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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Who Gets More Creative Flow? Pantsers or Plotters?

Every writer I know writes in part because they’ve experienced the glory of the creative flow – when your imagination flies through endless possibilities, your wisdom focuses your attention and gives you unexpected maybe even undeserved insights, you can see, hear and feel exactly what you want to write, and your fingers can barely keep up with the words that arrive effortlessly.

Every writer yearns for more flow experiences. Some wait for flow to inspire them, and they spend more time waiting than writing. Those of us who persist as writers learn how to work from the memory of flow until we are blessed again.

Creative flow is both appealing and illusive because it is the rare state of consciousness where we can access both our intellect and our imagination. In a world of limited either-or, the creative flow is delightfully and powerfully both-and.

brain both sides canstockphoto16123448Make no mistake, a major piece of writing must come from both our logical, linear, analytical thinking (aka left hemisphere) and our alogical, spontaneous, metaphorical imagination (aka right hemisphere). Your intellect alone can’t discover truly innovative solutions and your imagination alone can’t manifest what it envisions.

When we’re lucky, we’re able to balance the cognitive activity of both hemispheres to enter the creative flow. (I call it cognitive activity because the left hemisphere, typically dominant and far more impressed with its own functions, is unwilling to dignify whatever the hell it is the right hemisphere does with the label ‘thinking’.)

Much of the time, we have to alternate between thinking and imagining. (In chapter 4 of Around the Writer’s Block, I describe six stages in the creative process and which stages rely on which cognitive activity. We also review this in my Writing Habit classes at the Loft Literary Center.)

But we can learn to shift our consciousness into more flow-like, both-right-and-left-hemisphere states. We can learn to enter and sustain the flow, aka writer’s trance. But to do that, we have to surrender our preferences.

Each of us has a preference. We happily define ourselves as dreamers or we proudly proclaim our thinking and organizing skills. It’s important to know our preferences and honor our strengths, but if we’re not careful, we can minimize the value of the other kind of cognitive activity, which makes it more difficult to move into the creative flow.

overplanning writer's blockIf we’re ‘pantsers’ or use what I call the Draft-and-Discover approach, we dismiss outlines and structure as unimaginative and emphasize how over-planning limits possibilities and kills creativity. We take inordinate pride in our ability to go with the flow, wander courageously in the wilderness of uncertainty and see what happens.

don't know where you're goingOn the other hand, if we’re ‘plotters’ who rely on the Outline-and-Order approach, we dismiss dreaming as undisciplined and emphasize how haphazard, unproductive and unreliable unfettered imagination is. We take inordinate pride in our ability to finalize the structure, to know where we are going, how we will get there and have map and compass in hand before starting the journey.

Pantsers need to learn the discipline of planning, analyzing and organizing. Plotters need to learn to risk uncertainty and spontaneity. You can do your non-preferred cognitive activity as drudgery. Or you can embrace it as a doorway to creative flow. The first step is to give full respect and appreciation to the “other”.

This is what we’ll strive to do in my 6-week Revisiting the Flow class at the Loft (starting April 14, 2016). I’ll keep you posted on some of the exercises and tools we’ll use and the insights my students share with me.

Read more about how the class will give you hands-on experience in developing your ability to balance both kinds of cognitive activity…

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10 Comments on “Who Gets More Creative Flow? Pantsers or Plotters?”

  1. bfpibznvcv@gmail.com May 9, 2016 at 11:43 pm #

    Great internet site! It looks extremely good! Maintain the excellent work!


  2. Joel D Canfield April 7, 2016 at 9:11 am #

    My network is primarily composed of pantsers who’ve embraced planning. Like me.

    As Larry Brooks, author of Story Engineering says repeatedly, you can not pick up a great book and determine from its content whether it was planned or pantsed.

    For me, chasing flow is supreme. The more time I spend there, the better my writing and the happier my life as a writer. It’s my touchstone: more flow = more better.

    Planning (and I have a very specific process) and then pantsing my plan (the plan plans for pantsing) is what has gotten me to a little slice of flow heaven, every single workday. (And produces 2 or 3 books a year that I’m proud of.)


    • rosannebane April 8, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your insight Joel. If you feel like expanding on the topic, I’d welcome another guest post from you…


      • Joel D Canfield April 8, 2016 at 12:57 pm #

        Delighted. Are you more interested in the mechanics of my process, or why I think it works, or some other angle?


  3. rawlingsrod April 7, 2016 at 8:33 am #

    My, admittedly unscientific, survey of writers who write literature or at least aspire to write something that would not be defined as popular fiction, finds an overwhelming abundance of “pantser” types. Hence E. L Doctorow’s quote, It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. Or the recently departed Jim Harrison who admitted that he spent most of his writing time asking the question, What’s next?

    Have you noticed this trend? Is it even a “trend”? Do you think there is any validity to this theory?


    • rosannebane April 8, 2016 at 12:58 pm #

      I think there is a bit of sheepishness for some unpublished pantsers (as if being published would validate their approach and fear that maybe they’re not doing it right). And I think most writers wish form time to time that we knew a magic formula (or secret handshake) that could make writing easier. Sometimes we do need to learn more, sometimes we just need to accept that writing can be hard work whether we outline/plan it or pants it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • rawlingsrod April 9, 2016 at 4:04 pm #

        Ultimaely, all writers use both approaches–if they’re ever to get published, i.e. a pantser approach in the beginning to get and even write ideas. Then the rewrite demands some planning. I suppose we are all guilty of looking for the secret handshake. I know I have been. Thank you Rosanne.


        • rosannebane April 11, 2016 at 4:57 pm #

          Thanks Rawlingsrod. Please let me know if you ever learn the secret handshake. 😉

          Liked by 1 person


  1. How My Writing Process Saved the Day, and How it Can Save Yours: Guest Post by Joel D Canfield | Bane of Your Resistance - April 21, 2016

    […] and author consultant Joel D Canfield made an intriguing comment, this time on the question of Who Gets More Creative Flow: Planners or Pantsers, so I invited him to expand his comment into this guest post. Joel is the author of fourteen books […]


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