Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 12, 2020

Sticky Note Thoughts for Plotters and Pantsers

by Leigh Cheak

As a writer, your ideas are all in your head, and the job is to wrangle them out and get them onto the page for other people to read and experience. But all writers know that it’s not that simple.

Sometimes, you have to hook those ideas and pull hard. Sometimes, they come out like the slow drip from a faucet. And sometimes, they roar on out with the force of a waterfall. It’s tangled and messy, and first drafts are usually awful. (“Shitty”, according to Anne Lamott.) And sometimes, we need to get out of the muck and see our work from a different perspective.

I like a road map to help with arranging my writing. I like to see where I’m going and plot my course. So I grab a pad of sticky notes. Whether you’ve got ideas but don’t know where to start, you’re waist-deep in a story and can’t figure out where to go from there, or you’re at the end but it’s just not adding up, the answer (at least for me) is sticky notes.

I believe sticky notes can save your writing at any point in the process.

Let me explain.

  1. They’re small, so you can only write main points/details. This forces you to summarize and only write the important stuff.
  2. They’re sticky. You place them down somewhere, and they stay put. No wind or animal tail sweeping it off your workspace.
  3. They keep their sticky pretty well, so you can move them around and stick them elsewhere.
  4. They’re colorful. If you’re a color-coding champ, you can use different colors for main points, specific details, certain characters… your imagination (or ability to organize) is your limit.

Why bother with sticky notes?

When you’re in the story or an essay, it’s easy to get lost and not know where you’re going. Using sticky notes helps to pull that focus out and see things from a macroscopic viewpoint. From there, you can see the progression of events/ideas and decide how to best arrange them. And the wonderful thing about this organizational method is that you can use it to start writing, while you’re in the writing, or after as an editing tool. By pulling out and viewing the progression from an aerial perspective, you can make more informed decisions about where the writing is going and what makes the most sense to go where. You can see potential holes, or disconnected ideas, and figure out how to patch them in or circumvent them. You can also decide which darlings need murdering.

Because they’re small and sticky, it’s easy to manipulate them into new configurations to try new things. Feel free to play! You can easily undo anything that doesn’t work out. It’s not so easy to do that with Word or written pages.

And the sticky means that you can plot your storyline, leave it be, and then come back to it in the same arrangement (unless little goblins mess with it while your back is turned). You can even use wall space to organize your notes because gravity has less jurisdiction with the sticky. Space-saving and writing-saving—sticky notes really are unsung heroes!

When in doubt, use stickies

Stickies can help you decide if you want your story to be linear, or if it’s best to jump around in time and/or perspectives. And if you have a new idea, slap it on a new sticky and find a place for it. The size of your sticky web is limited to you and how many pads you have.

Need to get somewhere, but there’s no clear transition? Lost sight of the conflict? Boom. Sticky. Write your ideas down. Crumple up the ones that don’t work. Or maybe just move it elsewhere and come back to it. I like to keep a sticky graveyard for ideas, just in case one happens to have good resurrection material. Especially if it’s a long piece that I’m working on over a lengthy amount of time.

When I use stickies, I feel like I’m assembling the pieces of a puzzle and then making them fit. I enjoy the tactile pieces and moving them around to see what makes sense where. It’s a fun way to manipulate your story without being trapped by the blank page.

Two Camps: Plotters and Pantsers

I totally stole these two terms from my dear friend, Justine Bylo, who’s also written for WITS. We both identify as Plotters, and we like to use sticky notes from the get-go. We’re also type-A perfectionists (surprise!). When it comes to writing, we like to know where things are going and make logical moves from point to point until we get to the end. I know many other writers are the same, and like to have things thought-out and organized while writing. It’s comforting to have an outline and know that we’re writing towards the next pit-stop instead of the very end of the journey. Using sticky notes help us to line up our plots and chart the course. We make small steps of progression until the end.

Our opposites are Pantsers: writers who fly by the seat of their pants. These writers often have no idea where a story is going, but trust that they’ll get where they’re meant to be. I sort of envy these people, because they can have some wild adventures along the way. They’ll find sticky notes helpful in the middle or end of the writing, when they’re stuck and need direction, or when they’re looking at a tangle of words they need to make accessible for readers.

For Pantsers, sticky notes can get them out of the thick of things so they can see the map and that can guide them to streamline things to make the most sense. They might not need help getting started—they know they’re in for something amazing—but they might need some help with putting the ideas in the most logical order, or finding the holes that can trip up readers.

So whether you’re a control-freak plotter or a free-writing pantser, sticky notes can help you anywhere in the process.

Final Thoughts

I recommend you use the KISS method with your stickies: Keep It Simple Silly. Make sure each sticky only has one point/idea. You want to be able to move the separate parts around. And remember, just because it makes sense in your head does not mean that it will make sense to your reader. Arrangement is key. If a reader can’t follow you through the journey they’ll likely give up, no matter how awesome your dialogue, action, or description.

Are you a Plotter or a Pantser and what stage of writing would you find using sticky notes most useful? Have you done something similar to help with your writing? What’s the most challenging part of writing for you? Let me know down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Leigh

Leigh Pierce née Cheak is a poet/writer and editor living just outside of Nashville, TN with her new husband and her two fur-babies, Mila and Misha. She obtained her MFA in Creative Writing at Western Kentucky University. Her poems have appeared in The Poetry Gymnasium, 2nd Ed.; Wildflower Press’ Anthology: Wild Voices, Vol. 2; The Windhover; The McNeese Review; and Beecher’s Magazine, among others.

Top Image by RitaE from Pixabay.

24 comments on “Sticky Note Thoughts for Plotters and Pantsers”

  1. I've been using sticky notes both to keep track of plot points and as reminders to add/delete things when I make a change or an idea hits me (usually in the shower) for years. You're so right as to how easy and effective they are.

    1. Hi Terry! I'm glad you use them too--they're so helpful! I love with something is simple and useful.

  2. I love sticky notes, and I color-code them, too. For example - a different color for each chapter, for flashbacks, characters, themes, etc. Technology sometimes just can not compare to old-fashioned.

    1. Ooo! Using them for flashbacks is a great idea! Honestly, I never thought to color-code them until recently, but if you're juggling multiple viewpoints or timelines, it's definitely a smart idea!

  3. Hi Leigh! Several friends use this method and swear by it. I am an A-type pantser. Is that an oximoron? LOL

    I believe the multicolored sticky notes may be helpful, making it easier to see where the antagonist pops in for one thing.

    Maybe I can become a plotser.

    Wonderful post. Thanks!

    1. Hello Ellen,

      I don't think it's an oxymoron to be an A-type Pantser. Sometimes, I'm a bit like that myself. And what I mean when I say that is I'm writing and I'm in the thick of it, but also editing myself as I go. I've written a lot that way, actually, especially short items like poems. I'm a Plotter when it's a longer piece. You're not alone!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Thanks for reminding me of the critical importance of sticky notes. And, in fact, I'm just at the stage of brain storming my third book. I have some but they are all the same colour and I need the different colours. I will get some today! Thank you!

    1. Hello Paul,

      Brainstorming is an excellent stage to employ stickies! Toss an idea on one note, then generate more and more and start placing them. It's amazing how something can evolve from just one little sticky. Good luck with your new writing endeavor!

  5. Leigh, I am in awe of all of you who are organized enough to know where your stickies are, print out the work to sticky it up, and then not lose what you stickied! Conundrums like that are why I use Scrivener for all this. The only place in my life where I am 100% organized is my computer. 🙂

    1. Hi Jenny!

      I haven't used Scrivener before, but I think John mentioned it to me once. I'll definitely have to check it out!

  6. I started out as a total pantser, but the more I write and learn, the more I've been weaving plotting into my approach. I started using sticky notes a couple of years ago just to jot things down when inspiration hit, but now I find myself using them more and more. They have helped me to keep track of multiple threads and avoid some plot-hole traps and continuity issues, so I can really get behind everything you've said. I don't see me ever becoming a hardcore plotter (it's just not how my brain works), but I've definitely moved quite a few steps in that direction.

  7. Yay stickies! I'm going to try your "keep it simple" idea rather than cramming tiny paragraphs on each one--though I might run out of wall space. When I first started out, an idea would hit (usually a single scene) and I would write it down, then begin to pants my way further. Result--I never finished a thing, never got further than the first couple chapters, lost all momentum and interest, and frustrated myself endlessly. So, I learned to plot after that idea spark, and I've finally finished my first complete manuscript (I still have about a thousand more edits to go, but for once, I finished the thing). Sticky notes helped a lot, in conjunction with a Fabula Deck. It's a pretty neat tool to help with story structure. It's in the form of the hero's journey, but it's not too difficult to customize. It's been especially helpful sorting out my next project with six points of view. Once I have the stickies on the wall, I start organizing and embellishing in Scrivener.

    1. Hi Jamison,

      I used to cram tiny paragraphs in too--I know how tempting it is. And you can do that, if you've really decided that those things belong together. But keeping it simple makes it more macro--the less detail, the more like a summary you can follow.

      Congratulations on finishing your first manuscript! That's a feat in and of itself, for sure. And yes, edits need happen, but getting a full draft down and ready for editing is huge.

      I'm curious about this Fabula Deck--what's that? I'll have to Google. And that's the second mention of Scrivener here, so I definitely have to check that out!

  8. I am definitely a panster. I use sticky notes when, as I surprise myself with where the characters are taking me, I realize I need to plant a seed for this turn of events way earlier in the story. So they work for me as a To Do in Revision list.

  9. Where you stick your sticky note is important too. be sure to stick them over thirty inches off the floor if you have a two year old in the house. Or a cat.

  10. I'm a pantser. I love sticky notes--perfect for jotting down notes, plot ideas, character descriptions, and other things I can organize later.


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