Skip to main content

Plotters and pantsters

A writer at their desk, planning

Fiction writers are popularly split into two camps: plotters and pantsters. Whereas plotters work closely on a detailed outline before they ever begin a word, iterating on the plot again and again so that it’s tight and hits the right themes, pantsters have a concept in mind, fill their heads with research and ideas, and then just start writing.

I’ve tried really hard to be a plotter, but try as I might, I’ll always be a pantster: in writing, work, and life. In fact, the more I try to plot and create the perfect plan, the less likely I am to actually start writing and see how it feels. The act of creation involves emotion as well as craft; the more I worry about the perfection of my plan, the more I lose creative momentum. The more I iterate, the more the joy seeps through my fingers, until I’m left with a lifeless skeleton that I don’t have the will to carry on with — and I’m still none the wiser about whether my outline would have ever worked.

Some people have the confidence and internal fortitude to build a plan and stick to it; I do not. I self-question like it’s an Olympic sport. In order to overcome this, I need my internal excitement to outweigh my hesitations. Emotional momentum — the kind of excitement that makes you want to dance on your chair because you love the process of what you’re doing so much — is the only way I can get any work out the door.

Doing work imperfectly requires a different kind of confidence. The actor Richard Kind talks about having the confidence to know you’re good at what you do. You can’t just think it speculatively; you’ve got to know it, which means (if you’re anything like me) you’ve got to trick yourself into knowing it.

There are two things I couldn’t have done my first startup without. The first is universal healthcare. (Entrepreneurship is entirely a more brutal proposition without a social safety net.) The second is absolute blind naïvety. If I’d known what I was doing in any way, there’s no way I would have done it. But because I didn’t know enough to ask some of the questions I should have considered, I did it, and it worked. Instead, when a problem arose, we found a way around it, often from first principles.

It’s not that being naïve magically made the problems go away; it’s that we had emotional and intellectual momentum, and we had the confidence to know that we could overcome problems that arose. We weren’t blind: we had a North Star, knew broadly what we were trying to achieve, and had a good understanding of the people we were building for. But we weren’t dead set on doing it a particular way. We kept an open mind. And that’s how we ended up building software that was originally built for higher education but found use at organizations like Oxfam, in social movements like the Spanish 15-M anti-austerity movement, and at Fortune 500 companies. We didn’t know any of that was going to happen ahead of time, but we scrappily adapted and grew. We were pantsters.

I’m trying hard to finish a novel, and do it seriously. It’s hard work, and although there are some similarities to finishing any large creative project, the craft involved is very different to building software. I’m also a very different person to the naïve kid who built a social network twenty years ago. For one thing, I don’t have anywhere near as much free time. For another, my self-doubt is so much better informed.

It’s taken me too long to realize that I have to work on is that emotional momentum. At least for the first draft. It’s not the only thing, and I’m prepared to work hard chiseling whatever comes out into something palatable. But first, the excitement, the creative flow, the momentum, the force.

And when I build that next big software project from scratch, I’ll have to re-learn it then, too.

· Posts