Among writers, the question is this one:

Are you a pantser or a plotter?

When I first heard this question, I immediately linked it to my graduate adviser at the University of Texas at Austin. After I passed my Ph.D. exams, he said,

Just think of finishing your dissertation this way: put your seat in a chair and stay there until you’re done.

Having confessed to being a  sprinter rather than a marathon runner in last week’s post, you might have already guessed where I come out between these two types.

Instead of labeling myself, however, I’ll show you a picture:

2014 calendar with trip planning papers below

2014 calendar with trip planning papers below

This picture of how I am planning a year of book touring looks a lot like the way I “plotted” Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. More about this trip later, but for now, you can just witness some of the complexity.

Back in October 2011, when I was living in Brooklyn, New York, and taking care of our grandson Owen by day, I made up a timetable for writing. Then I blogged about it, making myself more accountable to my readers.

I respect deadlines, and when I announce one, I usually come through. I’ll sit in my seat even after my shoulders, neck, and arms begin to hurt. (I know, “sitting is the new smoking” and I need to change that habit.)

But being a “pantser” refers to more than the location of one’s derrière! It also means that a writer finds joy in the journey itself and wants to discover her way to the plot. Not surprisingly, this term is used most frequently by fiction writers.

Good memoirs read like fiction. They require narrative arcs. There’s an art and a science to developing such arcs. I placed my life stories, most of which were written in short segments, into a series of questions meant to interrogate the narrative of my childhood.

Did you have a choice to become Mennonite or not?

What was going on in the church and in the outside world that influenced the answer to that question?

What happened to your family after your father bought the farm?

To answer these questions before the end of writing a draft was to become a “plotter.” I tried on that role and took lessons from some pros. Here are my notes on how to storyboard:

Storyboard notes

Storyboard notes

If you’ve read Blush, you might or might not recognize this pattern in the story. I had difficulty making my life fit into the form.

I saw my model as being most like Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, which I reviewed in 2008.

My guess is that Mildred was a pantser, whose reminiscences were woven together beautifully through the “high spirits” still evident in her approach to life, and who had a great deal of discipline over her daily habits, writing this book one story at a time.

If you are a writer yourself or contemplating becoming one, you will enjoy the video below. You can see that the question of whether to write from an outline (plot) or from curiosity about your characters (pants) can throw writers into a tizzy of conversation.

But whether or not you take time to watch the video, I hope you respond with some stories of your own in the comment section below. Do you prefer to discover your way to the finish line by following your intuition and “high spirits”? Or do you need to chart a very careful path in advance? Something in between? Something different depending on the circumstances?


Shirley Showalter


  1. Richard Gilbert on April 30, 2014 at 12:54 pm

    I find your shared documents so interesting, Shirley. Apparently I am a pantser by nature, since I like to plunge in before the immensity of a project scares me off. But then I end up backtracking and plotting. I tend to think any writer ends up doing everything before it’s through!

  2. shirleyhs on April 30, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    That was a quick response, Richard! I have to agree with you, and since the video is now fixed, you’ll see that the writers on First Draught also end up in that place.

    I guess the distinction still holds best at the start of the project. What is your first impulse: to outline or to do free writing? Pantsers outline when they have to. It isn’t the primary source of energy.

    You point out an important point, and one that makes me mostly a pantser also. I can become discouraged by enormity and complexity, even when I know I must eventually deal with them.

  3. Marian Beaman on April 30, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    Your posts are always stepping stones for my own progress as a writer/pilgrim. And I love the artifacts, which remind me of my way of doing things.

    As you say, writing is both art and science, probably requiring both approaches: pantser and plotter. I may start with an outline, but I often rely on flashes of intuition for inspiration. And sometimes they come at 2:00 in the morning. 🙂

    I will return to this post, I’m sure. In the meantime, I will share it on Twitter.

    • shirleyhs on April 30, 2014 at 7:56 pm

      Oh good, Marian. I really enjoy when other writers can benefit from my experiences and struggles. You are doing so much better faster than I did. I enjoy watching you grow and build your platform.

      Thanks for sharing on Twitter. And may your plots always pan out.

  4. Tracy Lee Karner on April 30, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    My process has evolved and changed over the years. I began as a definite, whole-hearted pantser. Then I would totally re-organize, trying to incorporate plot which always involved tons of rewriting.

    These days plotting comes forward in the process, almost, but not quite parallel with pantsing at the starting gate, then I weave back and forth. It’s more efficient, and as I grow older, efficiency in writing takes a certain priority (so many ideas; so little time).

    But by nature, I think I’m a pantser, which is to say, I’m more attuned to the contemplative rather than the active life.

    I want to know when, in your tour, you’re going to be in the Boston or Providence, RI area.

    • shirleyhs on April 30, 2014 at 8:10 pm

      Tracy, I am enjoying your wonderful comments and the opportunity to get to know you better on your own blog.

      I find your description of your process intriguing. I imagine that if I write another memoir, I would do more plotting from the beginning, but I will only write a sequel to Blush if I get excited about wanting to write a second book while applying pants to seat.

      As for the tour, I will be blogging about the itinerary later in May, but I am hoping to do a New England trip — in the fall, of course. From the looks of your blog, you would be a perfect guide to the region.

      • Tracy Lee Karner on April 30, 2014 at 9:37 pm

        I do know a lot about the good stuff off the beaten path. My husband and I have explored most of every corner (not quite all of Maine…). If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

        I hope to find you here somewhere in Autumn.

  5. Laurie Buchanan on April 30, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    Shirley – Writing non-fiction I do no plotting, whatsoever. I put my pants in the chair and write straight from the intersection of head/heart.

    Writing fiction, however, is a horse of a very different color. I painstakingly plot and scheme, having a storyboard and a detailed 3-ring notebook with details for each character and the geographic location.

    Pleasantly — I experience JOY IN THE JOURNEY via both avenues.

    • shirleyhs on April 30, 2014 at 8:14 pm

      Laurie, when I was president of Goshen College, our slogan was The Joy of the Journey. I love that concept!

      And you have been my teacher in joy many times. I believe you when you say that both approaches result in joy for you.

      Have you ever considered writing a memoir? Since that form bridges both types you describe, it would be interesting to see which approach you would pick.

  6. Linda Austin on April 30, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Oh, boy, am I a pantser. At some point, though (really late in the game), I start to look at what I’ve got and think about organizing and how to make things fit. And yes, that works better with nonfiction. Actually, I think my real life is like that, too!

    • shirleyhs on May 5, 2014 at 11:28 am

      Linda, sorry it’s taken me so long to respond. Loved your comment, so full of honest energy. Sounds like you know yourself well and are perhaps prodding yourself to begin planning a little earlier??

      At any rate, the point is to follow the method that brings you closer to your reason for writing in the first place. That’s the deep well.

      Follow your joy! And the key to planning (for me at least) is to focus on the prize of the highest quality work possible. I’m sure you share that goal.

  7. Kathleen Pooler on April 30, 2014 at 10:44 pm

    Shirley, I think I’m a combination. I’m definitely a planner–story boarding, outlining, list after list but many times I break away from all the organization and end up letting to flow. The other thing is with all these organizational tendencies, I don’t feel very organized…Does that make me a hybrid planner with pantser tendencies? Wonderful thought-provoking post and what a fun ( and informative) video.Thanks!

    • shirleyhs on May 5, 2014 at 11:32 am

      Kathy, I admire your ability to plan, and I think you put your finger on an issue — the difficulty of being satisfied with our best-laid plans. My guess is that most writers have some kind of diagram but are not at all sure it is “working.”

      If we are still restless after plotting out our scenes and narrative arcs, a good ole free writing session might just be the answer that can take us back to the diagrams with new enthusiasm for the work. Good point!

  8. Mary Chris Escobar on May 1, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Thank you so much for featuring our video, Shirley! It is certainly a question that sparked a lot of conversation. I love your “joy of the journey” concept. All the best on your book tour this year.

    • shirleyhs on May 5, 2014 at 11:33 am

      Mary, you made some new friends both here and on Twitter and Youtube. Thanks for a good conversation. Lots of luck with your own strategies.

  9. Joan on May 1, 2014 at 9:53 am

    I’m definitely a panster trying to sometimes be a plotter.I like being organic about it all. But when I get stuck in the middle of the ocean and can’t see land, I’ll often become a plotter for a little while, until panster me gets bored and I have to let it flow to where ever it wants to go.

    Great post, Shirley!

    • shirleyhs on May 5, 2014 at 11:36 am

      Thanks, Joan. In the end, all of us use both strategies, I think. You did a great job of describing the flow between the two starting with pantser. I think you and I share more than a mountain. We also share ways of following our intuitions and then applying the left brain as a guide to future intuition. Always happy for your comments.

  10. Tina Fariss Barbour on May 1, 2014 at 9:23 pm

    Shirley, my doctoral chair said almost the same thing to me after I had passed my doctoral exams and given my dissertation lecture: “Now all you have to do is write a really long paper.” Unfortunately, I never finished that really long paper and thus didn’t finish the Ph.D. Lots of OCD problems then, but that’s another story.

    I do think what might have helped me finish is if I had had a plan (and had been able to stick to it.) I think the whole process scared me aside from the OCD, and a plan would have helped me to break it down.

    As I mentioned in a comment on last week’s post, with my newspaper work, it’s mostly writing quickly, for a deadline, without a lot of planning, except in my head. When I’m driving back to Altavista after a meeting at the county seat and I know I have to write a story when I get back to the office, I will often work on the lede in my mind as I drive. It helps relieve some of the anxiety I feel about it.

    But with my “own” writing, I suspect I would be helped by being more of a planner–then planting the pants in the seat and writing. 🙂 You examples here and links will be helpful to me, I know.

    Oh, and about sitting being the new cancer. I’ve been reading about the dangers of that, too. On days when I have to sit in the office and write/layout pages, I’ve started setting the time on my iPhone to get up and stretch and walk around–about every 30 to 45 minutes. It seems to help.

  11. Laurie Buchanan on May 2, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    Shirley – I have, indeed, considered writing a memoir. I have a Reader’s-Digest-Sized-Version ready to roll. It’s titled “Fourteen Christmases” — covering my story between age 7 and 21.

    • shirleyhs on May 5, 2014 at 11:37 am

      Ooh, Laurie, I love this idea. And what a brilliant opportunity for a publisher. A Christmas book and a memoir combined. You never cease to amaze me.

    • Shirley Hershey Showalter on May 5, 2014 at 2:25 pm

      Laurie, I assume you are familiar with Rudolf Steiner’s theories on education? He divides development into three stages of seven years. You might want to check out what he says, especially since your choice of years corresponds well.

      • Laurie Buchanan on May 5, 2014 at 2:43 pm

        Shirley – THANK YOU so much for this link. I appreciate YOU!

    • shirleyhs on May 6, 2014 at 8:19 am

      Never too late to participate in this discussion. It will continue after us!

      So you use Scrivener. I’ve heard very good things about it. I hope you give this feature some time and then evaluate its helpfulness — perhaps a blog post idea for you?

      And, I hope to connect with you in person this summer, Sherrey. I’m coming west. Will be doing future blog posts on that subject, but will also message you to see what might be possible. Exciting.

  12. Sherrey Meyer on May 5, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    Oh, Shirley, I may be late to the game in this discussion, but always better late than not at all. I truly am a pantser. I do not have the patience to do jump into Kathy’s planning schemes, but I am finding that like many others here (Linda, Richard, and others) I regroup at some point and then begin to look at more structured planning. I am now over 2/3 of the way through my draft memoir. Suddenly, I had an epiphany of something different I wanted to try with my story/stories, and I actually emailed Kathy for a link to a post of hers about storyboarding. To my joy and delight I discovered that same day that Scrivener, my favorite writing software, offers me a “bulletin board with index cards” option that works well as a storyboard. That in turn set me flying with the keys to draft an outline, the first since I started writing this book! So, you see, I too may be a hybrid resting in the shadow of my friend and yours, Kathy Pooler. Thanks so much for this provocative post.

  13. Melodie Davis on May 6, 2014 at 4:49 am

    Just found this, also late in the game but worth pondering. I’m definitely a plotter for the most part, especially if I have a specific project going. Right now I keep wondering if my somewhat random posts on my blog have any future. But I’m not sweating it. It is mostly a hobby from which I’m learning much on my own time which ends up being useful for my company time. 🙂 And enjoying connecting with new people in this medium. Thanks for your example and efforts–we are all learning alot.

  14. shirleyhs on May 6, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Thanks, Melodie. I enjoy the community of other bloggers, especially the lovely ones who show up here and whose own blogs I try to keep up with, including yours. I think all of us wonder from time to time about our own randomness and about the effort it takes to blog. But, like you say, the key to longevity is the continued sense of learning. When our work is our play, our play is our work.

  15. Elaine Mansfield on May 6, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    I wrote the first draft of my book going where the wind blew. I’ve always been a writer and kept a journal. When I found a writing class called “Writing through the Rough Spots,” I had permission to write from the gut about the tender and tough stories of the previous two years when my husband was ill and dying.

    After a few years of this, I realized I had the bones of a book. I had to learn how to plot my story in a coherent way for others, how to make myself an interesting character, and how to stop jumping all over the place in terms of a timeline. Took a few more years to polish the book and find a publisher.

    The first two years were a therapy group. The last two years were a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing and Social Media. I need both. The spontaneous outpouring and the polishing and trimming and organizing.

    • Melodie Davis on May 7, 2014 at 3:40 am

      Elaine, I loved these lines: “The first two years were a therapy group. The last two years were a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing and Social Media.” Nice. Original?

      I’ve often felt I earned my master’s degree several times over in putting together several of my books.

      • Elaine Mansfield on May 7, 2014 at 8:07 am

        Melody, I promise I’d say who wrote or said it if I didn’t. That’s the way it happened. I wrote to digest hard experiences for a few years. I’d always written journals and done active imagination for many years to become more conscious of the inner landscape. Then I submitted a few pieces I’d written to our local hospice newsletter. When I realized I had a rough draft of a book, the rewrites began and my sense that I didn’t know what I was doing. After attending a workshop called “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal” with Jill Swenson, I gratefully hired Swenson Book Development and began learning how to shape my book and navigate the world of publishing.

        • melodie davis on May 7, 2014 at 8:17 am

          Elaine, thanks!–and duh, of course you would have identified the person who said it first. I thought it was a great two lines. 🙂 Thanks for the further explanation!

  16. shirleyhs on May 6, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    I love hearing writer stories. This one makes so much sense. I’m so glad you found that writing class. And I’m sure your readers are also.

    You seem like a wise and peaceful person able to diagnose your needs at every stage in the process. Your words may well be just the balm for another struggling writer. Thanks for the comment.

  17. shirleyhs on May 7, 2014 at 8:39 am

    I love when people in the comments section start talking to each other. 🙂 Just like discussion in the classroom.

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