How To Help The Panster in Your Life (Or in You)

I’ve been studying craft books this week. Part of it is for Write Mentor—I had homework. The other part is for me….so I can understand my homework.

See, I’m an organic writer, commonly known as a pantser. I didn’t arrive at this conclusion the logical way. No.

Convinced by various craft books and a number of other writers, I tried my best to cram my writing self into a round, well-shaped hole, only to find out that I was as angular as they come. Then I tried to chip my edges off. As you might imagine, that didn’t go so well.

Nevertheless, I continue to study plotting by plotters for plotters. If I get a recommendation to read a book, I will not only read it, I’ll do every exercise in it. If someone says, try this reverse outline? Yeah, I’ll give it a whirl. If they say, try this amazing beat sheet, yep, I’ll try it! I draw the line at anything involving index cards and spreadsheets (eww!) but I try to be very open minded in this regard, despite knowing that deep down, everything I read from a plotter’s viewpoint will have to be completely reversed, rewritten, and retrofitted if I’m going to get ANYTHING out of it. Y’all, this is what I do for fun.

However, I can say that most pantsers don’t find this fun. Even I don’t always find it fun, especially when the vast majority of writing craft books widely recommended usually start out with some version of “If you are a pantser, go to hell. And stay there until you have learned to be good.”

Is it any wonder that many writers are terrified to admit they don’t get help from craft books that are recommended to them? Is it any wonder that they are afraid to say the word “pantser” in public? Is it any wonder that when a plotter recommends something to them, they’ve learned to put their heads down and NOT say they don’t understand this recommendation and haven’t got the faintest clue what you expected them to get out of it? Nobody wants to look stupid, do they? And yet, this is exactly how many pantsers, including me, have been made to feel over the years. (For what it’s worth—say you don’t get it. It’s the best way to admit to yourself that you need what works for you and stop trying to cram yourself into that aforementioned round hole that won’t fit your angles.)

So, I thought I’d write something while my thoughts were fresh on this difference between storytelling styles about how to care for the pantser in your life, should you ever come across one. Remember, we hide. So look carefully.

  1. When a writer asks for craft book recommendations, along with asking them what they are looking for, ask them their writing style. Plotter or pantser? In between? What side of the spectrum? A LOT of closet pantsers are plansters, or plotsters. It keeps us from getting beaten up in writers’ meetings. Give a plotter plotter craft books. Give a pantser/planster pantser-friendly craft books. I’d probably give the plotster a pantser-friendly craft book as well. (I will have some recommendations later this month as I dig through as many resources as I can. Note: a pantser-friendly craft book will not say, “if you don’t write just like this method, you will waste time/wind up unpublished/be miserable/ develop boils on your butt/die if you don’t take heed before it’s too late.”
  2. When a writer says they didn’t like or didn’t understand a recommended craft book, ask them why. Then listen. Just listen.
  3. When a writer details their method for writing and it’s different than yours, please don’t say, “You can’t be productive that way. MY way is so much better/faster/logical/right, it’s the only way to write well.” I promise you, it’s not.
  4. When a writer is upset by your recommendations, it’s not because they are being sensitive. They are upset because they came to you for surgery, and you handed them a knife, or worse, you stabbed it in their gut. Listen. If you recommend an outline prior to writing or after writing, and they find that overwhelming and creatively destructive, consider that you might have a different kind of writer on your hands. You are going to have to think outside your box. It’s not so bad. That pantser has likely been doing it all of their lives to get along in a world where they aren’t supposed to exist.
  5. Normalize prefacing every piece of advice with the words “This works for me but it may not work for you”.
  6. Realize that while certain elements of craft are universal, the way of getting to them is not. The way of understanding them is even more fluid. A reverse outline may tell a pantser nothing at all about their story. Why? They already know that story. Writing it all out again as an outline will not tell them anything they don’t already know. It will bore them to tears and they will lose their enthusiasm for the story. However, if you show them how you use the reverse outline (or whatever on-paper thing you do to plot your story), they can arrive at a way to do the exact same thing in a format that works for them in the same way (perhaps a plot treatment or a long synopsis). Now both plotter and pantser have learned something from each other.
  7. Validate, validate, validate. When a pantser has feelings, they are often feelings that are the direct result of using advice that wasn’t right for them. They may actually be in the process of converting it to something they can use. Hear them out, let them vent, and don’t be surprised if they start brainstorming a way around the poorly delivered advice they got and making it work for them. When they get it, tell them so!

So those are my seven tips for helping the pantser in your life and not making them feel like a second-class writer. They are just another writer, like you, struggling in the world, and learning as they go. Different styles do not mean wrong or right, and contrary to a lot of craft books out there, there is more than one way to write a book!

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