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Plotter/Pantser, Architect/Gardener: the Writing Process Is More Than Binary (An Ode to Those Who Don’t Fit)

If you’re a writer, there’s a likely chance you’ve come across this question: “Are you a plotter or a pantser?” or its high-level equivalent, “Are you a Gardener or an Architect?”

I’ve been asked this at least once and have seen it answered by other authors. Until recently, I was only aware of the plotter/pantser terminology. Then I read the Fantasy Faction blog post, Is Fantasy For Gardeners?, and discovered the Gardener/Architect terms. The post raises some interesting, valid points. I don’t agree with all of them (ie. I think it’s perfectly practical to completely plan a complex fantasy series — sometimes it’s necessary!), but it made me think. Then it did something else.

It made me realize how restrictive the classification is… and how I don’t “fit” the sweeping generalization, over-simplification of the imposed binary system.

Big surprise there, considering I’m always in the middle of things and usually never on either extreme. Though the question becomes this: by reducing the writing process to only two options, how many writers are at a loss? Once more, it shepherds a spectrum into two boxes and casts sets of people aside. When it was just a matter of plotter/pantser, I didn’t give the differences much thought. But in defining with names, expectations, and perceptions like “Gardener” and “Architect”, accompanied by a hard statement like “there are two types of writers”, it makes it easier to see just how much is thrown aside.

For further perspective: it’s like being told you’re either male or female, heterosexual or homosexual, white or black, or whatever and never anything in between or outside… which just isn’t the case. There’s so much more than just two possibilities.

So this one’s for you, people who don’t fit into one box or another.


Simplifying = Limitation. What About the Rest of Us?

It baffles me how the universe functions via a vast system of spectrums, yet we seem obsessed with defining things in terms of binary. You’re either this or that. It’s either A or B. You can’t be one thing if you’re another. As someone who finds themselves perpetually in the middle or a mix of almost everything — from sexual preference to music to politics to opinions — it’s frustrating to see the constant struggle between forcing ourselves into restrictive categories and the reality of a world that’s comprised of crazy, diverse options and the undefinable. Variety is good. Spectrums are a basic element of existence. The insistence that things are only A or B is an illusion that excludes individuals and circumstances, and it seems more about making things neat and tidy rather than getting at the heart of the matter.

It’s no different when applied to the writing process. Again, going back to the Fantasy Faction article, while there’s acknowledgment of a possible spectrum, the general conversation is still based around only two options: you either plan or you don’t. You’re either an outlining fiend or you’re not.

What happens when you’re neither or both?

People seem to assume that someone who identifies as an Architect/plotter (or Gardener/pantser) is always that. There’s only two options and an author can only be one of them. There doesn’t seem to be much discussion about the middle ground or *gasp* the outside.

Then there’s the fact that when people refer to a “Gardener”, it doesn’t necessarily come out as free-form as they’re treating it. Gardeners still plan. There are still things they have to know. What about the people who don’t go that far? Where are they in this either/or situation? They don’t have a box. Or a corner. Or a bucket to throw their stuff in. And that’s just sad.


So I Got to Thinking In the Shower…

What am I?

I spent an entire day working this out. From hot shower to grocery shopping, I gave labels a good think. And came up with an interesting answer.

If I stick to only the perceptions, restrictions, and terms other writers are using, I’m a Gardener within an Architect’s playground. I can do intense outlines but a lot happens organically. My characters and plot can surprise me along the way, but I tend to know where it’s going, what revelations have to happen, the order of things, and so on.

But not always. And herein lies the problem of the binary.

I shift.

Sometimes I’m a mad Architect/plotter. Sometimes, I’m a chilled out Gardener/pantser. Other times I’m a mix.

… and there goes the exclusive A or B neighbourhood. I’m a hybrid. *cue creepy music*

Seriously, though, my process changes depending on the length and complexity of the work. I can’t be pinned down either way. When I write poetry and short stories, they take from the Gardener side of things, but can be even more free-form than that. Sometimes there isn’t any type of planning, not even a little, especially with poetry. Words just show up. I don’t know where it’s going, why, or how. It just happens.

On the other hand, when I write novellas, novels, and less complicated series, I slip into that “Gardener within Architect’s playground” bit. Except when it’s an overly complicated series (something like GRRM’s work), then I’m straight-up Architect.

So, where’s that third box? Or fourth?

Let’s try five.


The Writing Process Spectrum: Let’s Add A Few More Names, Shall We?

I’m going to propose there are at least five types of writers, not two. In my head, it looks something like this:


Free Spirit > Gardener > Scientist > Architect
Shifter, Hybrid, Other


Free Spirit: Doesn’t plan a thing. Lets the muses rule and the subconscious run the game. They don’t know the characters, plot, or structure, just that they need to get the words or story out. Everything is organic from the ground up.


Gardener: Has some ideas of what the work looks like, sounds like, feels like, or some other aspect, but aren’t stuck on the full picture. They plant the seed of thought and don’t know exactly how the plant will look, how many branches there are, if the petals are solid or dotted, if the leaves are dark green or light green, how tall the plant will be, or even the gender of said plant. But like a gardener that works with real plants and not the metaphorical ones, they do have some plans. Because in a real garden, it’s valuable to plot out what plants go where. Some plants need full sun for most of the day while others need shade. Some plants can’t be next to one another while others thrive in symbiotic relationships. It also helps to know how far apart seeds have to be: individual plants can be vicious competitors or just really good at sucking up nutrients and depriving other individuals of what they need. Planning helps, but much of the result is up to the natural flow of things.


Scientist: They plan for the important stuff and design a solid structure. They set a lot of variables to test their hypothesis in a controlled manner, but once the experiment starts running, they step back and let it happen. Sometimes the outcome is what they expected; other times, there are surprise results and out-liars and new theories. While there’s more of a plan than what a Gardener requires, there’s still room for chance and organic flow.


Architect: Engineers, plans, and outlines the plot, characters, and everything in between. They know exactly how the work will look when it’s finished because they’ve planned every detail. They stick to the blueprint and build the building to every predetermined specification, then put on their designer hat to furnish the house *just so*. Everything has its place. Deviations are costly.


Shifter, Hybrid, Other: Those who don’t identify as any of the other categories, either completely or partially. Maybe there’s no name for the process. Maybe the writer shifts from one process to the other, even in the span of a single project. Maybe they combine everything in one. This is the place for anyone without a place.


Sure, this isn’t as neat or simplified as a binary system, but I’d like to think it captures more writers and their processes than excludes. In the current line of thinking, the “other” category doesn’t exist, which is damn annoying. I also take issue with the vague interpretation of “Gardener” because if you talk to a serious gardener, there’s more involved than just simply dropping a seed in the ground and leaving it be. I’ve done some gardening on our little balcony and it’s NOT that easy. There’s a whole lot of planning that goes into it, from what seeds we have this year to the pots we need to placement to bug checks, pruning, and weeding. Thus why an ultra free-form category is necessary, one that truly has no planning involved.


But What Do I Know?

Maybe I’m off-base on this. Maybe I’m just plain crazy. Maybe being stuck in the middle gives me some weird perspectives. But it’s just an idea. Maybe, instead of propagating the same old thought of only two options, we could think past that. Maybe the better question should be “What is your writing process?” or “Do you like planning or not?” as opposed to assigning labels like plotter/pantser or Architect/Gardener. The broader question often yields more interesting answers, telling us much more about the author and the creation than picking 1 or 2 when there are other numbers to explore.



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