Pantsers vs. Plotters, by David Michael Williams

by David Michael Williams

Once upon a time, the stories poured from my fingertips.

Back in the early days of my Quest for Publication, I was equipped with naught but a trusty Pilot pen, a five-subject Mead notebook, and a plethora of ideas. Eventually, I upgraded to a keyboard and computer.
After transcribing tome after tome of intertwining fantasy storylines from my neat (read: girly) handwriting to single-spaced Times New Roman, I typed up additional supplemental materials. I sketched out maps, chronicled centuries of history, invented religions, drafted character profiles, and crafted the very rules of the universe.

I was world building, damn it, and every fantasy author worth his sword needs to know his setting inside out.

But a writer can wander for only so long before he must commit to the Quest. Sure, jotting down random adventures was fun, but I was in search of something greater than a hobby. I sought the Holy Grail: a book with my name on the spine.

It was time to start writing my first real novel.

How hard could it be, really? I already had storylines that covered decades of my characters’ lives. All I had to do was pick a point in time, edit the scenes I’d already penned, and fill in any blanks. New York Times Best Sellers list, here I come!
The only problem was I had to go back pretty far to find where my series should actually start, and my earliest notes were sparse at best. In fact, my first entry in the “Archives of Altaerra” made for a better ending than a start for a novel.

It looked like I’d have to come up with new material, after all. And that was fine. Better than fine because I’d get to discover how many of main characters—the Renegades—met in the first place. Why shouldn’t my grand epic start during the war that branded them as rebels in the first place?

I didn’t realize it at the time—how could I, a mere squire in the Order of Word Warriors?—but I was a Pantser. No synopsis. No chapter outline. No purpose other than to write an action-packed fantasy novel. The seat of my pants would have to be good enough.

Considering my lack of a literary compass, it took a while to fight my way through that first draft. Don’t get me wrong: it was a lot of fun. I was disciplined, and I wasn’t in any big hurry. Who cares if the first book of The Renegade Chronicles took three years to write? Like any good adventurer, I learned a lot along the way.

It took another year to rewrite the book from beginning to end. I had, after all, become a much better writer in that span, and I wanted the first page to sound as polished as the last. I also had a fair number of inconsistencies that needed conquering. I muddled through editing with as much finesse as writing the first draft—which is to say, no much at all.

I spent a little more time in a preparation phase before jumping into my next quest—the Renegades’ next quest, actually—but without a chapter outline and only a vague notion of where Volume 2 ended and Volume 3 began, I remained a Pantser through and through.

I’d probably heard of Plotters by then, but why would an author want to take the time to make every big decision about the plot prior to jumping into the first draft? Where’s the spontaneity in that? Where’s the fun?

I wrote three volumes of The Renegade Chronicles in this manner: come up with a vague notion of a conclusion, figure out who was going to be in the book, and let the characters loose. It was a blast. And for the most part, I was pleased with how the second drafts turned out, even if editing took a while.

But after writing a fourth book in the world of Altaerra (tentatively titled Magic’s Daughter), I couldn’t muster the ambition to go back and edit it. There were copious problems that needed resolving, but it seemed too daunting. Instead, I jumped into the first draft of the sequel. I could always go back and edit both of them later, right?

Except I made it only about a third of a way through that book before giving up.

I didn’t know where I was going, and if I was being honest with myself, the sequel to Magic’s Dughter felt more like filling in the blanks than drafting something new and exciting. As a matter of fact, the project was starting to resemble my earliest writing—those meandering storylines that were packed with peril and plot twists but lacked the essentials of good literature, particularly in terms of structure.

I was halfway through the rough draft of my next novel—a modern-day science fiction novel to cleanse my pallet—when I found myself writing in circles. Chapters became repetitive, and my characters stalled out. It dawned on me, then, that having a general idea of an ending wasn’t good enough.

Stepping away from an exercise in raw creativity, I forced myself to answer difficult questions about what should—what must—happen before the end of the book. Once I had completed the chapter outline for the second half of the novel, If Souls Can Sleep was finally ready to be finished.

On that day, I became a Plotter.

And I never looked back, though eventually, I returned to The Renegade Chronicles, edited the hell out of them, and made them worthy of publication. Mission accomplished. Quest completed.

Being a Pantser was fun while it lasted, but these days I won’t even think about penning a prologue without first having a structured plan. Does cranking out a chapter outline steal some of the magic of writing a first draft? Sure. But it does wonders for pacing. When you have checkpoints along the journey, you’re far less likely to get lost or, worse, give up.

The beauty of a possessing a road map is that you always know where you’re going, but you’re not necessarily committed to taking a specific route. If I find a better path from Point B to Point C along the way, I can take it and then resume my previously charted course to Point D.

Efficiency is the prize when you’re a Plotter. Not only do first drafts tend to take less time, but I’ve found that editing becomes less burdensome when the prototype sports fewer plot-related problems.

It would be easy for me to extol the virtues of being a Plotter and, indeed, try to convert other Pantsers to my approach. But the truth is chapter outlines aren’t sexy. They’re tough because they force a writer to make many difficult decisions upfront. They delay the enchantment of spinning the story in the way most writers want to do it: living the narrative, page by page, alongside our protagonists.

And truth be told, I tend to hate my chapter outlines. The plots always seem too simple, inelegant, and harsh. But that’s the beauty of any written document: they live in a state of flux, and you can always edit them.

Whether you're a Pantser or a Plotter, editing is a dragon that will always need slaying. Click To Tweet

Anyway, if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer it’s there are no rules, no tried-and-true template for the perfect novel. What works for one author won’t for another. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, strategies and techniques. For every successful Plotter, chapter outline in hand, there’s an unencumbered Pantser who reached “The End” without losing his way.

As a certain wizard once said, “Not all who wander are lost.”

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About the Author

David Michael Williams is the author of The Renegade Chronicles (Rebels and Fools, Heroes and Liars, and Martyrs and Monsters), published by One Million Words. The first two installments of The Soul Sleep Cycle (If Souls Can Sleep and If Sin Dwells Deep) are under editorial consideration. He is on the verge of starting the third book, If Dreams Can Die—but not before finishing his chapter outline!


  1. 1 Suzanne Rogerson on June 3, 2016 at 7:59 am

    Brilliant guest post. It's so interesting to read another author's journey.

  2. 1 Life as Mum on June 3, 2016 at 8:00 am

    What a great post. I can imagine it takes such a long time to write.

  3. 1 Bookstooge on June 3, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    As a fan, I’ll take a plotter over a pantser ANY day…

  4. 1 Sheena on June 3, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    I always love a look into the mind of a creative. The process is so different for each one, very interesting!

  5. 1 Lily Travella on June 3, 2016 at 7:56 pm

    This is a very interesting post! I'm attempting to write my own book and can imagine how long this process can take!

  6. 1 Chris V. Dass on June 3, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    Awesome read for a future author, I have learned a lot from your post. Going through the same journey of building up worlds only to tear them down again due to logic and revision.

  7. 1 Liz Mays on June 3, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    This is so cool. I always wodnered what it's like to write stories inside a fictional world. It seems so difficult!

  8. 1 Alison Bergstrom Grant on June 4, 2016 at 5:46 am

    I loved reading this and hearing firsthand the process of writing and how it didn't come easily. I agree editing is the worst!

  9. 1 Ana De Jesus on June 4, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    I agree taking time away and learning to plot is credentials needed to be a good writer. I write short stories and poetry.

  10. 1 Kerry O'Byrne on June 4, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    Great article!! I've always found the minds of a writer so facinating and I love the creativeness of writing a book.

  11. 1 Eloise Maoudj Riley on June 5, 2016 at 12:24 am

    I love reading other authors journey to publication and to see they have accomplished their goal… it inspires me to finish my work and get it out to the public. Fun read!

  12. 1 Bella Bucchiotti on June 5, 2016 at 12:59 am

    I love learning about the creative process of others. I am certainly not a writer, but I try to be creative in other ways.

  13. 1 Carrie Chady Rundhaug on June 5, 2016 at 6:17 am

    Such gorgeous covers! Have to be completely honest I typically pick up books because of their covers and I would definitly pick these up!

  14. 1 Anna-Maria Winter on June 5, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    That was an interesting read i always wondered whats going on in an authors mind, and is truly fascinating.

  15. 1 Anna-Maria Winter on June 5, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    That was an interesting read i always wondered whats going on in an authors mind, and is truly fascinating.

  16. 1 Dreammerin on June 6, 2016 at 7:43 am

    It can be a very creative and difficult process at the same time ! Great article! Greetings!

  17. 1 David Tofilovski on June 6, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    I loved reading guest post because everyone has their own unique story. You invited a excellent guest. Loved his story and the point of view.

  18. 1 Bettina Bacani on June 6, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    I'm sending this post to my friend, whose goal is to have her own book someday! Her books aren't fantasy (from what I've read at least), but this will still help, for sure. Thanks for sharing!

  19. 1 Tiina Arminen on June 6, 2016 at 6:53 pm

    It's not an easy job to write a book! I have a friend with journalist background and it took him quite a long time to publish his first novel. Now he have written already 3 novel and just started teh 4th one.

  20. 1 Bella on June 6, 2016 at 10:47 pm

    This was a very interesting read. I can’t imagine what it takes to write a fictional novel. I would never get anything of quality out if I was a panster.

  21. 1 Louisa on June 7, 2016 at 7:19 am

    I’ve always wanted to be a writer… I find myself coming up with what I think are interesting plots (and seems like these things come to me in the bath for some reason!) but never getting the chance to write them down and explore.

  22. 1 Kusum Basavaraju on June 10, 2016 at 5:03 am

    Totally agree, there's no rules when you a writer – every writer has his/her own unique perspective and way of portraying a story and they should stick to it. Great job on giving us an insight into the process.
    xx, Kusum |

  23. 1 Jimmy on June 11, 2016 at 11:35 pm

    I could not refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

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