by Julie Glover
This coming weekend, I'll be in Midland, Texas for the Permian Basin Writers Workshop Event where I get to present on choosing the right writing process for you.
In preparation, I've been reading up on writing process and personality and came across an interesting paper published by the National Council of Teachers in English (2009). The authors developed recommendations for writing instruction based on personality type as revealed in the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator (MBTI).
Having long been a fan of personality type, I was curious to see what they suggested. And now I'm sharing with you!
The MBTI has been researched, reviewed, and administered many, many times and found to be a helpful measure. (No, it's not perfect, and you can find plenty of articles that say that, but overall it's earned respect in the psychological community.) You can find a rough version that will provide your four-letter personality type at Human Metrics.
One of the personality spectrums studied in the MBTI is extraversion versus introversion. Some people think of this as being outgoing versus being shy, but that's not what they mean. Rather, extraverts (yes, with an a not o) are energized by interactions with others; that is, they thrive off being around other people. Introverts don't dislike people, but they aren't energized by interactions with others; that is, they get drained being around other people.
Since this is a spectrum, there can be a big difference between a slight introvert and an extreme introvert or a slight extravert and an extreme extravert, but we fall on one side of the other.
An easy way to think of it is this: After an enjoyable day with friends, are you more amped up or do you feel worn out?
The authors of the paper, "Personality and Individual Writing Processes," were a professor at Georgia State University and a staff psychologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They observed 215 students in various settings and compiled recommendations based on their experience. One in particular caught my eye:
As predicted by theory, the extraverts with whom we have worked write with little planning, though they often feel guilty about not writing from outlines. They sometimes describe their writing process as "quick and dirty" or the "easy way." ... Extraverts often find freewriting a good method for developing ideas, for they think better when writing quickly, impulsively, and uncritically.
By contrast, they noted that:
[Introverts'] basic writing process often follows the prewriting-writing-rewriting pattern. They generally want most of their ideas clarified before writing.... They tend to find writing much easier when much of the essay if written mentally before they put pen to paper.
In other words, the authors suggest that extraverts are natural pansters (write by the seat of their pants) and introverts are natural plotters.
But I'm definitely an introvert, and the one time I plotted a novel all the way out, I couldn't write the prose. I kept getting blocked, because in my mind, the story had been told and I had nothing left to discover.
I wondered how many people agreed with the authors' theory and how many were like me, challenging their conclusions with their process. So with the magic of social media, I posted this question on Facebook:
I ended up with 87 replies! What did I find?
Writers tend to be introverts.
Introverts were 66% of my sample with extraverts making up 34%. That's not surprising, given that writing is a solitary activity. You have to be comfortable working alone with your primary social contact being the characters in your head and on the page.
Writers dislike binary choices.
Oh, the number of people who didn't want to choose plotter or pantser! Mind you, these are not perfect labels. They exist on a spectrum too.
You can be a thorough plotter with a color-coded system of index cards and character analyses, a just-show-me-the-blank-page pantser who knows no more than setup or character before you begin, or you can be anywhere in between.
This is why you'll hear lots of other options given: plantser, plontser, quilter, puzzler, outliner. But this wasn't an open-ended question, so I made people pick. (Oh, the horror! ~grin~)
Introverts can be pantsers or plotters.
Good news! We introverts went about halfsies on whether we plot or pants our way through. At least it was good news to me, since it means I'm not alone, nor am I doing it wrong. (Not that I'd change the process that works for me if the results had been entirely different.)
Quite often, introverts answered with some form of "I outline a little, then start writing." That is, many know turning points, foresee the climax or ending, or have a good sense of scenes they'll include, but they don't map out the whole novel.
Then again, there were plenty of strict plotters, whose novel outlines resemble evidence boards. If you know one of those, give them office supply gift cards for their birthday. (Just a tip.)
Extraverts are largely pantsers.
You extraverts who plot are not common. Rather, by a 4-to-1 margin, extraverts pantsed more than plotted.
One interesting response came from an extravert who "was a technical and legal writer, so structure was drummed into me." So it could be that some extraverts plot because that's what they were trained to do. I'm not saying it doesn't work for them—it does for this writer—but that could be how their preference developed.
My Survey Results
For introverts, I suggest you try both ways, try all the ways. Though maybe try it out on a short story before you waste an entire two weeks on a plot you'll never turn into a novel or pants your way through an entire book that turns out to be a heap of chaos.
Meanwhile, if you're an extravert who pantses her novel and someone tries to tell you that's not the way to do it, they may not have a clue what it's like to be you. Your personality type may well be best suited to grabbing the pen and paper or the laptop and just getting started.
But all in all, the writing process you should choose based on your personality type is...drumroll, please...the one that gets books written.
Seriously, go look up the writing processes of multipublished, bestselling authors and you'll see both plotters and pantsers out there.
As my Gen-Z sons would say, my best advice here is YOU DO YOU.
Are you an introvert or an extravert? Are you more of a plotter or a pantser? Have you tried the other way, and how did it go?
A long time ago, Julie Glover administered the MBTI in her master's degree internship. While still a fan of personality type, she now writes cozy mysteries, supernatural suspense, and young adult fiction. Be sure to check out her co-written Muse Island series, which begins with Mark of the Gods.
And in case you're wondering, Julie's more pantser and her co-writer is more plotter. But ta-da! Finished books.
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Very interesting article and findings. I find this sort of thing so fascinating, as I've spent quite a lot of time studying my writing process. I'm very much an introvert, and a shy one at that. I started out a pure pantser. Give me characters and an idea and I was off! But over the years, I've sort of morphed into a plantser. I need to know basic GMC and the premise. I usually have an idea of a few key scenes, though they may not actually end up in the book (I never know the ending), and I use it more as a guide, for those days when my "doubt demon" rears his ugly head. And honestly? I think this plotting part comes from years of submitting and rejections (aka I'm a perfectionist, and there's a strong need to "do it right"). But when characters grab a hold of me, I'm still off and running. I have tried plotting. It never works, because the creative side of me, that comes up with this stuff, doesn't kick in until I'm actually writing. Great post. Thanks for making me think. 🙂
Thanks, Joanne! I love this stuff too...obviously. I've tried everything: plotting, pantsing, outlining, everything every craft book suggested. But like you, I'm in between—I need to know a few things going in but feel a lot of flexibility when I start putting words on a page.
Haven't been able to digest the entire article yet, but I consider myself an introvert and am a planster all the way. Can't plot for the life of me, and I've tried.
There's always some plotter out there who says "but you MUST," but once you've figured out what works, stick with it! You've got your writing process figured out, and it works. Enjoy!
INFJ - and an extreme plotter. I find that knowing exactly where I'm going helps make sure that every scene written leads to the end in some way, and finding that particular way, through the characters assigned to deal with the scene. There's plenty of room for invention along the path: I can go that way on foot, in a jet, or in a carriage-and-four.
This is really interesting to me: "I find that knowing exactly where I'm going helps make sure that every scene written leads to the end in some way..." It's great that plotters can turn out books that way. I'm honestly a little envious, because it seems so efficient. But for this mostly pantser, it's not until Draft #2 that this level of structure gets infused into my stories. Happy writing, Alicia!
Ultra extrovert, full on pantser. Great theory, Julie - never heard that. Boomer is looking forward to covering you in cat hair.
You're an extravert? Who knew! 😉 Yeah, I totally see both of those about you, and you turn out great books! (And yay, I get to meet Boomer!)
I'm a definite introvert (on the fairly severe end), but plotting is a form of personal torture to me. Like small talk. "NO! PLEASE, don't make me!" LOL Seriously, though, when I threw away outlines and started pantsing, my writing not only took off, I started truly enjoying the process. I love writing, and I love not knowing what happens next. I even research as I go, since doing it ahead of time would mean having to know beforehand where the story is going.
Some people definitely like to write and discover at the same time. And that's exactly what works for them. Keep at it!
guess I'm the outlier here (based on your survey at least) - extrovert all the way AND a plotter.
Yep, that was an outlier, both in my little survey and the according to the authors of the paper I cited. But if it works... All the best to you and your writing!
Interesting sturdy, Julie. I'm a total introvert, but also a pantser. Not to say I just sit down in front of a blank page and start writing. I generally have a basic premise and a few main characters, but I just can't pre-plot. I like to compare my writing style to navigating with a compass rather than a GPS. I know the general direction I'm heading and where I'd like to end up, but I don't know what roads I'm going to take to get there. It's a journey of discovery for me as well as the characters. I'll admit I sometimes end up in a bad neighborhood and have to back track, and I've run off a few cliffs. but that's all part of the fun, right?
I'm similar. I tend to write a one-page outline and a blurb, and that's it before I start writing. I do more structure as I write, but not until I get to that point. And with mysteries I've written? I don't know whodunnit until about 2/3 of the way through writing. And then I figure if I don't even know, my readers shouldn't. 🙂
I do the same thing with mysteries. I was 75% done with my current book before I knew who the real culprit was. If I know the responsible party in the beginning, I feel like I'm more likely to give it away too early. The longer I keep myself in the dark, the longer I can keep the reader there as well.
I think the judging--perceiving dichotomy would be more helpful in answering the pantser/plotter question, as it deals with how people prefer to approach tasks (according to the article).
I agree, and at this point, I'm planning to follow up with a post on that part of personality type! 🙂
Great post! I'm an introverted plotter. The one time I tried writing a story without plotting/outlining, I almost went crazy. 🙂
Once you've figured out your process, it's like an aaaah moment. Glad you got yours!
Thanks for this - very thought-provoking! I'm an introvert and consider myself a plotter. Generally work out a lot in my head, then for short fiction, write out some notes and then write. For books, I research and make notes and then try and shape things into an outline before writing. I wish some researchers would go further with this, and see if the more specific personality types (INFJ etc.) tend toward pantsing or plotting!
I intend to keep looking at the research! I think other aspects of the personality type would tell more; for instance, intuitives might be more likely pantsers while sensors might be more plotters, or perceivers might be the pantsers while judgers are the plotters. Just theories, but I'm curious about them! Thanks, Miriam.
100% pantser here. INTJ is my total profile. In case that helps with YOUR research. 😉
Definitely an introvert plotter here. It wasn't my habit to do much plotting back before I got serious about improving my craft a few years back. Larry Brooks's Story Engineering was eye-opening on basic story structure, and I've focused on that aspect of storytelling ever since. I've found that by at least having all the major twists and turns figured out, it makes for a better draft and faster editing process. And my success rate (both in terms of actual acceptances and personal rejections with feedback) has gone up exponentially.
That said, from a book writing standpoint I need to hone my plotting process down to make it more efficient and swift. I have a habit of getting bogged down in too much planning, like some people do with world-building. It's a psychological crutch to keep from doing what needs to be done: getting the dang thing written.
Thanks! And regardless of personality type, I'm a fan of a least trying things out to see what works. Sometimes an approach that worked before no longer does as well, so people can change too. But Story Engineering is great about showing the structure needed, a structure which this writer irons out in draft number two. 🙂
I am the outlier plotting extrovert - but there is a reason I walk alone. It's because I'm plotting. And since my characters feel real, am I really alone? Not in my head or world. 😉
Yep. I've started to believe some of my favorite people to hang out with are my own fictional characters. Not sure what that says about me... 😀
That's really cool, Julie! I answered your binary questions as Introvert-Plotter (because I'm a rule follower, LOL), but in reality my process has evolved over the years. I do always start with an outline based on key moments (James Bell's Writing from the Middle) as a guide, then some character sketch prewriting. I think I'd freeze if I just opened a blank document and started...writing. But that being said, I don't plan out much beyond the key scenes before I start writing. Things seem to spring up organically along the way (and sometimes I have to go back and adjust my outline as a result).
I'm glad to see that pedagogy is working to refine the process of teaching writing to students based on flexible models. As a former writing/lit professor, I've encountered students who claim to be "bad" at writing and despise it because of the strait-jacket approach they were taught. Often they'll surprise themselves when they try it a different way.
Aw, the straitjacket! Why do we do that to ourselves? I was glad that my own son, who declared he hated writing, had me to show him that he didn't hate writing. He loved informative writing, just didn't like the creative stuff. We do need to find our niches. Thanks, Kathy!
Very interesting, Julie. I would have guessed the opposite--more introverts pantsing. I'm about as introverted as they come and I'm always happier pantsing fiction, though I do outline my non-fiction. I am wondering if in the study they focused mostly on college essays? As I would have probably outlined those--different type of writing than a novel, for instance.
Same here, regarding outlining for non-fiction. So definitely doesn't work for me for fiction, but can be helpful for non-fiction writing.
That's an interesting distinction. I write both fiction and non-fiction and approach both nearly the same, with main points figured out but not much else. But I suspect not everyone does. I should look into that!
The MBTI test confirmed what I am already fully aware of … I am an EXTROVERT (yes, I am shouting) through and through. But, I am not a total pantster - I do start with the broad outline of a plot; but once I start writing, I become a pantster. I have already created my characters: backstories and all, and they start to take over - they determine how each scene unfolds; they write their own dialogue. To put it another way - the plot outline defines the ultimate destination, and the important pit-stops along the way; but the characters decide the details of the journey - how they will travel, occasional deviations, and experiences along the way.
Makes total sense, Anne! It's interesting that we don't really define plotting and pantsing much these days, particularly since plotting can range from some preplanning to detailed scene-by-scene outlines. That latter camp wouldn't work for a lot of writers!
Introvert and planner, both to extremes at times. I hate surprises, but, paradoxically, strive to be surprising in my writing. Thanks for this!
Some writers have to really plan behind the scenes to deliver the best surprise they can to a reader!
INTJ also here. Enjoyed the article very much. Thank you Julie.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
INFJ - in my work i start at the big picture, then go into detail.
With my writing i'm a pantster, but then i want to pull back and see the big picture before I self edit. Left brain, Right brain thing??
Interesting. I think sometimes when plotters think of pantsers, they think that means no structure. But a bit like you described, I definitely do structure...just more on the second draft than the first. It definitely goes big picture to detail for me as well.
So interesting, Julie! I missed your original question, but I'm a strong introvert and I pants.
During your introduction above, I wondered if there's actually a stronger correlation between the Thinking/Feeling or Sensing/Intuition options with plotter vs. pantser than with the Introversion/Extroversion labels. Like, are Pantsers more likely to lean toward Intuition and plotters toward Sensing? Or something like that?
In other words, I wonder if -- with SO many authors being introverts -- Extrovert/Introvert might not be the strongest way to find the difference between plotters/pantsers. 🙂
(I know, I know, I'm OVER-thinking this, but I just find brain stuff *fascinating*. LOL!)
I think it's particularly fascinating that you pants your novels, Jami, because you're known for your fantastic structure worksheets (among other things, like great novels). I have used them myself! But usually in revisions when I want to make sure everything's lining up alright.
And I agree with you that the other dichotomies might predict pantsing/plotting more clearly. It's just that the original study's authors did it with extraversion-introversion so I tackled that, also not knowing when I wrote this post whether anyone besides me would be interested in this stuff. Since they seem to be (yay!), I plan to write future posts on other personality traits and writing process! Thanks.
ambivert pantser. I keep notes, and keep a running list of things to do, but I don't formally plot.
I like that idea: a running list. Thanks, Denise!