If you’re part of the writing community, you’ve probably heard of pantsing and plotting. There’s a lot of debate about which one is “right” or which one works (spoiler: it depends on the writer and the book). If you aren’t familiar with the terms, here’s a quick breakdown.
Pantsing means writing by the seat of your pants. In other words, you’re writing without an outline or plan, coming up with the story as you go. It’s also sometimes called discovery writing. Plotting is exactly that – it means outlining and coming up with your plot before you start writing.
Other writers use different terms for these methods. George R.R. Martin has said that there are two types of writers: gardeners (aka the pantsers) and architects (the plotters). In On Writing, Stephen King, who dislikes plotting, compares his job as an author to “excavating fossils”.
There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach, and which one works for you will depend on the type of writer you are, and the way you like to create stories!
Pantsing (writing by the seat of your pants)
- You get to experience the thrill of the unknown in writing the story completely from scratch.
- Your characters might surprise you.
- Writing a first draft can be more freeing, and feel less constrained.
- Drafting can be less stressful, as you know you’ll come back and edit/fix things later.
- There’s less pressure to execute the complete, fully formed idea in your head in the “right” way.
- You might get stuck more often, because you don’t know where you’re going.
- Your characters could end up feeling underdeveloped.
- You might end up without a clear focus/hook.
- The book could become either too sparse, or too long and packed with filler.
- You’ll probably need to do more revisions and edits.
- Pantsing can make finishing a book more difficult for new writers.
Plotting (outlining ahead of time)
- You’re less likely to get stuck, as you have a blueprint guiding you to the finish line.
- You might spend less time on editing, depending on how extensive your plotting was.
- It can be helpful for more complex works, such as series, or novels with a complicated premise.
- You can write quicker, as you have a guide.
- It’s helpful for genres that require world-building or magic systems.
- You’re less likely to write yourself into a corner.
- Plotting can feel stifling for some writers.
- You may end up breaking away from your outline anyway, and discarding it.
- Plotting can be difficult without the right tools.
- It doesn’t work for all genres (character-focused or more literary/experimental books may be a struggle to outline).
- You’ll spend a lot of time planning before diving into the story.
- It can make you lose interest in finishing the story if you feel you’ve already “told” it to yourself.
Pantsing and plotting – you can do both!
Lots of writers use a mixture of plotting and pantsing. They outline some parts of the story – the major beats – but leave other elements room to develop naturally. You don’t need to make a hard decision between one or the other. Remember that outlining isn’t a set of hard and fast rules. You can deviate from an outline as much as you want. You can also start outlining if you’re a discovery writer and get stuck.
I started out as a pantster when I first started writing, but the result was that I struggled to finish anything, or the book had too many issues and had to be rewritten from scratch. I’m personally a plotter now, but the details I include in each outline vary massively. Sometimes I leave myself a lot of wiggle room to discover things as I go, and sometimes my outlines are very extensive. It all depends on the story and the writer.
Find what works for you
As always with any kind of writing advice, find what works for you and do that. There’s no right and wrong in the process of writing a book. If you swear by outlining, great, do that! If you can’t stomach the thought of it, then write by the seat of your pants!
What works for one project might not work for another. You might end up outlining some books, but dislike the same approach for others. Be flexible and willing to try new things. Every book is different!
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