Planners and Plungers

Human beings divide into two types: PLANNERS and PLUNGERS. Planners decide what to do, and then they do it. Plungers figure things out by doing them. Planners plan and execute their plan; plungers organize by acting.

Imagine a buffet lunch. Planners walk around the whole table, looking at all the food, and then pick up a plate, choosing what they want. Plungers pick up a plate and select what looks good until their plate is full. Planners planned their meal; plungers dived into the food, making decisions as they went along.

Let’s talk about navigation. My wife Joan and I are going to drive somewhere, and I have the wheel. I’m a planner, so I look at a map and plan my route. If Joan, a plunger, has the wheel, she will start in the general direction and correct as she goes along. We both get to the same place at the same time.

How will we drive to the same place the second time? I have the wheel, so I look at the map again and go the way I went the first time. Planners are rigid. How will my wife navigate the second time? She starts in a different direction and corrects until she arrives. Plungers like variety. Again, we both get there in the same time, but we thought it out in different ways.

This distinction applies to writers as well. Planners write outlines and follow them. Plungers just start writing and organize toward the end. Planners plan and execute their plan. Plungers write by discovery.

As a planner, and I always write an outline before I type, but not the classical multi-layered outline you hated in school:
I. Writing is hard.
A. Everything must be spelled right.
B. Everything must be grammatically correct.
C. Everything must please the teacher.
II. Writing is boring.
A. Everything must be neutral.
B. Nothing can offend anybody.
C. The teacher must agree with everything you say.
III. Writing is good for you.
A. It teaches discipline.
B. It teaches you to obey teachers.
C. You should also suffer Latin.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, except it’s a great way to analyze something already written, but not to plan something, unless you’re a complete detail freak. I dislike outlines so much that I call them “plans.”

I write columns with a few sections, a beginning, and an ending. My simple plan consists of a few words, just labels for the parts and their order. Here’s my plan for a recent column on re-inventing yourself after a buyout:


Then I follow my plan. Actually I write the lead last.

How would plungers write that column? They would type a lot of pieces: sentences, paragraphs, sections, stuff. Then they rearrange the bits and pieces into sections that make sense, and write transitions between the parts. Some write the lead first, some later, some last. Plungers figure out what they want to say by typing it; then they rearrange it to make sense to the reader.

Planners and plungers, if they use methods suitable to them, can write at the same speed and the same quality. You can’t tell planners from plungers by reading their copy. You have to ask them about their process and thinking.

Here’s the problem for plungers. The world of writing is ruled by planners. All writing teachers are planners. All writing gurus are planners. All nuns are planners. All editors are planners. So how do plungers get along in a world dominated by planners? They pretend to be planners.

Suppose you’re a plunger in your sixth-grade English class in early September. The assignment: write 500 words on “My Summer Vacation,” and turn it in with your outline. How did you do that? You wrote 500 words and then outlined them, what we call a “back outline.” And the nun thought you were a planner like her, and gave you an A, and that’s why you’re a writer today.

Come out of the closet, plungers. It’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you. One third of the writers I know are plungers and proud of it.

What’s the dark side of planners and plungers? Planners are rigid; they follow bad plans even when they realize it isn’t working. Plungers write a lot to figure out what they want to say, which means they write long and cut back, which makes them slow.

Both are helped by a good debriefing, talking to someone just before they type. If the debriefer doesn’t understand the plan, neither does the planner. So the plan gets rethought before typing. With a plunger, the debriefer looks for things that don’t have anything to do with the piece, and they don’t get typed. Either way saves time and effort.

Plungers can also save time by drafting without revising, otherwise they cut things they’ve revised. So for a plunger, the fast sequence would be type, cut, rearrange, and then revise.

Few writers are pure planners or plungers. For instance, I plan non-fiction and plunge fiction. Some plan news and plunge features. Some plan short and plunge long. Some plunge when they’re afraid, and plan when they’re not. Some plan the top, and plunge the rest. Whatever works for you, but make sure you plan or plunge based on using your strengths, not habit. In general, people who are planners in life write better using planner methods, and people who plunge through life feel more comfortable plunging their writing. The trick is to know lots of ways to do things, and choose the combination that works best for you.

Published in: on December 31, 2008 at 10:56 am  Comments (1)  

Pathfinders as Sources

There are three kinds of live sources: actors, commentators, and pathfinders. Stories consist of actions performed in time for reasons by actors. So for greatest effect, we try to use the actors themselves as primary sources of information; they were there. The commentators frame the situations and issues surrounding the action; they tell what it means. So what’s a pathfinder?

Pathfinders know things without being involved. If you find them early, gathering gets lot easier. We ask them to lay out the ground for us, identify the actors and commentators, and help gain access to them. Writers flatter pathfinders by asking their advice, and reward them by not mentioning their names or quoting them. Thus pathfinders can affect events without risking involvement or disclosure.

Suppose you’re writing about a new kind of stent used in heart surgery. Your pathfinder might be a cardiologist who knows all about stents but doesn’t implant them. She could tell you how stents work and how this stent will work, who are the players involved, the likelihood of success and problems, and the names of experts who can comment on the record. If you’re really lucky, she closes the conversation by telling you to drop her name so sources will talk to you. When you write the piece, you don’t quote her or mention her, but you send her a copy with your thanks.

Today’s source, properly treated, may become next month’s pathfinder, and vice versa. Smart writers develop a bevy of pathfinders for different subjects, and always call them first. They save time, false starts, and errors.

Published in: on December 29, 2008 at 6:42 pm  Comments (1)  

Using That and Which Properly

The distinction between “that” and “which” beginning a subordinate clause proves easier to write than explain. Take these two sentences:

This is the ball that Beckham kicked into the goal.

This soccer ball, which doesn’t cost much, is worth more after Beckham scores with it.

In each case, the antecedent, or the thing referred to, is “ball.” The relative clause refers to the antecedent, and either limits it or not. In the first example, “ball’ refers to a specific ball because the clause “that Beckham kicked” limits the reference to that ball. In the second example, “ball” refers to soccer balls in general, because the clause “which doesn’t cost much” does not limit it to a specific ball.

Traditionally we call these “restrictive” and “non-restrictive” clauses, or “essential” and “non-essential.” Clauses that limit the antecedent begin with “that,” and clauses that do not limit the antecedent begin with “which.”

We usually surround non-limiting clauses with commas. Strunk and White explain non-limiting clauses as parenthetical, and therefore set off with commas. One test works like this. Draft the sentence, then put commas around the relative clause. If the sentence works when you read it, leave it alone. Otherwise, delete the commas. Let’s test the first example above: “This is the ball, that Beckham kicked into the goal.” It doesn’t work, and we delete the comma.

Common usage, especially in conversation, does not observe this distinction, and choosing “which” for both cases occurs more often. Using this distinction tends to remind readers of schoolteacher grammarians, and makes prose sound more “correct,” and therefore more formal.

Published in: on December 28, 2008 at 1:08 am  Comments (3)  

Making Writing Easier

Please join me in writing a book online. This book will show how to create a writing process customized to work for you. You need a collection of techniques, tricks, and habits that enable you to write quickly, powerfully, and with less agony. My idea is to  publish bits and pieces of this book here as blog posts, inviting you to comment on them. I want to know if you think they work, do you understand them, can you think of other ways, and anything else you want to tell me. 

I’m an independent writing coach, helping writers write better and editors edit more effectively. I work all over the world in many media: newspapers, web sites, magazines, radio and television, and non-profit organizations. As an affiliate of the Poynter Institute, I have helped over 10,000 writers write better over 25 years. I conduct workshops, coach individual writers, and solve management problems.

This blog begins an experiment in writing a book not only online, but also as a cooperative venture. I hope to create a community online of people interested in better writing, who like to work in teams, and who are generous with what they know.  What I’m after, what this project aims at, is to make writing easier and more effective for all kinds of writers. I invite you to join this venture.

Published in: on December 27, 2008 at 8:21 pm  Leave a Comment