Plotter? Panster? Planster? When I first started writing, I was really obsessed with getting it right. I thought there was a right way and a wrong way to write. So I spent a lot of time reading about how the best writers do it. And it turns out, they do it in as many different ways as there are writers. So my discovery: The right way to write is the way you write. Whatever gets you to put words on the page is what you should do. Still, I think it’s instructive hearing how other writers write- it’s not only a great way to learn about tricks that might serve you, it also gives us a sense that we’re not as weird as we think we are!

In a previous post, we looked at Nancy Lamb’s The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children (Writer’s Digest Books 2001) and her favorite stories and books on craft. As I mentioned there, Lamb’s book is more of a primer than an in-depth exploration of anyone aspect of the craft of writing and differs from Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books: A Hands-On Guide from Story Creation to Publication (Writer’s Digest Books 2009) in its focus not on just picture books but on all types of children’s writing. If you have designs on writing stories for older kids, this is probably a better choice even though the craft lessons in the books are very similar.

Plotter, Pantser, or Plantser?

One of the great lessons from Lamb’s book is her exploration of the different ways writers can approach their story. It’s a useful lesson for beginning writers who are unsure where to start. Lamb lists eight approaches to getting started. Here are 4 of them:

  1. Keep it simple: This is kind of a panster/ plotter approach. Just think of your story as having a beginning (where you define what your hero wants and why he or she wants it); a middle (where obstacles arise and the hero is tested), and an end (where the story resolves in a logical way). Once you’ve settled on these fundamentals in your mind, start building a story around them.
  2. Play it as it lays: A pantser approach. Formulate a clear idea of what your book is about on a macro-level, make a few notes about your characters and scenes, and dive in. The benefit of this approach is spontaneity!
  3. Decorate your wall: A visual plotter’s approach. Use 3×5 index cards to make notes about your different scenes. Then, arrange them on a cork board so you can “see” how the story unfolds. Alternately, you could just use post it notes and a wall. Use colored cards, notes, or pens to help you track characters and subplots.
  4. Go classical: Plotters approach. Use the classical, three-act structure plot points to outline your story from its inciting incident to the climax. A word of warning— make sure it feels like your characters are leading the plot. When a plot leads characters, characters often feel robotic and lifeless. While you can fix this in revision (which is what a lot of plotters do), it’s better to keep this in mind as you write by paying attention to not only the physical plot, but also the emotional plot of your story.

Is There a Right Way to Write?

The lesson to be learned here, is that there is no right way to write. Whatever process makes you comfortable is what you should and must do. This took me a long time to figure out. I was constantly in search of the “right” way to do things. But what I learned is that the right way to write can only discovered by writing. That’s because, your process is specific and unique to you. Sure, it might resemble plotting or pantsing, but there will be little things that you do that are your things. Things that you can only discover by writing, and practicing, and adopting a growth mindset.

Writing Exercise

Given the infinite variety of approaches and techniques, I always love hearing how writers work. I love it not only because it reinforces the idea of how unique our processes are, but because hearing how someone else works might inspire you to try something new for your own process.

In the comments below, tell us which technique works for you. Do you follow one of these approaches or do you do your own thing? I’d love to hear what your process is, and I’ll share mine too!

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