Popular and Academic Terms for Writing Processes: Pantsers and Planners, One-Drafters and Multi-Drafters

One of my favorite bits of composition research to share with my students is Muriel Harris’s 1989 “Composing Behaviors of One- and Multi-Draft Writers.” It’s a very good way to make the notion that “the writing process is recursive, not linear” make sense in specific, personal terms, and it’s a great way to help them start reflecting on their own writing processes. It serves a little like taking a personality quiz: are you a multi-draft writer or a one-draft writer or somewhere in between? The names can be a little misleading, but once you start illustrating the concepts, it’s easy enough to grasp. One-drafters are people who spend most of their time in planning, use extensive outlines and other planning devices, and resist revision because they feel a strong sense of closure once they execute their plan. Multi-drafters are people who struggle with planning because they prefer to discover meaning in the drafting process and spend most of their time in revision because they are open to constant, incremental improvements.

Similarly, one of the first things Wrimos (people who participate in National Novel Writing Month) discuss with each other is the “pantser” vs “planner” approach (or the “somewhere in between” option: plantser). Yes, these are somewhat unfortunately named, but the cutesy names create a system of talking about writing processes that is very pragmatic. Planners are people who spend a lot of time figuring out what they want to say in advance, creating outlines and character profiles before they draft their novel in November. Pantsers are people who “write by the seat of their pants” and walk into their novel draft with barely any idea what they’re going to write until they write it.

Screenshot of the self-awarded badges from the NaNoWriMo profile options
Planner, Pantser, and Plantser are the first three badges Wrimos can award themselves on their profiles on the NaNoWriMo.org website. They offer definitions when you hover over the badges, as shown here for plantser and planner (pantser is the colored one, as it’s the one I selected for myself)

There are, obviously, some parallels here. As often happens, a community outside the academe has developed a sophisticated vocabulary for talking about processes in their collective activities and that vocabulary parallels (but does not meet, or in some ways may even contradict) the academic vocabulary for describing the same processes.

At the most basic level, Harris’s one-drafters are NaNoWriMo’s planners, and Harris’s multi-drafters are NaNoWriMo’s pantsers, and Harris’s spectrum in between where most people fall are NaNoWriMo’s plantsers. But there are some really important distinctions in how these groups are characterized that suggest a significant difference in thinking about writing processes.

In the NaNoWriMo community’s taxonomy, there’s a certain glamour to each end of the spectrum: planners are painted as the ever-rational, detail-oriented type, akin to detectives in mystery fiction or powerful villains who are always one step ahead; pantsers are portrayed as brave, if a bit reckless, confidently embracing chaos and trusting the process, to an almost heroic degree. This, of course, is in line with NaNoWriMo’s characterization of writers in protagonistic terms in general, which is probably necessary for the event’s success in promoting itself.

In Harris’s taxonomy, though, there’s a subtle contrast. It’s the multi-drafters (the pantsers) who are seen as more uncertain and hesitant, unwilling to commit to an option when other options are available, and unsure of how to proceed until they’re already revising. The one-drafters in Harris’s taxonomy (the planners) come off as somewhat arrogant (they procrastinate the actual writing, often claiming they know exactly how much time it will take them) and definitely inflexible. They seem more ready to commit without thinking than the multi-drafters.

So, which is it? Are writers who do a lot of planning careful or are they recklessly willing to commit? Are writers who start by drafting and do a lot of revision reckless or are they careful and considerate?

Woman writing in a planner
Planning or pantsing? Why not “it depends”?
(Image via stocksnap)

The answer, of course, is “yes,” as it usually is with an either/or question.

Both taxonomies reflect realities borne on the back of solid collective observations, both through Harris’s systematic qualitative inquiry via accepted research methods and by the mass collective experience-sharing of the NaNoWriMo community.

And it’s worth noting, as I do with my students, that genre and context matters a lot here, as it does with basically everything all the time. The thing is, for my own writing process, I’m a pantser in fiction (the NaNoWriMo space) but a one-drafter in nonfiction (the research space). At some level, that means that the characterization of me as arrogant and overly confident in my writing is almost definitely true (it is), but at another it means that maybe we need to have more nuanced ways to talk about it than a simple binary pole spectrum. While Harris argues that the categories are somewhat fixed, in that writers don’t typically change their processes much once they find what works for them, it’s worth noting that Harris is studying exclusively writers in academic environments, and likewise the NaNoWriMo taxonomy was developed exclusively for discussions about novel writing.

I always get a little dizzy when I start trying to bridge these concepts, because they don’t quite map onto each other the way they seem like they should. That being said, they should be bridged, and there is value in hybridizing terms developed in parallel communities. This is definitely a concept that needs more study and more careful inquiry!

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