Advice on Writing

Write better at every stage, from ideating to using feedback – based on whether you’re a Pantser or a Plotter

In this two-part article on the craft of writing, I discuss what strategies pantsers and plotters might try to improve each stage of the writing process.

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This is the second post in a two-post series. Part #1: How to contextualise writing advice. Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?


Last Thursday, we looked at what plotters and pantsers are, and I told you my story of how moving away from being an extreme plotter made me a better writer who actually finished pieces, got them out, and got published. The point of this post is to help you identify whether you lean more towards pantser or plotter. (You may be a bit of both: which is fine. Also common: being a plotter at one stage of the writing process, a planner in another part.) Today, we’ll look at what kind of struggles plotters vs. pantsers tend to have at each stage of the writing process, and what kind of process changes either type will benefit from.

Let’s look at common struggles you might have at each of the five stages of writing, and simple solutions you can implement right away:

I.          Ideating: Whether you’re writing a microstory or a novel, a 300-word blogpost or a textbook, you need an idea. The idea needs to fit the scale at which you’re writing. We’ll discuss this in another post. Which comes first – idea, or scale? That depends on your goals. If your goal is ‘just write something,’ you might come up with a small idea, decide you want to write a novel, and struggle to stretch you the idea to fill the 60,000+ words of a typical novel. Or vice versa. If you have a deadline and a magazine you’re aiming for – Literary Journal X is calling for 3,000-word short stories due in 30 days – then you have the scale first, and you need to generate an idea that fits the scale (as well as the magazine’s editorial style etc.)

Pantsers: An extreme pantser will be tempted to start writing a story the moment an idea strikes their fancy. I’ve read many stories by friends and strangers, and some by wellknown writers too, where the central deficiency was clear – the central idea was poorly thought out.

Ideas are always exciting in the moment we get them – to us. If you’re a plotter, take the time to turn the idea over in your head before committing to writing about it. For anything but a microstory you can draft and rewrite and edit in one sitting, the idea needs to hold your interest over multiple days, weeks, or months. So give yourself time, at the front end, to evaluate your idea. Excitement is good – but it’s hard to evaluate when you’re excited. It’s always hard to evaluate your own ideas. But even there, distance helps. Go for a walk. Sleep over it – sleep tends to moderate emotions, bringing both negative and positive evaluations towards the mean, and putting things in perspective. Read a book, resume your day’s tasks. Whatever you need. If it’s a short story idea, take a week. If it’s an idea for a novel, take a month. The longer you’ll need to work on your idea, the more important it is for you to be sure that your idea will sustain your interest after the honeymoon first flush.

Plotters: As an extreme plotter, the struggle I had at the ideating stage was getting a small idea for a short story, then working on it until it was so elaborate it was novel-length. If you’re setting out to write a novel, this is fine. If you’re setting out to write a short story, then make sure your idea doesn’t mushroom out of control. Once you’ve got an idea that holds your interests, study it – not to make it broader and more nuanced, but to get down to its core. If you’re writing a flash story, short story, or novelette (<15,000 words), your story should ideally have one central unitary idea. Resist the temptation to let your Plotting instinct take over and develop a short story idea into a novel length idea. Mine the idea, by all means – but with the goal of mining down to the heart of that one single idea.

II.         Outlining: Okay. You’ve evaluated your idea. You’ve decided it’s worth your energy. You’ve put this down as a flash story-length idea, or a novel-length idea. Now you have to outline your story. This involves two processes: laying out the chronology of events; and deciding in which order you’ll present them. (We’ll discuss fabula and syuzhet’ in another post.) Even microstories that occur seemingly in a single moment – the memorable ones – have backstory that’s implied, that enriches and makes impregnates with meaning the present moment.

Pantsers: Avoid jumping into drafting right away. Even though the idea excites you still (hopefully it’s survived the cold light of reason in your Ideating waiting-period), an outline will keep you on track. An outline gives you a roadmap so that you can go on semi-auto-pilot – as a pantser, you’ll enjoy that – but also ensures that the product at the other end will excite your readers as much as it does you. Take the time to lay out your story. Write down notes for significant plot points, backstory dates, and character histories. You remember everything now – but when you start writing you’ll have other things on your mind. You’ll forget things. Make notes.

Plotters: Strongly resist the urge to let your trim, streamlined idea develop branches and sub-branches during the outlining stage. Outlining should flesh out details of the original storyline – not add tangential storylines. Outlining should lay out character arcs over chapters / sections – not pile on side characters, or extend your main character’s history back five generations. Just write the minimum outline necessary to tell your story. Focus on your one main story. Don’t worry. There’s enough in that one story to hold your interest. (You made sure of that at the Outlining stage, right?) So develop that one story. Fight your natural instinct to write dozens of pages of notes – simplify your notemaking process. Write only what you need.

Plotters: Resist the urge to lose yourself in the urge to do this!

III.        Drafting:

You’ll spend the bulk of your time at stages III and IV: writing and rewriting. (Pantsers: if you’re spending more time outlining, you know what to do! Cut short that planning process and move on to drafting.)

Pantsers: Now you need to sit down and write your story. While Ideating and Outlining can be done relatively freeform, and often benefit from change of scenery / working at unusual hours etc. – actually writing requires some kind of schedule. From this stage on, make some kind of schedule. Even if it’ twenty minutes a day, on your lunch break. The atmosphere in which you write colours your story. Your physical setting. Your energy level. For your story to have some consistency, your writing environment needs to be somewhat consistent.

You’re probably used to writing based on mood. At first it’ll be hard to settle down to a routine. You might be tempted to wait for inspiration. Resist it. Stay in your seat. Get something down. You have your outline, right? Just get those points written. Doesn’t matter how badly. Get a draft down. It’s just your raw material. You’ll be rewriting later, anyway.

At the start of every writing session, reread and edit what you wrote the day before. Many writers have done this: from Anthony Trollope to [Maya Angelou]. That way, by the time you’ve finished writing one draft, your story has already been through one edit. That’ll make rewriting much easier.

Show up at the same time every day. Try it for a month. If this really doesn’t help, then feel free to resume a more unpredictable schedule – writing whenever and wherever fancy strikes. Just set yourself a weekly target to meet – number of words/pages; or pieces finished.

If you find yourself moving away from your plot, stop and reassess. Take time to get a sense of where this new plot is going. If you’ve generated a new side-plot, how does it tie into the main plot? Look ahead and try to get a sense of where it’ll end. If you like what you see ahead, keep going. If not, veer back to your outline.

Plotters: You plan every piece of writing, from microstory to novel, down to the last detail. I’m betting you also plan your writing schedule by the day, down to the minute. You may benefit from mixing it up a bit. Stasis leads to stagnancy. Try writing in a new location, or at a new time of day.

Follow your outline. But, if you find your story developing away from the outline, let it. Plotters tend to write characters overly constrained by their outlines. Step back and let them breathe. Your characters are plot devices – after all, a story needs a story, and characters are, like anything else, devices to convey plot and theme. But characters should also get room to breathe. To develop unexpected personality traits.

Don’t worry if you don’t touch on every point in your outline. If your story moves a little away from your outline, that’s fine. The outline was just for you. Your end product is all anyone will see. As long as you like where the end product is going, let it.

IV.        Revising, editing, rewriting: This is where you revisit your story to see whether it’s a good story. After a break, reread your story. Just the story – not the outline. Note down whatever problems you see. First chapter introduces too many characters? Characters all sound alike? Uneven pacing? Dull bits? Protagonist unlikeable? After you’ve noted these problems – then come back to your outline to see if addressing points in the outline will correct some of the problems in your first draft.

Pantsers: ‘Writing is rewriting,’ they say. When you’ve finished your manuscript and typed “End,” resist the urge to send the story at once out to every friend you have and every magazine you know. Do what you did at the Ideating stage. Let the story rest. A week. a month. (Again: the longer the pieces, the longer you’ve worked on it, the longer it’ll take you to get it off your head and come back with a fresh perspective.) It’ll feel like you’re torturing yourself. No. You’re doing yourself a favour.

Then, reread your story. If you’ve written your outline, or your story, in a hurry, you may have produced something you’re not proud of. That’s fine. First drafts are often shit. Maybe you’ll think, ‘This shit is what I’ve been sending out to friends and strangers?’ If you’re really upset, take another break. Come back and reread the story – now you’ll see its promise. Now it’s time to rewrite.

Plotters: After the mandatory waiting period, your biggest temptation will be to rewrite everything to match your initial outline – or to rewrite a new outline to match your story, and go from there. Resist both urges. Reread your draft on its own merits. Assess it for itself. Then, when you’re feeling relatively detached, evaluate what work the story needs.

V.         Getting and using feedback:

Pantsers: By now, you should’ve invested enough in your story that you want feedback. Perhaps this wasn’t the case before, when you were rattling off stories at lighting rate, without much planning or any revising. Send your stories out. Evaluate the feedback. Decide if it needs acting on.

Plotters: You’re likely already looking for feedback. While you’re waiting for it, resist the urge to rewrite your story and send an update draft. Stop chasing perfection.

When you get feedback, resist the urge to change your whole story top to bottom. Not everything everyone says about your story is valid – or even if it is, your story may not need a head-to-toe makeover.

These are broad guidelines based on your writer type. We’ll cover the rewriting process – and every stage of the writing process – in depth in future posts.

Learning to do anything well requires reining in some instincts, and developing others. It’ll feel unnatural at first. Stick with it. Soon you’ll see your writing improving. If you’re a plotter, then writing more spontaneously will give your characters life, and your plot richness. If you’re a pantser, then evaluating and assessing at every stage will help you write stories that excite your readers as much as the first lighting-flash excited you.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? What kinds of writing advice have you benefited from in the past? Do you see any of these tips helping you? Do you think the whole dichotomy is bullshit?

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

One reply on “Write better at every stage, from ideating to using feedback – based on whether you’re a Pantser or a Plotter”

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