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January 30, 2014

In Defense of Pantsing

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*

P.S. Don’t forget to register for WANACon and submit your daily entries into the Rafflecopter for your chance to win a full refund of your registration fee.

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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What do you think?

68 Comments on "In Defense of Pantsing"

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Rhenna Morgan

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”.

Carradee
(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… Read more »
Lynn Tyler

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.

Stephanie Scott

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!

Taurean Watkins
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… Read more »
Dawn Watson
Dawn Watson

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!

Jennifer Rose
Jennifer Rose

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.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

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

Kait Nolan

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.

Pauline Baird Jones
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… Read more »
Amanda

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?

Marcy Kennedy
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… Read more »
Lisa
Lisa

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!

Davonne Burns

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.

Kitt Crescendo

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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chemistken

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.

Stephanie Byard
Stephanie Byard

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).

Roselynn Roberts
Roselynn Roberts

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.

Rebecca
Rebecca

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.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
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… Read more »
Gloria Oliver

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. 🙂

Robyn LaRue

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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Kathryn McKade

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!

Linda Maye Adams
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… Read more »
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[…] — Jami Gold, "In Defense of Pantsing" […]

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[…] strong anti-pantser (writing by the seat of our pants) bias, and I’ve pointed out before that story failures are more often a symptom of not understanding story structure than with pantsing meth…. Pantsing and plotting strategies can both fail or succeed, and in either case, those who […]

Sophie
Sophie

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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[…] I believe that most problems experienced by pantsers come down to whether or not they understand story structure. And a lack of understanding story structure will cause issues for plotters […]

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[…] In other words, an agenda isn’t necessarily bad. My agenda is to push back against bad writing advice that can make us feel like we’re doing something wrong just because we use a different approach (i.e., writing by the seat of our pants isn’t the fast track to failure). […]

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[…] I suspect most of the stereotypical issues of those who pants rather than plot come down to a need for understanding story structure […]

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[…] can’t possibly result in a coherent story. My writing—and that of many other pantsers—proves that assumption wrong. […]

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[…] I believe that most problems experienced by pantsers come down to whether or not they understand story structure. And a lack of understanding story structure will cause issues for plotters […]

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