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August 09, 2017

Identifying Your Writing Style

There’s no right way to write but there are, generally speaking, two main ways to approach writing: as a plotter or as a pantser (as in ‘by the seat of your pants’). More recently, George R. R. Martin alternately named them architects and gardeners.

According to Martin, “Architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if they planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have; they find out as it grows.”

Understanding your approach to writing can illuminate where you might need assistance, and identify your greatest strengths. Each style has its pros and cons:

Architects (or Plotters)

Pros

  • Create tightly woven plots
  • Know what will happen to characters and how they will grow from the outset
  • Use lots of references/research, making these authors authorities on their subject
  • Use outlines as a road map for the whole project, preventing writer’s block

Cons

  • May struggle with telling instead of showing
  • Find changes to character development or plot may require entire outlines to be revised
  • May write stagnant characters that need ‘life’ breathed into them
  • May have difficulty weaving surprises or plot twists; conversely, their plots may be so convoluted, they are obvious only to the author

Gardeners (or Pantsers)

Pros

  • Have a sense of discovery that allows for surprises in plot and characters
  • May write more organic/natural scenes and conversations
  • Write with spontaneity, keeping the writing exciting and unexpected
  • Have freedom to follow the story, introducing/removing characters and changing tone if needed

Cons

  • May meander trying to find the plot, requiring more editing
  • Find characters or plot may develop in ways they didn’t expect or want
  • May get stuck, and need more review or research before writing can continue
  • May require more editing or adjustments to restructure/tighten up the story

Really, most writers are some combination of the two. A gardener can implement a loose outline, and an architect can have an unexpected conversation spring to life on the page. Still, writing tips tend to be aimed towards one or the other, so understanding your style will help you find your brand of inspiration. The important thing to remember is that both approaches are equally valid, so choose the path that lets you write freely.

Finding focus for Architect-types

  • Use a timeline (either on a physical wall or a digital program) to keep track of different story threads or topics; identify foreshadowing and pay-off, balance ‘screen time’ for each character
  • Use programs like Excel, Scrivener or Evernote to plan out world building, maps, story threads, plot, or character requirements
  • Keep dossiers on characters with notes on their likes/dislikes, relations, skills, quirks
  • Collect reference books or websites where you can find inspiration and answers quickly

Finding focus for Gardener-types

  • Read books loosely related to your topic, takes notes on techniques or approaches that might work for you
  • Keep a sketchbook with you at all times, jot down ideas as they come to you. Try using colour-coded highlighters or post-it tabs to keep track of different themes
  • Try to complete at least one writing prompt a week (approximately 300 words) to test out the ideas you’ve accumulated
  • Try collaborative character creation with peers, such as text role-play, tabletop RPG, or fan-fiction
  • Keep an inspiration wall (either physical, in a notebook, or on a Pinterest board) with esoteric themes you want to capture in your writing; this can include fitting scenery, character sketches, cultural aesthetics, locations/maps, plot themes, or inspirational quotes pertaining to the core themes of the project

Once you determine what works for you, use these go-to tricks to build a productive writing habit. By understanding the common foibles related to your approach, you can be gentle with yourself. After all, every writer requires editing and every manuscript needs to be polished before it can be called “done”. Keep writing—whether you rely on a guidebook or simply discover ruins in the underbrush—and enjoy the journey!