Musings on the Craft of Writing

►Just… Don’t Do It! (Yet) [Planning v. Pantsing]

So much of the advice we all see about novel-writing is, “Just get your ass in the chair and start writing it!”


OK, I’m being flippant.  What I mean is, “No.  Don’t.”

There are two polar opposite camps regarding the novel-writing process: Planners and Pantsers (the former is obvious, the latter comes from the notion of “writing by the seat of your pants”).  But no one is truly at either extreme of those ends.  All die-hard Planners still discover and change elements of their tale as they write, and all Pantsers are planning some of the story (in their heads, even if they refuse to write down those plans).

~~ And, now what? ~~

~~ And, now what? ~~

I try to stay as far in the Planning camp as possible, for I am convinced that we save ourselves not just hours, but months (and years?) of frustration and pain by spending the time charting our story before we sit down to type our manuscripts.  What contractor do you know who just “starts building” a house without planning out every minute detail?  Why would we, as novel-writers do that to ourselves?  Our novels have hundreds of elements inside of them which need to synthesize perfectly.  Why would we think that our harried minds (which are already tasked with choosing the right verb here, drawing the exact landscape there) could take care of it all without charting it out on paper first?

Once we begin typing the story, a powerful psychological inertia keeps up moving in the particular trajectory of the moment.  The mental forces within us build… We’re happy that we’re writing (of course), and we’re encouraged by each keystroke.  The joy we’re experiencing keeps us typing as our cherished story ideas are becoming manifest on the screen.

If our planning was poor (or non-existent), and we have written a chapter (or several) poor_planningwherein some of the concepts are faulty or we have a missing (or poorly-crafted) character, etc., then we have dug a foundation for our house in the wrong spot or have randomly thrown up a wall where it did not belong.  After recognizing the errors, we are faced with the choice: Delete all of those faulty pages or sift through them to try and correct them.  The vast majority of the time, the right choice is to tear down the entire mess.  But in the same way that we’re tempted to “throw good money after bad,” we’re tempted to try and fix those sections rather than chuck them and start clean.  We hate cutting our losses.


And that’s the dynamic that Pantsing creates.  By virtue of having written chapters (or other large sections), we’re unconsciously pushing ourselves in the direction of keeping them (even if they’re fundamentally misguided).  I don’t merely mean editing/proofing errors; I’m referring to the entire story-arc  and character development.

Yes, some of this is also true of making extensive story plans.  Once we even start to sketch the faintest outlines of our novels, we have the tendency to stick with those seminal ideas.  Once we start making lists/charts/lines pointing to circles, etc. inertia begins… we’re ushering ourselves into a direction which could be faulty.  But this is far less dangerous than the Pantsing approach.  The inertia is significantly weaker at this stage.  We have an ounce invested in our plans compared to the tonnage of actual work.

There is great value in being stoutly in the planning-only stage.  It encourages a mindset of “This is all up for grabs… I can change any and all of this, nothing lost!” It’s also useful in that the stress is markedly lower while in this stage, which allows creativity to flow all the more.


I’m presently charting out a seven book series, and so have been fighting to prevent myself from “starting,” which is a false and dangerous notion.  I’m forcibly keeping myself in the “pure musing” stage of the project.  I’m charting all of the main characters and plot points for all seven books before I write word.  This seems to be the method with the best chance of minimizing the strife of repairing or destroying all of the things I shouldn’t have created in the first place.

The editing stage is long and arduous already… Why would I want to triple my time in it? I’d rather write books.











18 responses

  1. Desiree G

    I’m a Pantser (please don’t ban me from your site) but I’m also unpublished. 🙂 Thank you for the insight. You probably don’t want to come over to my house for dinner because I don’t plan that out either!! LOL

    November 25, 2013 at 9:47 pm

  2. Haha. My planning for my dinner tonight was: A) Grab can opener, B) Eat the beans.
    (Not joking.) Well, I’d encourage you to read up on the subject, most especially with Larry Brooks.
    Take care,

    November 25, 2013 at 9:49 pm

  3. This article is great. When I try to write a fiction, it never comes out correctly. Building characters and plots (or an outline if you will) can be quite tedious for me, but it needs to be done before the writing process begins or the whole thing will be a complete mess. I think your advice is insightful.

    November 25, 2013 at 9:52 pm

  4. Interesting reading. I’m a planner, but more in my head than on paper. Although with the novel I’m currently working on (and my first), I have sat down and mapped out the last few chapters on paper. When I was at Uni, there was a lot of talk about ‘just writing’ and letting the story tell itself. Mmm, not for me though.

    November 25, 2013 at 10:21 pm

  5. graceh13

    I’m a Pantser thru and thru. 🙂 Btw, still wasn’t able to look up for Yeats.:) I was planning this morning when I arrived in the office but was caught up with

    November 25, 2013 at 11:21 pm

  6. I have written a few short stories in a pantseresque method, but I wrote the backwards. After the initial seed I created the ending, then I let the story develop without a written plan because I knew where it is going.

    Theme also matters: a story about a character facing adversities can unfold from the start without a detailed plan if it is about the character’s flaws and not a final resolution (although that does not make pantsing it a good idea), but a mystery story would be immensly difficult to write without a detailed plan for all the clues and red herrings that would be revealed later.

    November 26, 2013 at 5:57 am

  7. The thing is, Daniel: Everybody’s different. And the same writer can be a planner in one project and a panstser in another. There are no hard and fast rules. Dave Higgins (above) is spot on about the theme; perhaps that’s what causes the variations in approach style within the same writer. Well said, Dave!

    November 26, 2013 at 5:49 pm

  8. I welcome all debates/POVs.
    Yes- there are differences within us, but the project (of novel-writing) has some heavy universality to it (regardless of genre). Writing a novel means there are fundamental story structure considerations (plots, turning points, characters, arcs, etc…). We can either spend the time planning it all and then write it, or we can write, revise, write… over and over until we have corrected the structure errors. I am highly dubious of it “just coming out right” if there is no planning stage.
    Granted, there is always revision, but lacking a clear chart of the voyage surely increases the number of [months?] spinning in circles.
    Anyway, thanks to you both for writing. Write again!

    November 26, 2013 at 6:01 pm

  9. I think that I may fall under both of those genres 😛

    November 28, 2013 at 11:32 am

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  11. You make some excellent points here. There is definitely gross inefficiency in “pantsing” your way through a story – or as I like to call it, “discovery writing.” 😉 No doubt many people (myself included) have wasted away hours/days/weeks on this method, and there are certainly huge advantages to having a well-planned story – good plot twists almost inevitably require some kind of calculated forethought, no matter what kind of writer you are.

    That said, as a self-described discovery writer, I probably wouldn’t be able to write if I had to plan it all out in detail before hand. I have certainly tried, and I simply do not have the patience to wargame an entire novel. I derive great joy from the writing experience even if I end up scrapping a scene, a chapter, or in one case half of a book. I would add that there are some very well-known discovery writers out there who are able to produce excellent work. Questionable Content writer Jeph Jacques comes to mind as among the most daring of the “pantsers” with his mostly-discovery web comic.

    Of course as you noted, nobody is purely anything when it comes to writing. Towards the end of my last story I had the general events of each chapter mapped out if only because I had spent so much time thinking about the many directions in which the story could go, and had finally come up with the best fit. It’s all about finding the blend that works for the individual – the never-ending quest to define your own style is part of the adventure.

    Love your blog, by the way!

    December 7, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    • Thanks for that well-considered (& written) reply. The most recent analogy I made for the Planning stage was carpeting a giant, complex room. If you don’t plan out as much as you can, you’re guaranteed to have a mess.
      But, (on the ‘discovery’ end), there are things that you learn only in the micro stage– only when we’re down to writing the scenes do somethings pop into our heads. So, of course it happens.
      My current stance is that we should plan the macro first, then plan out each scene (eg, a 1 paragraph summary) before writing. I think that this minimizes the time we have to go back and smooth/cut the carpet.
      What is your exact methodology?

      December 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm

      • The broad-strokes kind of outlining you’re talking about is something I tend to incorporate, actually, but implemented a little differently. When I’m starting the story I usually have some kind of general direction (story starts with situation X and ends with situation Y), but I don’t outline anything specific before I write the first scene. I start writing based on my general idea, and see what happens between the characters in a very discovery-oriented way. I then reflect on these chapters – what I like, or what I don’t like – and come up with ideas of how the specific scenes I’ve created can play into *big overarching goal.*

        At this point if the beginning just isn’t going to get me where I need to go, I scrap anything that isn’t working. I keep the interesting parts, come up with some rational fixes, and during this process create a few empty chapters in my writing software with notes like, “traveling to country X,” or “prison break scene,” so that I know where my train of thought was taking me. I want to be sure that this wild quest for discovery is still going in one direction, after all.

        That might be more than you were asking for, but it’s hard to distill down exactly how my method works. ^.^ I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t the most efficient way to write, but it’s been fun for me. It’s always evolving; reading about other people’s methods helps refine my own process.

        December 7, 2013 at 3:21 pm

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  14. Team Planner! But, I do concede that this also may depend on the genre and/or type of book you are writing. If you are into mystery/fantasy/series etc, I think planning becomes almost commandment. But, I also suppose a different type of story may require less planning. It’s also probably a temperament thing. I’ve always been extremely organized in writing and could not imagine another process. Every other road would seem to lead to frustration and plotholes. yet, alas, apparently there are people who happily and successfully “pants,” so I guess the proof is in the proverbial pudding.

    January 9, 2014 at 8:34 am

    • I forgot that I differ from you in that I’m not a strict planner per se. Specifically, I do write many “Scraps” and exploratory scenes before officially beginning my first draft. Indeed, these scribbles are part of my broad planning phase as I get a sense for what characters/plots etc work for me. Some of these things I feel that I cannot really determine before writing. But again, that is just preference and the majority of my novel will be plotted out.

      January 9, 2014 at 8:38 am

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