Plotter or pantser? Find the writing technique that works best for you


11 August 2023
Go Seek author Michelle Teahan describes finding her flow once she put the idea of structured plotting to one side

Becoming a mother changed my life unimaginably and it was further amplified when a second tiny human was added to the mix. For me, I quickly learned that, as well as all the love and wonder and pure happiness, with motherhood comes doubts, insecurities and anxieties I had never contemplated before.

I am someone who has always used writing and journaling as a coping mechanism when things are hard. I’ve also, for as long as I can remember, aspired to be a novelist. It was as I got to grips with motherhood that these two things collided.

Following a doctor’s visit, as I was trying to figure out how to get a baby and a toddler into the car safely, my postpartum hormones caused my stress levels to peak so significantly that, once I was home, I sat down and opened my journal, ready to offload all of my anxieties onto the page.

However, as I began to write, what came out of me was something else entirely.  It started in the same way as I poured out all of my irrational fears and anxieties into a scene about a mother struggling to figure out how to get her young children into her car. But my imagination took over from there, which led to one of the children being taken and, rather than helping to alleviate my stress levels, it served to boost them instead. And so, I did the one thing I knew would help – I continued to write.

That’s when I realised that I needed a protagonist who was capable of dealing with such a terrifying situation, and so Maeve was created.

This wasn’t my first attempt at writing a novel, but it was my first successful one and the major difference this time around was that I was ‘pantsing’ as opposed to plotting. Whenever I had tried to write a novel previously, I thought my best chance at success was to sit down and write out the entire thing in bullet points. From there, I would work out the twists and turns from beginning to end. The problem with this was that by the time I sat down to write the story, I found that I didn’t have the same interest in the story that I once had; I knew what was going to happen, so it didn’t seem all that exciting any more. That was why, when I was tired after work, I sat in front of the TV rewatching Friends episodes instead of writing. I didn’t prioritise my writing as I should have and so it never progressed into anything worthwhile.

Yet, writing Maeve’s story was different. Seeing how she reacted to her child being kidnapped, I found myself returning to her every free moment I had between nursing, nappy changes, toddler tantrums and the general chaos of life with two small children. I’d never been busier and yet I was making more and more time for writing – no more TV show re-runs. I wanted to know what was going to happen, what she would do, what would happen to her child, how she would cope without her. I was excited to get back to Maeve and see what she was going to do next. The prospect of not knowing what was going to happen was thrilling. It is such an incredible feeling when you’re writing a story and suddenly you realise something you never expected is about to happen to one of your characters, and you’re the one about to make it happen. It was akin to the thrill of sitting down every evening to read a good book and I absolutely loved it.

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Yes, there are most definitely down sides to this type of writing technique, especially when it comes to writing to a deadline. My ‘first’ drafts need at least two more drafts before I’m comfortable enough to even name it as a first draft when saving it on my computer, but that messy ‘pantsed’ draft gives me something to work with, gets the story down, gives me the plot and most importantly keeps me excited and inspired while writing.

It goes to show that writing a novel is a learning process that’s different for everyone. I would have put good money on me being a plotter. In every other aspect of my life, I like to plan and be organised, which was why I had initially thought that was how I should write a novel. That, and the fact that some of the best authors in the world write by plotting their story first.

If I hadn’t used writing as a form of therapy for coping with my maternal anxieties, I probably wouldn’t have figured out that this was how I liked to write and how I did it best.

All that said though, I’m currently writing my second novel, and to a deadline for the first time in my life, which is definitely making me envious of those who plot and know where their story is going, because right now anything could happen in mine; good or bad. But isn’t that the exciting part?

Go Seek by Michelle Teahan is published by Headline


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