14 April 2013

Beethoven vs. Mozart: "pantsing" vs "plotting"

At some point during my Master's program in English--it must have been in one of the courses where we were learning about composition theory--a professor told us that there are two main approaches to writing.

The first approach is like Mozart, who worked on a composition in his head, tweaking and fine-tuning it until he had it just how he wanted it, and only then did he put pen to paper and write it down.

The second approach is like Beethoven, who wrote out many drafts of a composition before settling on the version he liked. As my friend--a composer and a teacher of music--Nathaniel Tull Phillips says, "Beethoven was known to be obsessive about it. For...the famous da da da dum (of the 5th symphony), [which is] only 4 notes, [he] filled up a large page trying out over 20 combinations, searching them out, and the very last thing on the page is that famous motive!"

Are you a Beethoven or a Mozart?

Until the moment in my education when my professor suggested that there were two ways to approach composition, I had no idea that the process that I went through--my process of word-vomiting followed by rearranging and wordsmithing and cutting and adding more stuff and sneaking in transitions and deciding after all that what it was I'd actually been trying to say all along and finally writing the beginning--was a valid process. A process that successful people have used.

Up to that point I'd always been taught that you start with a thesis and then you write an outline. You were supposed to write an outline before you wrote the paper (this is in school, mind you). But I always ended up writing the paper first and basing the outline on that. I could not for the life of me understand how people could write the outline before they'd written the thing they were writing.

Because for me, you see, the process of writing is a journey in which I figure out what it is I think, feel, believe, want to say. I can't tell you before I've written what the writing will lead to--that seems so counter-intuitive! Writing is learning.

I am what is often called in the world of fiction-writing "a pantser." Meaning "one who flies by the seat of one's pants." I am a Beethoven. A multiple-drafter.

On the opposite side of the spectrum from me would be "a plotter." Meaning one who likes to have it all lined up in one's head before writing anything down. An outliner. A Mozart.

So why am I writing about this now? Well, it all came up this week while I was checking out Gloria Weber's ROW80 update as part of my sponsor duties. She mentioned that she'd realized over the weekend that one of her stories wasn't ready to be written, and then she wrote this post to explain how she knows when she's ready to write. And it became obvious from the way she described her process that she's a plotter. And then there was a Twitter conversation about it, and it reminded me that I've been meaning for a while to talk about the Beethoven vs. Mozart approaches to composition. So there you have it.

I think the truth is that my writing process--and probably the processes of many writers--is not so cut-and-dried. Meaning we probably fall somewhere along the spectrum rather than being die-hard pantsers or die-hard plotters. And it probably depends a lot on what the project is, too. I may do a lot of pantsing when I write a poem or short story in a fit of inspiration, but when I'm working on a novel, I find myself going back and forth between seeing where my Muse will take me and making notes about things I know need to happen/scenes I know I'll need to write.

What's your experience? Do you consider yourself to be more of a plotter or a pantser? Does it depend on the kind of writing you're doing?


  1. Thanks for mentioning my posts. This is a great post and I agree with your end. There's a tiny bit of both in every writer. :)

    1. Thanks for motivating me to write the post, Gloria! =*)

  2. Great post! I love that comparison. I think plotting/pantsing is a continuum. I land on the pantser side, but I've learned to plot some in advance to save time and make sure my story structure is sound. It was fun, though, to write the mystery I'm working on and keep saying to my family, "I'm still not sure who did it!" It all came into focus about halfway through.

    Have a lovely writing week!

    1. I too love that sense of discovery. The trust in your intuition, knowing that while what you've written may not make sense to you today, it will suddenly spring into focus tomorrow or the day after. It's a wonderful thing to be able to surprise yourself.