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Stop Labeling Yourself: Getting Beyond the Plotter-Pantser Dichotomy

I was puzzled by these drafts. My client had presented this material a thousand times. Why, then, did it sound like the concepts were being explained for the first time?

When I finally asked, I got a laugh. “Oh, you know me, I’m a pantser.”

The Plotter – Pantser Dichotomy

If you hang out in the writing world long enough, especially the fiction hemisphere, you will run across the plotter-pantser distinction. Writers describe their writing approach in one of two ways:

  • Plotters outline their entire novel. They know what each character will do in each scene and how the scenes connect, lead to the climax, and reach the denouement. They. Are. Organized.
  • Pantsers, as you might guess, write from the seat of the pants. They may posit a scenario or ask a question: “If I have this character in this situation, what would happen?” Maybe they have a high level idea of “I want to start here and end here,” but they don’t really know what will happen in between until they start writing.

While writers can fall anywhere on the pantser-plotter spectrum, and truly most people use aspects of each, they do tend to lean one way or the other. Each writing approach can lead to excellent books.

So when my client claimed the label “pantser,” I knew exactly what that meant and accepted it almost as a given personality trait.

The Self-limiting – Emergent Dichotomy

After that project was complete, I happened across an old academic book from my husband’s college years: The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers. (Now in its 9th edition, we have the original. When the apocalypse comes and electronics no longer work, I am convinced our basement will become the local library.) One concept in particular intrigued me.

The handbook described two writing approaches similar to the pantser-plotter construct: self-limiting writing and emergent writing.

  • In self-limiting writing the content is largely fixed. It tends to be fact-based and descriptive. While you might not have all the information at hand, you know what’s needed and that it’s findable. This means the content is fairly easy to outline and structure in advance, much as a plotter would do with a novel. (Note: Don’t confuse this terminology with the concept of getting trapped in self-limiting beliefs. Here we are simply referring to the concreteness of content.)
  • In emergent writing, you start with an idea but you don’t know exactly how it will develop. Emergent writing often involves personal experience, reflection, and feelings. You might even be unclear who the audience is. You discover what the content actually is during the writing process, much as a pantser would. The first draft becomes a “discovery draft” that is writer-centered, which can feel odd to those of us used to being told to write for the audience. Once the material is drafted, you can assess and refocus it as needed. The process then becomes more similar to self-limiting writing in that you can clarify the structure, get missing information, fill gaps, etc. The second draft is reader-centered.

My Client’s Writing Approach

When I learned this distinction between self-limiting and emergent writing, I understood my puzzlement at my client’s drafts. The client knew the audience, knew the content, and had a solid outline from prior presentations. In short, the client already knew almost everything needed for this book. There wasn’t really anything to figure out.

The project was clearly self-limiting, but my client used an emergent writing approach. While the project turned out well, this misalignment probably led to a longer, messier process than necessary.

Practical Advice: Consciously Choose Your Writing Approach

Before you start writing (you can apply this to articles, white papers, etc., as well as books), consider what type of writing fits your situation better: self-limiting or emergent?

When to Use a Self-Limiting Writing Approach

Self-limiting writing might be a fit if you…

  • Teach classes on the topic. You probably already have structural elements such as an agenda, a syllabus, handouts, or worksheets.
  • Give speeches on this topic regularly. You’ve already identified your audience, structured your talks, and know your audience’s questions.
  • Consult on your topic. You’ve “seen it all,” have deep subject-matter expertise, and regularly explain concepts to clients.

If you already know your content, developing a strong structure and detailed outline may speed up your overall writing process. By clearly identifying the key points you want to make and organizing them in advance, the writing process becomes more pure writing rather than thinking about what to write.

If you already know your content, developing a strong structure and detailed outline may speed up your overall writing process.

When to Use an Emergent Writing Approach

Emergent writing may suit you better if you…

  • Are trying to explain something for the first time. For example, if you’re a life coach you probably follow some core processes but often work from an intuitive space; it might take a few iterations to adequately explain your guiding principles in a concrete way.
  • Are taking a position or making an argument. It’s possible your position will shift or crystallize as you find new information and reliable resources.
  • Have an inchoate idea, something still in the formative stage. For instance, perhaps you’ve observed many life lessons in your professional field and want to distill them into something you can share with others. Or you’re writing a memoir and you aren’t sure how best to tell your story.

If you don’t know your precise content, recognizing you’re writing a discovery draft gives you permission to explore what you want to say without having to worry about the readers. (Yet.)

Writing a discovery draft gives you permission to explore what you want to say without having to worry about the readers. (Yet.)

The next time you start a big writing project, make a conscious choice about how to tackle it. Rather than defaulting to your plotter-pantser identity, consider whether a self-limiting or emergent writing approach aligns better to your situation.

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