Now, as you know, I read a lot of fiction, as well as reading a fair amount of reviews/commentary about fiction and creative writing processes. And writers seem to often be classify themselves into two groups: “Plotters” and “Pantsers”. Some authors, such as Brandon Sanderson, will plot and plan the novel before they start – they have an outline written, they know the ending, they know the twists. Others, like Stephen King or George R R Martin, will write by “the seat of their pants” – grab an idea, a character, a thread, and see where it takes them, often leading them far from the original idea. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, but they are very different.
This dichotomy is also referred to as “Architects” and “Gardeners”, and I think it has a lot of relevance to how we write in science.
I'm a plotter by nature. When I wrote creative fiction, I spent a huge amount of time planning the worlds, the character, and the plots. In fact, I still find myself planning plots sometimes – I think I may just enjoy the process more than the actual writing. And the same holds true to my science writing – I thrive on outlines.
Before I write anything, I have a plan on what it is & what it should cover. For anything longer than a page or two, I will start with a rough outline/narrative and then slowly fill it out until most of the main points are there, before I ever start writing. I just sent an outline for my next paper to my co-authors, and it's three pages long including figures. I already have an outline for my thesis, which I'm not submitting until December, as well as a more detailed outline for my thesis introduction. And yes, most of my blog posts have an outline before they start (even though the outline for this one was only in my head).
This process works for me in multiple ways. It helps me become clear in my mind about what the narrative and main points are, so I can tell the story better. It helps me identify what analyses/figures are missing. And it means I can send it around to get co-author feedback on the big-picture things like structure before I write a full draft, to avoid wasting everyone's time.
Of course, not everyone works that way – the academic world has its pantsers as well. I've been a co-author on a couple of things recently where, after a general (verbal) discussion of the main theme/narrative, the first author went away and wrote a full first draft before sending it around for comment.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that approach - with the responsibility of first author comes the power to write it as you like! But as a co-author, I find it more challenging to comment on, especially if I have disagreements about the general structure/narrative. It's harder to articulate structural differences when the piece is already written, and you are reluctant to waste the first author's time by changing too much, when is it really a problem or just a difference in opinion?
Being a plotter can absolutely go too far as well – spending endless time adjusting and refining your plan and outline can end up being just another way to procrastinate writing the thing. And like anything it's a spectrum – most people fall somewhere in the middle, and some will move from one side towards the middle with time and experience.
So how about you, are you more of a plotter or a pantser? And has it changed over time?