guaranteed to be a disaster without blueprints, research on the materials, and a solid knowledge of the construction process. Architects rely on their knowledge and planning to achieve a satisfactory result.
Gardners are pantsers. Gardening requires some knowledge of the end result — you need to know where to plant shade-loving plants and how to arrange shrubs, but anything could happen between the planting and the fully grown result. Gardeners plant seeds and wait for their work to come to fruition.
These two types of writers are different but not unequal, and both create beautiful things. A building and landscape are only complete with the expertise of both architects and gardeners. And if we can reach into each other’s toolboxes and use gardening and architectural tricks, we’ll all be the better for it, and our writing will be too.
For example, I’m an ex-gardener and a current architect. If we use a spectrum, I’m somewhere leaning to the architect side, though I still have gardener tendencies. I used to let my story surprise me as I wrote it, but I hardly ever finished anything, even when I knew what the end was. I firmly believed that outlines were for academic papers only.
When my current project started growing in my brain, I knew it would be too complex to take on without a little planning. I started with vague outlines that gradually became more and more specific, until I ended up with the in-depth, scene-by-scene “zero draft” that I have now. My writing feels driven, almost inevitable. With so much planning and research to look back at, I seldom feel stuck or unsure of what to do next.
But I’m not immune to burnout. When my creativity stalls, I reach out — first to the architect tools I know and love, then to the gardener tricks I used to try. A combination of both helps to resuscitate my drive, giving me the motivation to push on. But in the end, it’s not my story that I’m trying to invigorate — it’s myself.
Tricks and Tools
If you’re ready to ditch writing stereotypes and enjoy the writing process more, consider these tips for architects, gardeners, and everyone in between.
Tips for Architects
Architects, if you know what’s going to happen but you struggle to make it happen, take a leaf out of the gardeners’ book. In all the planning, you’re likely to get bored or frustrated, so let yourself be surprised and excited by your story. Free-write difficult scenes, and the outcome may genuinely surprise you.
Also, don’t be rigid with your plan; gardeners are fluid, and architects could use a little fluidity. Changes are going to happen, so go with the flow when they do. Let yourself write scenes you haven’t planned for; let characters go places you didn’t plan for them to go. You will be invigorated, and your writing will be too.
Try: Writing prompts, free-writing, skipping scenes, and experimenting with characters. Get to know the phrase “What if?” and use it.
Tips for Gardeners
Gardeners, if you find yourself constantly tossing projects in favor of new ones or never finishing stories, give yourself some structure. Outlines are like roadmaps: they give you an idea of where you’re going and the best ways to get there. But you can choose which roads to take. When you feel like your story is directionless or your characters have little to do, find a mode of outlining that suits you and use it.
What’s an example of a good outlining option for gardeners? You can choose traditional outlining, or you can pin cards to the wall. When you have an idea of where characters are going and what’s going to happen, your writing will be more energetic and you might find yourself excited to meet the end goal of finishing instead of trying another idea. Your stories will be better paced and more cohesive.
Try: Outlining the story, writing character sheets, and world-building. Get yourself to buckle down and see the big picture.
Do you prefer to plant a garden or plan a structure? How do you use gardener or architect tools to better your writing? Share your experiences in the comments below!