Plotting vs Pantsing: How Does Your Garden Grow?

So the other day I came across this quote, attributed to George R.R. Martin: “I’ve always said there are – to oversimplify it – two kinds of writers. There are architects and gardeners. The architects do blueprints before they drive the first nail, they design the entire house, where the pipes are running, and how many rooms there are going to be, how high the roof will be. But the gardeners just dig a hole and plant the seed and see what comes up. I think all writers are partly architects and partly gardeners, but they tend to one side or another, and I am definitely more of a gardener.”

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I love this. Not only is it a different take on the whole plotter vs pantser debate (plotting a story vs flying by the seat of your pants), but it provides wonderful imagery to explore.  It is spring here, and plants are popping up all over the place. All the bulbs I planted last fall (except for the ones the chipmunks ate) are springing to life. I planted an assortment, so there was no telling whether a white or a yellow daffodil would come up, or a red or purple tulip.


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I definitely tend to the gardener side. My writing is a bit like my bed of bulbs. I know the story will have lots of daffodils, but many times their height, color, and style have yet to be determined until the story starts to flow. Other places will have herbs–their traits and purpose clear. Then there is the occasional ornamental shrub, which blooms for just a few days, overwhelming you with its glorious beauty and fragrance, before it turns green and a bit boring for the rest of the year.  Still other plants in my garden stay green all year–no flowers, no scent, no purpose except to occupy space and provide some color and contrast even on the drabbest of winter days.

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But even herbs and shrubs can surprise you, and there is always the bulb the chipmunk stole and buried in the middle of the lawn–writers and gardeners always need to be ready for a surprise.

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What type of writer are you?

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About Marin McGinnis

A lawyer in real life, Marin McGinnis feeds the more creative part of her soul by writing Victorian era romance and mystery. She's spent almost half her life in a tree-lined, unabashedly liberal suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. She's been married to the same great guy for over 20 years, and has one teen-aged son. They all live together in a drafty old house with their two standard poodles, Larry and Sneaky Pete. While her very first book will languish under the bed, the next book, Stirring Up the Viscount, won two contests in 2013 and was published by The Wild Rose Press in January 2015. Her next two books, Secret Promise and Tempting Mr. Jordan, are also available from Wild Rose Press. Marin currently serves as President of the Northeast Ohio chapter of Romance Writers of America and is hard at work on the next book. You can find her here, at, Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and Pinterest.

22 Responses to Plotting vs Pantsing: How Does Your Garden Grow?

  1. I’m normally a plotter – lots of charts and timelines, character questionnaires. I need to know where I’m going like a map when I’m traveling. I don’t always know which road I’m going to take but I have a general idea. This new book has me trying to be a pantser and it’s driving me crazy!! I guess as long as the words are flowing but I find myself constantly thinking 3 steps ahead on what comes next.

    • Hi Maggie–thanks for stopping by! I tried to be a total pantser when I started writing, but it was a disaster. It’s definitely hard to go against type, but I agree, when the words are flowing you have to just let it go. 🙂

  2. Becky Lower says:

    Nice post, Marin. For my series, I had to provide a synopsis for the final five books before I had written them. I highly recommend this if you are writing a series. It doesn’t tie you down completely, but you have to think about each book and how it will interact with the others. Mine are mostly written as stand-alones, but I can foreshadow events and story lines that are yet to come in the book that’s out now.

    • Thanks, Becky! I write a synopsis for each book. I usually have to rewrite it when the book is done, but it helps keep me on track when a flower turns out to be an orchid instead of a daffodil. 🙂

  3. Marlow says:

    Thanks for this Marin. I’m not much of a plotter, but your post inspired me to write a rough synopsis for my latest WIP.

    • I’m glad you found it helpful, Marlow! I find a rough synopsis to be a good compromise between plotting and pantsing. It’s a nice way to remind yourself where you planned to go when you started.

  4. Debra Doggett says:

    I saw that quote elsewhere and it made me laugh. I have gone from an almost complete pantser to about two thirds pantser and one third plotter. I’m working my way to half and half, lol. Nice post.

  5. Definitely a “pantser”, although coming from the world of technical writing and being a math geek, I would say I am an ORGANIZED pantser. The story is in the mind, as are the characters and settings. I just start to write…And yes, I do wake up in the middle of the night and, when trying to get back to sleep, the WIP pops up and I write a few things in the journal next to my bed…..I’ve been to plot, plot plot workshops—all great. Believe it or not, I’ve been stuck a few times with twists and turns of plot and clues that I used a maze to map out my third book (but still writing by the seat of my butt :-))

    • An organized pantser–a rare creature indeed. 🙂 I love, love the idea of a maze to map out a book! If I ever write a true romantic suspense (my books just sort of hint at it), I will have to try that. Thanks for visiting, Laurie!

  6. I’m definitely a gardener, but everything in my garden is half wild. The stories grow as they will, travel about and vine up what supports I can erect. The resultant blooms are unpredictable, colorful and sometimes a little bit dangerous. There just might be some glossy, deep-green poison ivy leaves lurking there, upon which my characters may tread!

  7. I’m a plotter by nature. In my regular life, I like to have a plan for my day and my week. It makes me crazy when things are up in the air!

    But you can’t plot every single word you’re going to write any more than you can predict what unexpected event is going to change the course of your day. So I think of my plotting as a kind of road map that helps me find my way. Sometimes I can venture off onto unchartered territory if it feels right, but as long as I find my way back on the road to THE END, I’m where I want to be.

  8. IreAnne says:

    Marin, Love that description. I would say I am an architectural gardener 🙂 I garden by design. Does that make sense? I tend toward both. There are parts that are plotted and parts that just fell there. But, if I had to choose one, it would be gardener.

    • That makes perfect sense–many gardens, after all, are meticulously designed. One can never entirely eliminate that little bit of accident that comes with gardening, and I definitely wouldn’t want to. 🙂

  9. I enjoyed your post. I know I’m both almost all the time. I like to be a panster and dream and create storylines without structure, but if I find myself against a wall, I sit down and plot the rest of the story, knowing I don’t have to hold to the outline. It just gives me a sense of not being helpless or hopeless, especially when writing suspense.

    • Thanks so much, Judy. I like having the plot at least roughly sketched out too–it’s good for getting back on track. That said, in one of my WIPs, I’ve gone completely off-outline, and I have no idea where I’m supposed to go next!

  10. I’m a gardener but need to try to be more of an architect. 🙂

  11. I am a pantser, although I actually hate that term. To me “writing from the seat of your pants” sounds like something behind you is pushing you into the story. I say I “write into the mist”. I come up with an opening scene and see where the story takes me from there. I would love be to able to plot, but my creative brain doesn’t work that way. I know my characters and have a general idea of themes and what the story is about. But all the rest… I just have to start writing and see what happens. It’s not efficient, it’s not pretty, but it’s the only thing that works for me.

    The gardening metaphor is interesting. I guess it’s sort of like that. But somehow gardening seems too patient and slow compared to writing. For me, it’s more like a journey where you kind of have an idea where you want to end up but you don’t get out a map and plan anything, just take the next turn that feels right and then the next and hope that eventually you get there. Ha ha!

  12. Lynn Crain says:

    Thanks for such a wonderful post, Marin. I really do enjoy trying to figure out just what type of writer I am. Not…maybe…I’m not sure. LOL! Most of the time, I might do a vague outline then let things go as they will.

    Your post inspired me so much, I just had to add my 2 cents in a roundabout way.

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