Saturday, August 24, 2013

What Kind of Writer Are You: Planner, Pioneer or Pathfinder

If there is one common link between most writing teachers, it is the absolute belief in the one and only, absolute best way to write. Unfortunately, the other common link is that none of them agree on what that is.

Just look at plotting. Snowflakes, wagon wheels, heroes journeys, mountains to be climbed, formulas
to be followed. Act one, Act two, Act three, or is it five acts? I forget, and I've taught many of these myself. Most of them are useful. They are taught because they work. Just not all the time, and not for all people.

No, I'm not going to talk about plot. What I'm going talk about is something bigger than a single facet for writing. I'm going to talk about personality styles.

First, I'm oversimplifying. That cannot be helped. Do not think these are completely distinct. Within each category there will be overlaps. Some of us represent one style at one time and another at other times. I tend to be a planner for nonfiction writing and a pioneer or pathfinder for fiction. However, a bit of understanding of your own style may help you play to your strengths.


Maybe to understand these three styles. Let's think about what happens when you go on a long road trip. How do you approach that trip? Well, the planner, gets out all the maps and guidebooks, gets brochures from the Chamber of Commerce in each town they might pass through, checks on hotels in each city, reads the reviews of restaurants and attractions, figures out how much time it will take to drive from one town to the next, makes a daily itinerary, even makes the hotel reservations a month in advance. 

This person will approach writing the same way. They will do their research trying to anticipate every factual detail they will need to address in the book, article, or story. They will make detailed outlines of what happens in each scene or chapter. They will make up complete character dossiers, sketch floor plans for the buildings, maybe even take pictures out of magazines of people who look like their characters or scenes that look like settings from their books. 

This person will not start writing the first draft until they have nailed down every detail. Indeed, by that point the writing is almost an anticlimax. 

The strength of this approach is that they rarely suffer writer's block. They know what they need to write next. They also need less content editing. They have anticipated the plot holes and dead end subplots. They don't need to do a lot a fact checking later because they did it up front. 

However, planners can find themselves caught up in the planning stage so much that they don't get around to the actual writing. They may think there is just one more fact they need to find or they need to adjust the outline of a certain scene once again. 

Also, they are less likely to deviate from their outline even if the writing itself is feeling forced and the characters are acting out of character. Once written, the outline can take over the actual writing. 


Sometimes called the Pantser or "Seat of the Pants" writer. This person approaches each writing project as a journey of discovery. It's not that they don't do planning. It's just that their first draft is their planning document. They are not the sort to fly over a region and take pictures of the area first. They want to be on the ground. Having a character surprise them or discover a plot twist while writing is what they live for. 

This person often takes several dead end roads while writing, but that's part of the fun figuring out what does and does not work. Since, they have no specific plan in front of them, they are more likely to have difficulty recovering from writer's block. The planner can look at the plot outline and plug on even if they don't feel they are writing very well. The pioneer just has to stop or explore a different road if they can't figure out what the character is going to do next.

Pioneers need to be prepared for this and be willing to brainstorm many different approaches in order to move on. They also can benefit from jumping around in a story. Since pioneers go more on intuition than linear reasoning, it may be you are blocked on one scene because  your subconscious wants to write another.


Pathfinders fall in the middle between pioneers and planners. They don't have detailed outlines, but they do have a general plan. They know where the story starts and ends. They know that there are certain intermediate destinations they need to reach on their journey. They may or may not write these down, but they have thought them out before they start writing. They like being surprised by the characters and minor changes in plot and are perfectly willing to depart from the plan if that looks like it will work better. However, they don't like being totally unprepared for the journey. They know where they are going and the general path they will take to get there, but they work out the details on the road.

This person's strength is that they combine spontaneity with forethought. Thus, they have the benefits of each. However, likewise, they share the pitfalls of both. They can become so locked into reaching a certain "destination" point that they don't listen to their characters to change course. However, without a detailed plan, they have less to help them when they get stuck in a certain scene.

Admittedly, this paradigm is oversimplified. Some people might be planners when it comes to creating characters but pioneers with plot. They may do more planning with nonfiction and less with fiction or the other way around. Sometimes people have a very detailed plot "outline," but it is not written down, they simply see it in their minds eye. So, they may look like a pioneer, but they carefully planned the story in advance, they just didn't make a written outline.

However, this might help you understand a bit of your own writing style. If you don't do it the way the latest book says it should be done, don't worry. Your style may be different, but that doesn't make it worse.

I'll be exploring these styles in depth in my Writing YOUR Novel YOUR  Way course launching Monday. August 26. The course is just $10 for 15 self-paced lessons. For more information click here. 


  1. I most closely but not completely resemble the Planner. I like very complex plots, so by necessity must spend a great deal of time in research (years even) learning a lot of the nuances of a particular time in history, not to mention practical details of the time.

    However, I never have been one for character detailing. Oh, I have a general idea with the major characters, but often details don't emerge until I'm actually writing.

    At least for me, planner is synonymous with perfectionist---and it does hinder you from actually writing. I've been guilty of that time and again. I will sit on a book for years before I'm satisfied. That's how I work.

  2. That's why I say that this paradigm is overly simplistic and just a guideline. Many of us are a mixture. I tend to plan out characters rather completely (although I don't always write it down, rather I lay with my eyes closed for several minutes and sort of "see" the character and their lives passing by me. But with the plot, I'm more of a pathfinder with some points they have to get to.

    However, I think perfectionism can plague any of these styles. Perfectionism has to do with the final product and not the writing process. It's more about editing. Although, I guess there are some who never quite get around to writing even a first draft because they are afraid it won't be perfect.

  3. I started out as a Pioneer, and, boy, was writing fun in those days. I wasn't very productive. But I had so much fun with what I produced. I'm more of a Pathfinder these days. I don't know if I have as much fun as the old days, but I prefer to blame that on a hectic work schedule. Maybe I'm headed toward Planner. I sort of hope not.

  4. I THOUGHT I was a planner =)
    After enjoying this article I realize I am more of a Pathfinder! I appreciate you! Thanks=)

  5. I'm definitely a Pathfinder. I know where I'm headed, but there's fun in the path to get there. Good post. Sharing!