Friday, December 13, 2013

Types of Writers

This post first ran on Friday, March 16, 2012

When it comes to working methods, what kind of a writer are you?

Broadly speaking, writers fall into one of two basic categories.  On the one hand, there are the Map-makers.  On the other, there are the Trail-blazers.

Map-maker Method:

The Map-Maker Method is a highly disciplined way of writing. A Map-maker does a lot of thinking up front: you plot the central story arc from start to finish.  At the same time you assemble a body of support material:  character profiles, narrative timelines, maps, etc., so that when you finally sit down to write, you know how the story is going to end.

Using the Map-maker Method has the following advantages:
  • Working the bugs out of the plot in advance helps you avoid plot-holes and narrative inconsistencies during the writing process. 
  • Having a comprehensive overview of the story enables you to recognise and exploit opportunities to play with foreshadowing, build suspense, and highlight important themes. 
  • Knowing where the story is going and how it’s going to end helps you keep the book on track.  I.e., the Map-maker finds it relatively easy to avoid including gratuitous sub-plots.
But there are also liabilities:
  • Map-makers tend to be slow, careful writers.  They can get hung up on revising a single chapter for weeks when they would be better served forging ahead and damn the torpedoes.
  • Having produced a narrative blueprint, they’re often reluctant to alter it in favor of any interesting possibilities that may come up during the writing process. 
  • In the worst cases, a Map-maker can get so caught up in deep structure that it becomes an end in itself. 
The Trail-blazer Approach:

The Trail-blazer Approach, by contrast, is intuitive rather than analytical. You take the seed of a story–a plot concept, a central character, an intriguing opening scene, whatever fires your imagination–and simply start writing, the aim being to let the story unfold and develop organically. 

These are the advantages to using the Trail-blazer Approach:
  • By not imposing too strict a structure on the story from the outset, you’re free to welcome new ideas as they present themselves. 
  • By not ascribing to anyone’s rules but your own, you leave yourself free to experiment with different writing techniques. This can help you develop your own distinctive narrative voice.
  • Best of all (especially in the case of novice writers), the Trail-blazer Approach lends itself readily to generating text, and completing a first draft.  Completing a first draft is the essential goal on which everything else depends.
There are also corresponding liabilities:
  • The Trail-blazer approach offers no built-in safeguards against the unchecked proliferation of sub-plots. Too many sub-plots can wreak havoc with your narrative continuity and give you galaxy-class migraines when you try to tie them up.
  • If you’re using the Trail-blazer Approach, characters, incidents, and situations are going to crop up at intervals during the writing process that you didn’t foresee when you started writing. This forces you  to interrupt the narrative flow to explain how/why this element is relevant, which makes for clumsy exposition.  It’s no big deal when you’re working on your first draft, but if you don’t go back and disguise the info-dumps, you might as well be smacking your reader in the face with a newly-landed flounder. 
  • The Trail-blazer Approach doesn’t lend itself to pre-emptive trouble-shooting.  If you prefer to use the Trail-blazer Approach,  you may find you’ve got a substantial amount of work to do during the revision process to rationalise your setting, plot, characters, and themes.
Although I’ve treated these two methods as if they were mutually exclusive, most writers utilize aspects of both. This is because both approaches are equally valid in their own way. That said, if you can recognize and understand your prevailing tendencies, you can save yourself a lot of time and trouble in the long run.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. As you say, Debbie, most writers are a blend. My own peculiar blend is that I do a lot of up-front thinking and plotting and great heaps of research, but the mapmaking is itself a form of trailblazing, a somewhat undisciplined meander through a rich territory of possibility. By the time I sit down in earnest, I know where the journey starts and where I am going. Inevitably along the way I find that my map was wrong and I have to trust the territory, following the trail that now stretches before me.

    That was very much the case with my second novel The Dome, which happens to be available free on the Kindle for the next few days. There are elements of the story that were on the map but didn't fit the itinerary and discoveries along the trail I blazed that I never could have anticipated.

    --Larry Constantine (pen name, Lior Samson)

  2. Great post, Debby.

    My working methods combine the two. By nature, I'm a Trail-blazer but as I sign contracts on a fairly detailed synopsis, I have to do a lot of Map-making first. Even so, it's always possible and enjoyable to ignore the map and go on a detour.

  3. I think you were right, Debbie, in that most writers are a blend of the two sides. I know I tend to be more of a panster, but I do some planning and plotting separate from the manuscript. I think there has to be a bit of organization to shaping the story so I am not off on a tangent and too far from the main plot line.

  4. I blend the two, but am mostly a pantster writer. I plan to try to organize and plan for the next manuscript, but I suspect I'll always be a pantster.

  5. I tend to be the type my energy level ... and self-loathing ... allows me to be on a given day.

  6. I map out emotional turning points to make sure my character arc stays true, then trail-blaze between them. "Trail-blazer"—I like that term!

  7. I appreciate the label Trail-Blazer over Pantser, since that's the kind of writer I am. Excellent post, Debby.

  8. In other words, a map-maker may produce a contrived story while the trail-blazer opts for a rambler. Interesting designations. As you say, Debby, most writers use variations of both.

    For me, a general idea of story and a sketch of the main characters is enough to get started. I put them in a situation to hook the reader and, based on their personalities and "histories," I let them run with it. The thing I find most intriguing: my predetermined ending is often trashed by my characters, who insist on writing their own ending.

  9. Trailblazer, yep. Insteresting article. Thanks!

  10. Hi Debbie, I am definitely a pantser, or trail blazer. It's an odd statement to make, as all of my books so far have been poetry and non-fiction, but I do really just wait until the idea has more or less jelled in my head, and then I start writing (or typing, today.) And you are correct in saying that the amount of rewriting, focusing, filling and clearing is large when using this technique. But I am a quiet rebel, and if I were to start with a defined outline of plot, theme, setting and characters, I would no doubt set that aside and start blazing whatever trail appeals!

    I'm just beginning a fiction, a murder mystery, and i am using my secret weapon. You'll have to check my blog in a few days to see what that is. I'll share it!

  11. I am a hopeless mapper - but I try to trail-blaze during the writing. I've heard too many wonderful writers rave about the experience of having the characters take over. I wish mine would - please, please take this story somewhere good! :D

  12. I haven't heard those terms used before. I've heard "plotters" and "plungers" (or "pantsers). But, you're right I think many of us use a little of both. Good post.

  13. I'm definitely a trail blazer. It's particularly painful when I arrived at the end of a mystery novel and discovered that I've left out some important clues for readers.

    Steamy Darcy

  14. Also known as "plotters" or "pantsers"

  15. Interesting post. I'm a little late to the party as I just saw this via a Pinterest site.

    For an argument about "mapper" vs. "trailblazer" see my current post at ("The T-Shirt Rules of Writing").

    One thing not mentioned in this post is the place of the synopsis. That's essential for both the fiction and non-fiction writer (called "a proposal" in non-fiction).

    No writer relishes doing one, whether at the beginning, middle or end of the process. But no matter when you do it, as long as you do it, it will teach you a lot.

    On a nit-picky point, I will be discussing the use of "utilize" -- or should I say "the utilization of 'utilize'" -- and other such words in an upcoming post.

  16. Good post....

    I've done both methods and you're 100,000 % right on with your observations.

    As a map maker you can spend years writing a novel, and probably end up with pieces for many novels if you're a pack rat.

    "Sometimes a horse just needs to run, remember its a horse" From Seabiscuit


    For me, personally the mapmaker, especially a deep thinker type, can get too wound up in design, end up going back and forth over directions and sub-directions etc...

    For me, personally being a trailblazer is more fun, especially if you've spent a log f*in time in the map room.

    I think this will be a topic I write about in a future installment of novel roadkill.

    I'll link to your blog from my book if I do.

    Thanks for this, you woke me up without coffee...

  17. I'm definitely a map maker just as in real life I am a map follower. I never start a road trip without a real, paper printed, map of the places I'm heading. I hate being lost and if I take a wrong turn, I need to see on the written map how to get to where I'm going. I don't trust those snarky GPS people. : )

  18. Hmm. It seems the intuitive map-maker or the highly disciplined trail-blazer (is that a contradiction in terms?) would make the ideal author. Does that mean we writers must have split personalities?

    Seriously, a combination of both approaches makes huge sense. I love this post and am glad to revisit it as a reminder that I'm not (totally) crazy when I write. :-)

  19. I am a 90% “Trail-Blazer” who often uses a compass that has lost its needle while the story reveals itself. Over the course of my long artistic career . . . first in dance and now in writing and digital art . . . the guidance that one should map out the “story” ahead of time has never worked well for me. (ask my fifth grade teach) A “Trail-Blazer” is who I am and where I discover extraordinary moments of creativity and clarity.

    The 10% “Map-Maker” in me is supported by the software application Scrivener which I found this summer.

    I am halfway through the first draft of book three of The Unfolding Trilogy. Tying together the surprises in this book to the already published two, five-hundred page novels and the ten companion short stories is much easier now that I am using Scrivener to keep me on track. Scrivener allows me to check on things as they develop and helps backfill the story as needed to support anything new . . . characters, plot, or places . . . as they evolve. The Trail-Blazer in me loves the freedom . . . the Map-Maker revels in the organization created by Scrivener.

    SK Randolph


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