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Tip Tuesday #92

Tip Tuesday is a recurring feature where blog readers send in tips for fellow writers. If you'd like to send in a tip, please e-mail me at agentspotlight(at)gmail(dot)com.

Today's tip comes from the ever-helpful Deren Hansen who blogs at The Laws of Making. Make sure you give him a visit when you click off here. Enjoy!

The writers' version of, "Boxers or briefs?" is, "Plotter or Pantser?" Writers talk as though their preferred mode is a fact of their nature: "I'm a born pantser--couldn't outline to save my soul," or, "I can't write until I know where the story is going."

I have long argued that that plotting and writing by the seat of your pants are, in fact, techniques, and that there are times when one will serve you better than the other.

I'm often met with tolerant smiles when I make this case, but now I have evidence. In a post on the PsyBlog, titled, "Unusual Thinking Styles Increase Creativity," we read about a study in which people with a rational problem-solving style (plotters) and people who approach problems intuitively (pantsers) generated more creative answers when they were asked to solve a problem using the opposite style.


In brief, there's apparently some truth in the cliché corporate admonition to, "think outside the box." (If you'd like to know a bit more, I have a longer discussion about why switching things up leads to more creativity in a post about thinking differently on my blog.)

So when you need a shot of creativity, switch your dominant pattern: set your outline aside and try free writing, or make your muse sit at a desk and do something systematic.

As an example, when I get stuck I find it helpful to ask myself questions about the story (e.g., Why is this secondary character in a particular place at just the right time to interact with the main character?): I try to make the questions as systematic as the ones a journalist might use in an interview and then I free-write the answers. I've discovered some of the coolest things about my story that way.

-Deren Hansen


  1. Great tip. I decided to be a plotter for my new project, but I'm a bit stuck. I'm going to try your technique and see if it helps me get moving. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. I spend most of my time free writing. I usually create a very broad plot line so that I don't get confused with my intentions, but ultimately I don't like to limit my characters to specific attributes or reactions until I'm confronted with having to write them. Maintains a nice element of surprise for the me too!

    PS: Natalie, I've seen your name splashed all over all the blogs I regularly read so thought I'd drop by and say hi!!! :o)

  3. I'm not the most uptight or organized outliner, but I just can't conceive of writing an entire novel that makes sense, without knowing where it's going ahead of time.

    I do pants a bit when writing shorter fiction though. I'll be sure to try to do so even more after this suggestion. Thanks, Casey, Deren, and Natalie!

  4. I generally have an topic and outline in my head when I start. However, once into it, the muse seems to take over. Once the muse is spent, the systematic takes back over to give order and generally clean up the mess.

  5. I generally have an topic and outline in my head when I start. However, once into it, the muse seems to take over. Once the muse is spent, the systematic takes back over to give order and generally clean up the mess.

  6. Excellent advice, Deren. I am a plotter, but what I first plot doesn't always feel right in the story. So later, I often fly by the seat of my pants and rewrite the section that isn't fitting. In order to do so, I must be willing to think outside the box (or outside the outline).

  7. That sounds a lot like trying to write with your non dominant had. I know that technique works. Now I have to try this one.

  8. This is a really interesting idea, and it sounds like it would work. Thanks for passing it along.

  9. This makes a lot of sense. If what you've always done isn't working for you, switch things up. Great tip!

  10. great tip! but what if you were a pantster, switched to being a plotter and it really worked, then got stalled out because you can't plot your next one? switch back and forth every other novel? :D hehe

  11. Hooray for applying psychological research to writing! I'm typically a plotter but it's very true that some of my best writing comes when I just start somewhere and let it flow.

  12. Wow, fantastic tip! I've never thought about it like that. I'm a plotter but I usually abandon my outline about halfway through the story. I'll be sure to try being a pantser more often now. :)