In a comment to an answer of mine Mark Baker has suggested that the common, dichotomous view of writers as either "plotters" or "pantsers" or something of both might not be complete and that there are other types of writers.

In their extreme forms, plotters, or outliners, as they are sometimes called, construct the plot, develop the characters, and/or build their fictional world before they begin to write and during writing follow this preconceived plan, while pantsers, or discovery writers, simply sit down with no more than a seed of an idea or even no idea at all and let the story, characters, and world unfold in the process of writing. Most writers fall somewhere in between these two extremes, outlining or developing a bit and discovering the rest.

But does this description cover all kinds of writers? Is it feasible, as I did, to group worldbuilders and plotters together, or are they fundamentally different in their approach?

What other kinds of writers are there besides plotters and pantsers?

Is there a better classification of writers that that dichotomous one?

I would appreciate answers that give real life examples of writers who have described their writing process, or that cite established sources such as scholars that have studied the writing process. Please do not post mere speculation or (only) your own experience in an answer.

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    An incredibly, incredibly good question Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 12:28
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    You have set some pretty stringent criteria for answers. I have read a number of writers on writing and I don't recall any of them actually reporting their method in these terms. I have read a number that recommend a steady work schedule, but I don't interpret that to mean vomiting unthought prose onto the screen. Writing is composition and transcription. You can have a regular time for composition without having to maintain a minimum typing speed. Can you give examples, of the sort you are asking for, to support the pantser/plotter dichotomy? I suspect it is a gross oversimplification.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 12:46
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    @LaurenIpsum Tolkien is a particularly good example of the distinction you are making because while he spent decades on the worldbuilding, apparently without any thought of writing the story, the story itself "grew in the telling" and he apparently had not figured out what the ring was until Rivendell. And yet the tale was clearly a quest, had quest shape, even if he did not know at the beginning what the quest was for. Hypothesis: some story shapes lend themselves more to discovery writing than others.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 14:56
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    Perhaps the problem here is that the plotter/pantser dichotomy/spectrum really only deals with plot, and really only with what you write down. Do you write a plan of your plot or do you write the plot as the story unfolds? But plot is not always the starting point. The starting point may be setting or character or a conflict that that author wishes to explore. Lewis said his stories always began with pictures -- a faun in snowy forest holding an umbrella. It we consider these different starting points and how the author proceeds from them, though, we should get a much more complex picture.
    – user16226
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 22:04
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    @aparente001 A "pantser" is someone who sits down – on their pants (trousers) – and writes (without planning beforehand).
    – user5645
    Commented Feb 25, 2017 at 17:43

4 Answers 4


Edit warning: I seem to have upset my sister (who also writes) so I've added more detail to no.2.

This question has been troubling me for a week now.

I met the terms - plotter / planner and pantser / discoverer - rather recently and I took an immediate dislike to their radicalism. Therefore, I ignored them. Now, @what's question has forced me to think about it.

First of all, I took to the web searching for those common 'type of writers' thingies (I include blogs, articles, infographs, cartoons, you-name-it under the concept of 'thingies').

Naturally one can't just classify writers. First we must determine what exactly we are classifying:

...by 'type of text produced'? You've got academic writers, technical writers (subtypes galore whitin that one), journalists, columnists, novelists, ... Only, no, that's not what we're classifying.

...by 'how one organises ideas for an essay'? We're getting close, but not yet. Still, you may want to take a look at this article on the University of Notingham's website. It classifies essay writers in four distinct classes:

  1. the Diver, which is basically the Pantser
  2. the Grand Plan Writer, which is basically a research-addicted Plotter
  3. the Architect Writer, which is a diagram-addicted Plotter
  4. the Patchwork Writer, which kicks off with some idea, moves them around to find connections and adds more ideas as they sprout (lets call it a Pantser-Plotter hybrid)

Of course, what we want to classify is...

how a fiction writer organises his writing (plot, characters, locations, ...)

I have no idea who originated the terms plotter / pantser (could have thought of another term for 'pantser', it always makes me think of underwear), but it's everywhere on the Internet as a great dichotomy.

@ggiaquin suggested it should be seen as less of a dichotomy and more of a spectrum. He's not alone. This blog mentions the hybrid for those that get caught somewhere in the spectrum. But it still doesn't satisfy me.

The British author Zadie Smith delivered a lecture in 2008 which shows she sticks with the dichotomy, rather than the spectrum, but she gives it nicer (IMHO) names: macroplanner (or plotter) and micromanager (or pantser).

I picked those terms and broke them apart to create five different classes of writers.

  1. the planner, generally speaking, dislikes chaos. He's organised and neat. Therefore he wants his work to be structured, but how much so?

1.1 the macroplanner works with large scale plans: events, characters, places, everything is mapped, thought over, analysed and adjusted in order for the whole machine (read 'novel') to work with absolute precision. There may be little surprises along the way but they'll tend to be seen as rebellions to be quickly submitted. The characters do not control the writer. Ever.

1.2 the microplanner works with small scale plans. Most likely, most elements are carefully pre-crafted (say, events) while others are only partially fleshed out (say, characters). Or perhaps the main plot and the main character are carefully decided in advance and the subplot gets relative freedom to do as please (within clear boundaries, naturally). Characters may take a life of their own on occasion but the writer will quickly remind them to behave and conform.

  1. the manager, generally speaking, dislikes restrictions. He's flexible and deals with what comes when it comes if it comes. He's laid-back and craves the excitement of discovery. He wants his work to come forth naturally, but how much so?

3.1 the micromanager starts with chaos (at least I tend to see nothingness as a face of chaos) and gives it order. Literally. He starts with an idea, or a vision (like a picture, a scene or a dialogue), and then he lets things evolve. The story is already there, he just needs to uncover it. The characters rule. Until a certain moment where order starts to descend back into chaos (the traditional chaos of too much disorganised information). Then the writer stops, organises all the information that has come forth so far and may or may not take the moment to trace an outline of what has happened so far. Then he can continue, bravely on, to where no Man has gone before.

3.2 the macromanager works amidst chaos, from the nothingness type of chaos to the tornado of information type. The characters are encouraged to take a life of their own and do as they will. In the worst case scenario, the writer will write down a random scene of daily life to learn a bit more about the character before sending it into the novel itself (or during a break).

A bit unsequentially, let's talk about no. 2...

  1. the hybrid or the planning manager is a writer that needs plans and chaos in more or less equal measure but in different places. He may start with several plot points that are very detailed within themselves but are disconnected from one another; then, while writing, he'll discover how to connect them. Or maybe his characters allways start out with a couple of impressionistic strokes that the writing will give greater definition to later on. Or maybe he carefully plans a first part where B must cause A to happen and can't plan anything beyond it until he has finished the section and both characters and events have opened some much needed (and previously hidden) doors. Then he can go back to the designing table and decide the details of the next big plot point.

2.1 the top-down planning manager plans a big arc (or big picture) in detail. A must happen exactly this way so that B can then do exactly that. The little things under that arc? We'll see as they come.

2.2 the down-top planning manager plans key events in details and determines a set of restrictions that must be respected. As the story evolves, a bigger picture will slowly emerge.

2.3 the plot-first planning manager plans the setting and the main events in detail, then creates the character and lets them do as they wish in the fictional world (think an RPG with a laid-back GM that gives the PCs free reign to explore the world and choose their battles).

2.4 the character-first planning manager previously creates an intricately detailed character and gives it a deep problem. Then lets it search for a solution. Imagine: a parent overcome by grief at the loss of their only son trying to find a meaning to life.

PS: I apologise for not following PC but I'm an old school female who can accept that 'he' works just fine to refer to all the biological and psychological genders in the world (my native language makes it even more naturally so than English).

PPS: I had a British teacher when I first learned the clothes vocabulary so 'pants' will always mean 'underwear' for me. And, yes, 'pantser' does make me picture a person sitting at one of those swivel office chairs in their underwear. And if you have ever sat on one of those in summer while wearing shorts, you know doing so in underwear is beyond uncomfortable.


I suggest we also have "The Expander"

You asked for something other then "Plotters" or "Pantsers". I would venture to offer the "Expander". An author who writes notes and even entire unpublished stories about off screen characters that they never intend to do more than refer to in a few short throwaway lines. (Or sometimes mean to come back to but either struggle or fail utterly at the return)

3 examples:
David Eddings

He described his (& Leigh's) writing style quite a bit.

He wrote several sweeping Fantasy epics - for the Young adult market.

IIRC He described in the forward to one of his books "The Rivan Codex" that he wrote a significant backstory, fleshed out quite a lot of the basic plotline - but the characters went their own way.

What I am suggesting is that one of the best writers of our age wrote a plot. Fleshed out some pretty significant backstory - and then found the story departed into a life of it's own. Largely following the plot outline the author had set but deviating in some specific points. Sufficiently that the already written backstory in some parts was now incorrect.

Another author I know - L E Moddessit - has stated he will sometimes write a backstory around a particular character who may never even appear directly in the story.

JRR Tolkien is perhaps the most famous example - some of the notes he made have now been published as "Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth" along with some other volumes.

  • That only divides the plotters into those that do and those that don't stick to their plotting. It doesn't mean that their approach is fundamentally different. Those that do deviate from their plotting are using their outline to discovery write.
    – user5645
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 9:05
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    Fair enough - although I do think that writing a plot outline and then moving in a different direction qualifies as being something distinctly different from the 2 extremes of plotter and pantser.
    – kiltannen
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 10:12
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    I wouldn't say "distinctly different", that is, not some third, but a hybrid along the dimension between plotter and pantser.
    – user5645
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 11:24

I would say poets deserve their own category. (I also like the fact it starts with a P.)

If plotters plot and pamtsers wing it, then poets mosey along at their own pace. They are not simply a combination thereof.

Plenty of storytellers are poetic at points or in entirety. such as Shakespeare and Homer. I would guess part of their prose was added or deleted in whatever editing style they adhered to simply to improve on the poetic quality. Some poets, such as e e cummings, are frequently more concerned with the sounds than the words themselves. Story is almost secondary.


You can set yourself a problem and then set out to solve it. Similar to how a modern composer might choose a 12 tone row and then start working with it. When you do this, as you play with your row, you manipulate it and transform it. For example, you might define certain characters or a certain conflict, and then put your characters on the chess board together and see what happens. And let's remember that a place can also be a character. Your plot can be subservient to figuring out, and demonstrating, who your characters are.

You can set yourself a goal, i.e. set up a milestone (that might end up being the midpoint or the endpoint, etc.) and then start writing towards it, either forwards or backwards or both.

You can have something in mind, such as a certain nostalgic feeling, or a feeling of magical realism, or a soothing feeling of keeping to a predefined formula (that is defined based on other elements besides just plot), or a certain type of silliness, or some stepping stones that you want to visit, etc., etc., and then try this and that to achieve what you're aiming for.

You could in principle set up a challenge for yourself of a certain prescribed omission. Like a movie from a while back, whose name I can't remember, in which a main character never appeared in a scene.

You could start with an unexpected combination of clichés and see where it gets you.

Those are just a few ideas that occur to me about the infinite number of ways you can set out the elements you wish to work with.

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