In Defense of Pantsing

by Jami Gold on January 30, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Iron fence with pointed finials with text: In Defense of Pantsing

When it comes to writing, there’s no “one right way.” We use different methods, take different paths, and have different goals. The same goes for our approach to drafting a story.

Some plot their stories in advance, while others write by the seat of their pants (known as pantsing or pantsers). Unlike many, I never question whether pantsing is the right method for me.

I’ve plotted a novel before (because I thought that’s what “real” authors did) and ended up with a voiceless, lifeless, paint-by-numbers story. I then went back to my pantsing method and have never looked back.

Hey, Pantsers! Get Your Free Insults Here

Unfortunately, not all pantsers are as secure in their methodology, even when pantsing works for them. For them, blog posts about drafting can be a minefield leading to self-doubt.

For every blog post about pantsing, there are ten posts about plotting—with at least one of those putting down pantsers as:

  • Hacks who can’t succeed.
  • Lazy writers who want to take the easy way out.
  • Authors who ramble due to being in love with their own voice.
  • Spoiled authors who don’t want to do hard editing to make a “real” story.
  • Clueless writers who wouldn’t know story structure if the story beat left a bruise.

Yes, I’ve seen all these insults, veiled or overt. Often these put-downs come complete with a patronizing attitude from the plotter-author that they’re “just trying to save pantsers from themselves.”

Experts Agree: Pantsers Are Losers

Sometimes the negativity toward pantsing even comes from authors I respect. Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, one of my favorite story structure books, is strongly anti-pantsing. James Scott Bell has implied that all pantsers end up with a mess at the end of their stories:

“All pantsers face this at some point. They have to wade into that mass of verbiage and excreta and figure out what’s good, what’s dreck, what fits, what doesn’t, where the story is going and how to help it get there.”

And Lisa Cron, author of the superb Wired for Story, recently wrote a post on Writer Unboxed with the title: A Modest Proposal to Pantsers: Don’t!

A typical quote from these sources would say that pantsing very rarely works. And as Lisa said:

“In the rare case when pansting does work, it’s still not a great process: it adds years and years of rewriting.”

It’s enough to make those of us who pants feel like we’re doing something wrong. We’re losers. We’re breaking “the rules.” We’re dodging lightning bolts eager to smite us for our blasphemy every time we sit at a keyboard.

Pantsing Can Succeed, Really!

Now I don’t mean to pick on Larry, James, or Lisa. They’re all brilliant at writing craft and instruction, and they all make good points about what can happen to pantsers.

Some pantsers do struggle with tangents, with scenes or even whole stories that go nowhere. But not all do.

Some pantsers, like me, have never faced that issue. I’ve also never faced “years and years of rewriting” on any of my 4 pantsed novels or my 2 pantsed short stories/novellas. (That honor goes to my single attempt at plotting. *smile*)

I write solid first drafts with an arc and beats in the right place. On my latest pantsed novel, completed a few weeks ago, the furthest a beat was off from where it “should” be was a whole 1.8%. (ETA: This was a check I did after I finished writing.) The Midpoint hits at page 181 instead of page 188—on my first draft. *gasp* The horrors.

(And unlike screenplays, beat page counts for novels are guidelines and not rules anyway. I’ve seen advice that within 2-5% is okay for most novel beats, maybe up to 10% for the minor beats.)

The point is that pantsing has never created a mess for me, and I’m sure others can say the same. Pantser Mindee Arnett writes connected stories in a series, complete with foreshadowing, by following her instinct but using sanity checks. Like one of the methods I teach in my Lost Your Pants? workshop and my post about how to avoid a “hot mess” with NaNoWriMo, Roni Loren plans her characters but doesn’t plot the story.

I could name many, many more successful pantsers. So rather than laying the blame on pantsing, let’s look at the real cause of randomized stories.

Pantsing Is Not the Cause of the Problem

Being a pantser does not mean I don’t know story structure or can’t write beats. (Look at my worksheets page for proof of that. *smile*) One does not cause the other.

Being a pantser does not cause
an author to be clueless about story structure.

Maybe I’m in the .1% of “natural storytellers” the naysayers point to when trying to justify how some pantsers manage to stumble their way into success. Or maybe—just maybe—the problem isn’t with pantsing but with the lack of understanding story structure or ability to apply that knowledge.

Any author—a pantser or a plotter—will struggle with a story if the structure isn’t sound. If there’s a premise but no plot. If the plot arc isn’t solid. If the emotional growth is stagnant. If the stakes don’t increase. If the scenes don’t have goals. Etc., etc.

None of those problems are limited to pantsers, so why—when panters run into those problems—is their pantsing method blamed rather than the underlying structural issue? Yet when plotters run into those same problems (and they do), their plotting method somehow escapes blame. Why is that? If the plotting method isn’t to “blame,” the pantsing method shouldn’t be blamed either.

Rule #1: Discover What Works for You

Does pantsing work for everyone? Absolutely not. Should authors have a strong grasp of story structure before pantsing a novel? You bet!

But that goes for plotters too. Every author needs to understand story structure—pantser, plotter, or something in between.

If we understand story structure and can apply that knowledge, any drafting method could potentially work for us. With that skill under our belt, we can focus on the method that enables our writing to exhibit smooth story flow, natural dialogue, deep characterization, etc.

Some will find that plotting works for them, while others will discover that pantsing keeps them in touch with their muse-subconscious. For pantsers, stories will sometimes almost write themselves, right down to subtext, foreshadowing, subplots, character arcs, and themes.

Insinuating that writers should change their methods with insults or assumptions doesn’t solve an author’s underlying issues with structure. Pantsing isn’t broken or wrong if it works for you. And no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise. *smile*

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Have you seen or experienced this negative attitude toward pantsing? If you’re a pantser, have you ever felt that others thought less of your method? Do you agree or disagree with my statement that pantsing isn’t the cause of messy stories? Have you struggled with story structure as a pantser or as a plotter? If you’re a pantser, does the method work for you?

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66 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Rhenna Morgan January 30, 2014 at 7:41 am

It’s hard to find your own way when so many people profess to have the secret to success. But the truth of the matter is that there are as many variations to writing approaches as their are people. We need to be encouraging each other to find our own way–to not give up–instead of professing to know “the only way”.

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 9:18 am

Hi Rhenna,

Exactly! I love that we’re so supportive of each other that we want to help, but… 🙂

What works for us might not work for others. I designed my Lost Your Pants? workshop to be as flexible as possible, yet I know there are still some it probably won’t help as much, so I emphasize for people to use what works for them and to ignore the rest, oh, about 20 times during the workshop. LOL!

Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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Carradee January 30, 2014 at 8:02 am

(Note for those who don’t know: I work as an editor + I write myself.)

I usually find it easier to edit a pants’d novel rather than a fully-outlined one. Why?

Pants’d stories usually have rabbit trails, things to remove. That means I just hit the delete key or add a comment saying, “Hey, this is too long. These three pages describing the scenery should really be closer to three paragraphs, tops” &tc.)

Plotted stories tend to have pieces missing, like character motivations and transitions. Fixing that is content editing, the one type I essentially don’t do (in fiction). Most of the time, it’s even outside my job description to comment on. But as many of my repeat clients know, “Why?” or “Motive?” in a comment means there’s a transition missing for the PoV character.

Transitions are the bane of every writer, some worse than others. Outlining can worsen transition problems.

Really, pantsing and plotting both have their pros and cons. Some will better fit some authors than others.

Personally, I have to be careful to avoid sticking too many main characters in a story. Some would consider pantsing the reason I had trouble with too many MCs, when the actual problem was writing in 3rd person as a new writer.

That’s why my Chronicles of Marsdenfel started out first person, single narrator—I did that on purpose to force myself to have one MC. I’ve gotten better with practice, where I don’t worry about it so much anymore, but I still sometimes catch myself.

In short, I think you struck the nail on the head—people blame pantsing for problems that actually have nothing to do with pantsing, while ignoring the issues that plotting can produce. (Perhaps because even a story messed up in the plotting can still be readable, just not as good as it could be.)

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 9:47 am

Hi Carradee,

Yes! Awesome insights from the editorial point of view. Any method will have its pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses. The point is finding a method that’s a good match for our strengths and weaknesses.

It’s interesting what you found with plotted stories and motivations/transitions, as those were some of the major problems I found with my plotting attempt. I think plotting can encourage us to write by checking off this and then that, which isn’t good for emotional writing or including those transitions. But there’s nothing wrong with that weakness if we have a strength for finding and fixing those during self-editing. That’s why it’s all about matching our method to what works for us. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Lynn Tyler January 30, 2014 at 8:22 am

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Now, I plot because I tend to write myself into corners if I pants it. However, I don’t limit myself to the outline.

And you’re right. It’s the understanding of story structure that stumps many people. You can plot till the cows come home but if you don’t understand structure, you’ll get lost anyway.

I guess, in the end, it’s what works for the author, right?

Thanks for the post.

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 9:52 am

Hi Lynn,

“You can plot till the cows come home but if you don’t understand structure, you’ll get lost anyway.”

LOL! Exactly. A plotted story can still lack an arc of rising stakes, consequences that matter, and subplots that push characters along an emotional path that echoes the plot issues (or any other of a hundred issues) if the author doesn’t understand how to plot those elements into the story.

It’s more important to ensure we know story structure, and then, as you said, it all comes down to what method works for us. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Diana McDowell January 30, 2014 at 3:59 pm

I feel like plotting causes me to have writers block. Pantsing is like a roller coaster, when you think the ride has flatten out, boom! a twist then a fall and maybe another. The butterflies in my stomach go crazy and the excitement of the ride is unexpected fun.

I’m still on my first novel (draft) but I’ve had so many unexpected ideas along the way and had I plotted I’m sure my spur of the moment inspirations would not have happened and my story would be… boring.

Plotting scares me. I belong to a writing class and one of the students believes plotting is the only way to go. Which had been thinking I was writing the wrong way and self doubt grew. So with my next story idea I started thinking I needed to plot. I’ve decided that the story may dictate a method for the writer. For me as a “panster” I think this next story will have a loose plot (but thought I should try to learn to plot) but again I think inspiration comes in bits and pieces and I don’t want to get locked into a story that I’m afraid of veering off from.

I love this article because it tells me I can write a story the pantser way.
Thank you Jami

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 4:09 pm

Hi Diana,

Yay! I’m so happy I could help you fight back that self-doubt monster. 😀

Yes, you’ll probably find that every book is a little different as far as how much you know in advance and where your comfort level is. And over time, you’ll learn to trust yourself a little more. 🙂

Good luck with your story and thanks for the comment!

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Stephanie Scott January 30, 2014 at 8:59 am

I think going in with no plan at all can maybe be dangerous (dangerous like a paper cut). I consider myself a pantser. The most I can manage ahead of writing are character sheets and basic notes on the premise and the general route I see my story taking. I spend more time developing characters and setting than I do any specific plot points. I know my story will be about X and Y will be the primary conflict.

I tried the Save the Cat! beat sheet prior to writing and I had a lot of empty spots. So I forced myself to fill them in, started writing, and my story felt pretty awkward. I was “pantsing” it one way and yet my outline said to do something else, so I ended up with way too much going on. I’ve since edited that piece to a second and third draft, but it’s shelved for now. I blame forced plotting!

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 10:01 am

Hi Stephanie,

Yes, forced plotting created a story that didn’t flow well for me too. 🙂

I generally have some plan in my head for novels, meaning I know the general premise. But I’ve found I can write short stories and novellas with zero plan–as in, I don’t even know who the characters are until I write the first paragraph. I wouldn’t try that with a novel though. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee January 30, 2014 at 10:18 am

But I’ve found I can write short stories and novellas with zero plan–as in, I don’t even know who the characters are until I write the first paragraph. I wouldn’t try that with a novel though.

But since you can do it with shorter work, as you get more experience as a writer, you should be able to work up to doing it with a novel. 🙂

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 10:19 am

Hi Carradee,

My perfectionist inner-editor is shaking at the thought, but you’re probably right. LOL!

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Taurean Watkins January 30, 2014 at 11:19 am

I think it also must be said that “Understanding Story Structure” intellectually versus intuitively aren’t always the same either.

Jami, I wrote my debut (A novel) without a strict plan and I couldn’t escape the years of revision and rewrites it needed, and it wasn’t all because of newbie mistakes. Some of it was things I couldn’t have known then even if my technical stuff was near flawless.

Now personally, I HAD to do 4 versions of my debut before it sold so I’m of two mind about this. If I tried to plot this novel in advance it would never get written. I knew the characters and my title, but that was it at first, now I know things that while may not be in the book, they inform authority to my process.

But before anyone screams “First Novel” the way people do “Five Second Rule” when food hits the floor, this was the THIRD novel I did, and it was 10 YEARs before it sold in 2012 (I still don’t know my release date, but a lot’s going on and I trust my editor…)

I think part of why my current WIP’s taking so long (Besides the fear we’ve talked about elsewhere) is I don’t want first drafts so rough that revision takes YEARS, it’s just not practical for every project, but that’s what my debut needed, and it goes the other way, too.

So while your inner-editor is a natural born “perfectionist” personally mine is just critical to the point where I can’t either finish or embrace this is the best I could do, no matter how it gets picked apart later. I don’t take critiques so horridly if I know this was the best I could do, and I appreciate when my critique partners understand that, you can respect that without it clouding your objectivity, that’s NOT coddling, it’s respecting what you may excel at or understand easier than the writer who’s struggling here!”

I’m not sure I can adopt “Alpha Readers” as it’s personally hard enough to find people with time to beta-reader less rough drafts. Maybe the beta-reader pool is bigger in romance, but in children’s books, since many are teachers, or parents (Esp. Moms) time’s a premium and it’s hard

Sometimes any ‘ol beta-reader won’t do, they may object to something my story needs to have, even it the execution wasn’t right. I’m not talking about backstory, either!

This is why unlike some children’s authors who start in picture book land where everything has to be simple yet non-didactic, I’ve ALWAYS written novels, only in this ebook project I mentioned in a comment to a previous blog post-

http://jamigold.com/2014/01/all-about-the-money-authors-readers-and-ebook-prices/#comment-215735

Have I attempted non-novel story that I felt was publishable. Liking the freedom of novels doesn’t mean you want to “Bore people” or “Fry their brains with complexity.” Period.

But sometimes readers don’t realize what we as authors have to do to GET to them in the first place, especially via the traditional model.

THat’s why I sometimes get annoyed with reviews that belittle this discrepancy, not always intentionally, but you know…

I’d love to see a blog post cover that topic!

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 12:05 pm

Hi Taurean,

That’s a fair point. 🙂 As I mentioned, we need to not only understand story structure, but also be able to apply that knowledge.

For most aspects of writing craft, it takes time for that knowledge to work from conscious analysis to instinctive usage. Knowing our strengths and weaknesses is important so we know what things to consciously analyze in the meantime.

I don’t begrudge the time I spent on my plotted novel. It was an important learning step for me, and analyzing all the ways it struggled was a great way to learn how to fix lots of issues. LOL! So I’d never belittle people for how long writing takes them. As you said, if we’re doing the best we can, expectations beyond that are pointless. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Dawn Watson January 30, 2014 at 11:39 am

My method is like yours, a blend of pantsing and plotting that lets me have what I consider to be the best of both worlds. After years (decades!) of writing strictly by the seat of my pants and failing miserably, I finally hit on a system where I create a basic outline (usually plot points only, just enough to visualize the flow of the story) and then write where the characters lead, adding motivation, back story, or whatever’s called for as each scene is written. Sometimes I know exactly what has to go into a scene before I start writing, and sometimes I don’t, but the end result is a really tightly-written first draft; not a lot of fluff at all.

In spite of using the PP outline, I don’t consider myself a plotter, but I also can’t say that I’m strictly a pantser, either!

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Hi Dawn,

What’s important is that you found a method that works for you. 🙂

I actually don’t plot at all. If I wrote a beat sheet in advance–which I don’t, my muse is more comfortable keeping it all in my head–the beats would be just high-level concepts, like “showdown with bad guy.” No details in the how at all. LOL!

But! My understanding of story structure means that my subconscious feeds me the scenes I need when I need them. It’s kind of cool in a scary way. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Dawn Watson January 30, 2014 at 5:32 pm

A lot of my plot points are like that (my favorite is Thwarted Sex #1). Some of my PPs are more detailed, but the whole thing’s still pretty loose. And I love it! Agree with you 100% that it’s an individual “whatever works” kinda thing. Wish more people would be open to that concept!

Thanks for keeping up with your blog. I’ve enjoyed exploring it.

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 5:38 pm

Hi Dawn,

LOL! at that plot point description. 😉

And thanks for the kind words about my blog. Let me know if there are any topics you’d like me to cover. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Jennifer Rose January 30, 2014 at 12:01 pm

I really think that experimentation is KEY. I tried the planning method and it took me 8 years to finish my first novel. Then the second one, I had a random idea from a dream, just started writing and in 1.5 months the first draft was DONE. And I looked back and had this internal realization that I had made SUCH a big deal about writing a novel, and I hadn’t really needed to. I really think that pantsing that one little novel helped me be on my path to becoming a professional, prolific author.

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Hi Jennifer,

Yes! How will we know what works for us–or what might work for us better–if we don’t experiment. And we might discover that every story is a little bit different. Some of my stories I feel more comfortable with more planning on character arcs, while other stories I can trust it will all work out.

That’s another good point about over-thinking things. 🙂 New writers might get so overwhelmed that they give up before they start, so it’s good for them to see that there are different ways to reach the same destination and not get bogged down by one method’s rules. Thanks for the comment!

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Tamara LeBlanc January 30, 2014 at 12:03 pm

I’m a partial-panster. I feel I’m a natural story teller, so I don’t like to be completely boxed in by a structured plans, but I also realized, with my scattery, creative brain, that I need to have some sort of framework to attach my art to so that it doesn’t flap in the wind like a kite in a tornado. Your class helped me with that last year. I use a lot of what you teach and sprinkle in what works best for me.
Loved Carradee’s input!
Thanks for this, Jami.
And, I don’t think that pansters are messy writers…I think they can be as wonderful a story teller as any rigid plotter.
Have a great weekend!
Tamara

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Hi Tamara,

Yes! Story structure provides that framework so we know if and where our ideas will fit. 🙂

I’m glad my workshop was helpful for you too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Kait Nolan January 30, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Unless you’re waiting until you’ve written the book to go back and map out the beats, how is that not a form of plotting?

There seems to often be as much misunderstanding about plotters as there is of the reverse–plotters do not (all) plan out EVERY LITTLE DETAIL, WITH NO ROOM FOR DEVIATION OR CREATIVITY. Even if you’re mapping out JUST the major plot points before starting, that’s still a form of plotting because you’re planning SOMETHING. TRUE pantsing, to my mind, means writing purely organically with no plan at all. And I think that the vast majority of writers fall somewhere between the two extremes as plantsers, which I think was a term I heard you use once.

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 1:22 pm

Hi Kait,

That’s a fair question, and I should have been more clear in the post. The example I gave with the Midpoint was a discovery I made AFTER the story was completed. 🙂

I entered the final word count into the Basic Beat Sheet and clicked on the “go to page” function in MS Word to see what was on each page indicated by the beat sheet. In other words, if the beat sheet said Pinch Point #1 should be around page 140, I went to page 140 to see how close I was. In the case of PP#1, that page fell smack in the middle of the Pinch Point scene. So yes, this was analysis I did after the fact.

As I mentioned in a comment above, I don’t plan the beats, much less what goes into the beats. I simply know enough about story structure to know a story event needs to happen that will accomplish such-and-such goal, like: I need something to bring the hero and heroine together here, or I need something to cause the hero and heroine to distrust each other here. But I don’t know what that “something” is until I’m writing it.

Does knowing that I need to bring the hero and heroine together count as plotting? Nope, that’s a duh for a romance. 😉 But understanding story structure gives me the framework to ensure my pantsed scenes are going in the right direction. And with a direction in mind, our pantsed stories don’t have to suffer from tangents. Does that make sense? Thanks for the comment!

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Pauline Baird Jones January 30, 2014 at 1:03 pm

I’m pretty much an organic pantster. I’ve written and published 13 novels and written (and contracted) short stories that were ALL pantster written. Sometimes I start with a character. Sometimes a scene where I have to figure out who is in that scene. The only unfinished projects I have are the ones I tried to advance plot.

And no, didn’t take years to edit them. I did take years to hone my craft and there are times I don’t like being a pantster. But for me, to figure out the story too far ahead, well, it just becomes a “told” story for me. I like figuring out who my characters are and what their story is. It becomes a collaboration for me, with those characters. I listen more to them because I don’t have a plot to follow. And I can feel when a story is off true. It might drive me crazy, but it won’t change how I do things, no matter how many insults pantster’s accrue. LOL

Some books are harder to write than others, but I’ve learned that is just reality. Some books flow. Some don’t. But if I try to change my process, nothing will happen. So I work my way through hard. And give thanks when the story comes easier.

What is sad to me is that writing is hard. It’s hard to feel confident about what you’re doing no matter how you do it. Having others tell us we are wrong, well, that’s just wrong, IMHO. Any method is one that worked for that author and MAY work for someone else.

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 1:40 pm

Hi Pauline,

Yes, before I start a novel, my muse-subconscious and my perfectionist inner-editor argue about how much to think about or plan in advance. So I’m not rigid about pantsing being a perfect method either. With every story, we might have to tweak our approach, but as you said, tweaking doesn’t mean that we should throw out the whole process. 🙂

I agree completely that we shouldn’t tell each other our methods are wrong. I would never tell someone who struggled with pantsing that they should stick with it because that’s the way it “should” be done. The same goes for any aspect of writing. We should do what works for us. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda January 30, 2014 at 1:23 pm

A couple of days ago, I submitted a book (complete with synopsis) to my editor. I’d sent him an earlier copy of the synopsis, before I’d even started writing the book, so he’d have some idea of what I was thinking of. I opened the synopsis, read through it, and closed it again.

Then I rewrote it from scratch.

It wasn’t that the final book was a complete departure from the original synopsis. Several of the big points were there. It’s that it was just different enough it was easier to start from scratch than to go through and pick out what parts were the same and what parts were different.

He’s asked for a synopsis before, on other projects that are mere ideas at this point, and for me, that’s the hardest part of being a pantser – having to think through the entire story before I actually start writing it. People talk about outlines and story boards and note cards and different colored post it notes and my eyes just glaze over. The thought of actually having to PLOT a novel is so foreign. Does your creativity have a switch that flips once the plotting is done?

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Hi Amanda,

Yes, I’ve tried writing the synopsis ahead of time as part of that “write your query and synopsis in advance so you don’t get lost in the details” idea. I ended up in the same boat as you–after I finished the story, they didn’t match well enough to be usable. I’m sorry you’re having to struggle through this with your editor. 🙁

Know that you’re not alone and we understand. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda January 30, 2014 at 2:16 pm

I think he’ll get it eventually 🙂 This is only my second submission to him, we’re still getting used to each other. Glad I’m not the only one who ends up scrapping their synopses!

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Hi Amanda,

I hope you can work it out with your editor. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. 🙂

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Marcy Kennedy January 30, 2014 at 3:45 pm

I found this post to be really interesting because I’ve experienced the other side where it’s been suggested that, because I plot, my stories are going to be wooden and lacking in emotion. Like Kait mentioned above, so many people seem to equate plotting with planning out every tiny detail and with leaving no room for creativity or deviation. They say plotting is boring and “takes all the fun out of writing.” I know that’s not what you’re saying at all, but I suspect both sides of the debate feel equal frustration when their method is criticized or attacked. And I also suspect that there’s equal criticism and attacking of both sides going on, we just tend to feel the criticism of our method more 🙂 (Just to be clear, I’m not saying you’re attacking outlining here. Your posts are always very fair and balanced!)

I’m a hard core plotter, but I’ve never once written a story where I didn’t allow room for new (potentially better) ideas to hit. And I find plotting to be a large part of the fun for me.

I think what you said at the end is the really essential part of this all–know story structure and then find and use the method that works best for you. And we should try both methods rather than assuming one will work for us and one won’t. I tried pantsing a couple of times and I was absolutely miserable (and we won’t talk about how the story flopped).

It’s not a “one is better than the other” situation. Each type of writing (plotting vs. pantsing) has strengths and weaknesses but those are things we can adjust for as long as we know what they are.

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Hi Marcy,

Ooo, yes, I could see how some would assume plotters leave no room for creativity. I know some newbie writers think they need to be slaves to their outlines, but most experienced plotters allow for story flow. Even in my plotted novel, I knew what had to happen in each scene, but I didn’t know the “how” until I got there.

I think that middle ground is fairly common for plotters. As you said, you allow new ideas to take hold, and I know that’s how Janice Hardy plots as well.

I agree completely that this isn’t a one is better than the other debate. The only question is what works better for us. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Lisa January 30, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Excellent post! I have come across this attitude from respected writers. Pantsing is looked on as amateurish. And I love how you’ve highlighted the double standard: that plotters who run astray is a result of something other than the way they write, but with pantsers it’s always about our way of writing.

It *is* about knowing the structure. That’s really what it boils down to.

Thank you so much for this post. For taking the part of pantsers and showing them they can hold their heads up. 🙂 No need to slink about feeling clumsy or disorganised or undisciplined. We just work differently. It’s really not such a big deal!

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Hi Lisa,

Aww, thank you for the great feedback! You’re so right that we pantsers should hold our heads up. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Davonne Burns January 30, 2014 at 7:37 pm

I used to be an avid RP’er and talk about pantsing, but I think it helped me learn to be a better writer in some aspects. That and I learned I can make very manipulative characters 😉

Now when it came to actually writing my novels, I tend to write a very general synopsis which changes daily. A lot like Amanda’s. My first novel took my ten years, mostly due to one thing or another, but mostly because I was still learning structure. Once I gained a better grasp of the Three Act structure and the need for story and character arcs pantsing actually became easier. My second and third novels were no more than blurbs and I pantsed the majority of them.

The only time I work from an outline is after the main story is written and I need to make sure all the proper elements are there in the right places. It’s worked for me so far. And I never take to heart the things others say about pantsers. Some of us just don’t take well to rigid structure.

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 7:43 pm

Hi Davonne,

LOL! Yes, we want to organically find the structure inherent in the story we’re trying to tell, right? 🙂

And that’s a great point that we can’t necessarily discount a method that we struggle with during our first novel just because everything takes a long time while we Learn All The Things. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Kitt Crescendo January 30, 2014 at 8:17 pm

I’ve been thinking about this exact subject a lot recently because another friend had done a quick shout out, asking if any of her friends were pantsers.

I’d just learned the hard way that I am, indeed, one of them. I wrote my first short, no problem. I had an idea, knew the characters, where I wanted the story to start, where it should end– and just wrote. For my second one, I talked to my editor and friend. We plotted it out, then I wrote it. It was horrible. Everything was so stiff, stilted, and as you said above, lifeless! It took more time to fix that one up than it did to write it. In fact, I had to completely scrap my open and work my way through to find flow.

Now, I know that the extent of my plotting involves knowing the characters, having a general story idea, and how I’d like it to end. I’m okay with that.

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Jami Gold January 30, 2014 at 8:48 pm

Hi Kitt,

I try to look at my attempt at plotting as a good thing. It’s good to experiment and discover what works for me and what doesn’t. If that plotted story of yours helped you reach a method that works for you now, I’d call that a success. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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chemistken January 31, 2014 at 10:58 am

Although I thought I was a plotter instead of a pantser, I’ve since discovered that I’m somewhere in between. No matter how much I plot ahead of time (and I’m very much into story structure) I find that the real plot doesn’t occur to me until I begin writing. So I plot for a while, then pants for a while as new ideas come to mind, then I go back and replot all those new ideas, then I pants again… I still keep Larry’s and James’s books next to me while I’m writing, but I only read them during my plotting periods.

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Jami Gold January 31, 2014 at 11:34 am

Hi Ken,

LOL! That’s what I love about writing–that we can try so many different processes to find one that works for us. 🙂 Good luck with your happy medium and thanks for the comment!

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Stephanie Byard January 31, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Ohmygosh I am so glad I read this. Really, you have no idea. My first trial-and-error WIP is in the revision stage and I am surrounded by 16 kinds of beat sheets (or You’re Doing It Wrong). Hm. So, it’s A Balance that must be struck. This is good since my Muse was doing mental head slaps at the mere sight of the things. What a relief. Ok, so. Structure. ‘Cause that whole Beat Sheet thing was a real buzz kill. Thanks for all this and all the comments. Now, off I go to merrily click on all your Structure links. And yes, I’ll keep the Beat Sheet handy, but so glad to know it does not rule The Universe. (Insert Vader SFX here).

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Jami Gold January 31, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Hi Stephanie,

LOL! I’m happy to help. 🙂

Yes, I know the beat sheet stuff so well that it’s in my head. I know how story arcs are supposed to work, where reversals happen, where the characters think they’re succeeding only to get knocked back on their butt, etc. So I don’t write down any of the beats, I just keep the story flow in the back of my head and let my muse take it from there. 🙂

And 16 beat sheets? Ugh. I’d seize up too! The only one I pay attention to any more is the Basic Beat Sheet. It has all the important stuff and will give you enough structure to make it all work. 🙂

But above all, remember that the beat sheets are tools and we should not be puppets to them. Story flow rules any page or word count numbers. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Roselynn Roberts February 1, 2014 at 6:24 am

Though I am a plotter, I have great respect for pantsers. Great pantsers seem to have a natural rhythm to their writing. I wish that I had some of that natural ability. Instead, I focus on beat sheets, which help me brainstorm plots.

In the case of writing craft, it is not the journey, but the destination that matters. It doesn’t matter how one creates a story as long as at the end of the day it is a good story that they enjoy and possible others too.

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Jami Gold February 1, 2014 at 8:37 am

Hi Roselynn,

Agreed! A good story in the end is all that really matters. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Rebecca February 1, 2014 at 9:00 am

I’m so glad to find this. I am a brand new writer who started as a storyteller, entertaining friends with ongoing “radio serial” type stories. Scenes hit me out of nowhere, fully fledged. They “bug” me until I write them down, then I look at them and “write at both ends”- connecting scenes like beads. The structure is “close” to right, it appears.

I received some downright hostile reactions from some of the writers I asked for help/advice. I quit writing for a while, even though my characters put up quite a fuss. It’s good to see that I’m not the only one who does this, nor am I doomed to a fiery failure. The plotted story I tried came out flat, too. I kept trying to make things happen. I can approach editing/revising much happier now.

I study how brains work, and I wonder how much of this “pantser vs. plotter” comes from being either a holistic thinker (me me me!) or an analytic (planner, linear) thinker. Neither is better or more creative, just different ways of approaching things.

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Jami Gold February 1, 2014 at 9:07 am

Hi Rebecca,

I’m sorry you suffered with that doubt, but I’m happy this post helped. 🙂

As a matter of fact, I know a multi-multi-published author (she has double-digit numbers of books to her name) that writes that way: random scenes that she connects later. So that proves that method can be successful. 🙂

Would you believe that I’m naturally an analytical person who plans my real life? But I’m probably odd. LOL! Good luck with your writing and thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung February 1, 2014 at 6:13 pm

Woah…no, I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered such negative, damming feedback on pantsers before, though I have heard of the belief that not planning must equal a mess at the end.

Haha, I’m definitely one of the lucky ones for whom pantsing works fabulously well. It helped me finish two about 400 page novels, and both have a good or decent structure, at least from how much my friends enjoyed them. I agree that foreshadowing, voice, dialogue, description, scene maneuvers, character arcs, etc. just develop BY THEMSELVES when you pants (at least, for those of us who are more pantsers than plotters.) As we’ve talked about before, just writing by the seat of your pants can render surprisingly well-structured and logical stories that don’t need too much editing to become enjoyable novels.

Even when I brainstorm for upcoming or future plot events, I also pretty much brainstorm by the seat of my pants. I don’t get much say in my stories; I might prefer such and such to happen, but if the story says no, then I can’t do anything about it. If my characters say no, I again have no power to mold or plot them to my will! This is related to my character discovery (and story discovery), rather than character and story creation philosophy that I told you about. Plotting (doesn’t include my brainstorming by the seat of my pants) is too conscious a process to help me tap into what the REAL story is. Pantsing DOES help me contact and connect to that story world as it really is though. I’m an odd writer as I believe that there is only one right answer for what happened in my story. (Unless my story was about alternative universes.) There is only one true history that happened, and pantsing helps me find what those true historical facts are. So I’m a historian in this sense, haha.

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Jami Gold February 1, 2014 at 11:09 pm

Hi Serena,

One thing I loved in the link from Mindee Arnett up in the post was the idea to leave the odd details in, even if they seem unimportant. I’ve learned to trust my muse, and those details always turn out to be foreshadowing or something, as my subconscious will remember things from 10 chapters ago that I no longer remember. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Gloria Oliver February 2, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Oh my! I can’t believe they’re that nasty about pantsers. I’ve done books both ways, and like you, I prefer pantsing all the way!
I normally have a general plot with a few key points/goals to cover and then I just take notes as I go along of new issues to explore or flashes that come as I am going along. Pantsing, IMHO, can create better plots because it’s easier for twists to sneak in. Too much planning can take away the spark of spontaneity/surprise from the story being told. Breadcrumbs work better. 🙂

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Jami Gold February 2, 2014 at 3:45 pm

Hi Gloria,

In my experience, the plot twists in the plotting method come during the brainstorming of the pre-writing phase, and as my plotter friend Janice Hardy says, she tries to leave herself open for tweaks if better ideas pop up during drafting. So I don’t think plotters have to have boring plots any more than pantsers have to have messy plots. 🙂

However, like you, I enjoy the spark of spontaneity that drives the pantsing kind of drafting, as it feels like magic to me. So I’m a pantser, through and through. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Robyn LaRue February 2, 2014 at 11:22 pm

Jami, I’ve written six novels. Four of them came out chronologically and sound. Two of them came out in scenes out of order and required more editing, but those two are the strongest of them also. I’m a pantser. I prewrite quite a bit, and my drafts come fast. I go back thinking I need to add foreshadowing to find it already there. I’m confused about why I mention something in chapter three, and find out why in chapter 11. Thank you THANK you for this post because we so rarely get to hear support. Plotting a novel (for me) causes it to die a quick and ugly death.

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Jami Gold February 3, 2014 at 9:38 am

Hi Robyn,

I write scenes in linear order, but I know several authors who write non-linear-ly and still succeed. I often don’t know why my muse writes a scene until later though, and I’ve learned to trust that he’ll make it all make sense in the end. So I guess it helps that my subconscious knows structure too. LOL!

The important thing is that your method works for you, and don’t let anyone tell you differently. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Kathryn McKade February 9, 2014 at 9:21 am

Thank you, thank you! There have been times I’ve definitely felt “less than” for being a pantser, and your post made me feel so much better about it. 🙂 In fact, I linked to this on my blog: http://kathrynmckade.blogspot.com/2014/02/writing-links.html

I’ve tried outlining and such in the past, but those stories never get off the ground. I’ll be checking out your worksheets for sure!

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Jami Gold February 9, 2014 at 9:37 am

Hi Kathryn,

I’m sorry you’ve felt “less than,” but I’m glad this post helped. 🙂 Thanks for the link and the comment!

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Linda Maye Adams February 9, 2014 at 6:14 pm

I have seen the negative attitude. I had a writer sneer at me in chat and ask “How many books have you finished?” with the assumption that because I was a pantser, I didn’t finish any. I get that outliners can’t figure how I do it. I get that it scares some outliners. But, seriously, it gets really old.

I have struggled with structure in the past, but I believe I have largely resolved the issue. The reason I was having so much trouble was all that writing advice out there about story beats, plot points, three act structure. Those are all outlining techniques! If I tried to think ahead to what was supposed to happen later in the story, it would wreck the story. I’d write to that thing that I thought was supposed to happen, and things like subplots would get left out in the quest to get to that thing. I ended up tossing out all the writing how-tos I’ve learned over the years and focused on trusting myself.

Does pantsing need to be messy? No. If you’d asked me that a couple of years ago, I would have doubted that it could be anything but messy (then, I described my process as throwing paint at the wall and then sorting out what the picture was). But I think focusing on just one scene and nothing else outside it really has made a difference for me. In the past, the story often got messy because I was trying to think of the whole novel and what I needed in this scene for it and what I needed for the plot point coming up. I’m in the process of redrafting my novel (as if set aside original version and start from scratch). After I wrote some of the early chapters, I was amazed at how much cleaner they were because of this focus. Now the story has gone in some directions I hadn’t thought of because plot points kept getting in the way.

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Jami Gold February 9, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Hi Linda,

Yes, as you mentioned, I think a lot of the misunderstanding comes from one side not being able to imagine how the other side succeeds, so it scares them. But like you discovered, we each have to find the method that works for us. I’m sorry you’ve encountered that negative attitude, but I’m glad you’ve found a way through to what will work for you and your stories. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Sophie August 5, 2015 at 10:27 am

Nice post! I can’t honestly say where I am at the moment. I’ve seen what happens when I don’t plot (unfinished stories…), so I’m trying to plot more. Then again, a recent RP showed I still have to be flexible (tried to go one way. Other RPer went the other way. I then had to hastily rejig my plans to fit, as my villain had been shot and so couldn’t take my character or the other RPer’s character captive.), so I’m learning. I’ve got a vague idea where it is going, at least. Main character Ashley and best buddy Shanae are trying to get me to get on with writing it, instead of fussing over the details too much, though!

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Jami Gold August 5, 2015 at 1:48 pm

Hi Sophie,

LOL! I often start stories when the characters yell at me to stop thinking about it and just get on with it. 🙂

We all have to find the right way for us (and that can change from story to story). Some of my stories have more vague plans than others. Sometimes I get stuck and have to backtrack a bit on minor details. But if we have basic story structure in mind, we usually won’t get too far off track. 🙂 Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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