Planning vs. Pantsing

Originally published April 18, 2017.

There was an article I read recently which referred to two categories of writers:  planners and pantsers.  Planners are writers who like to outline, who like to have the story laid out before they start writing.  Pantsers, so named because they write “by the seat of their pants”, are more inclined to go into a story and wing it, to start writing and see where the story takes them. (These are certainly not the only names for these concepts, but I like them because of the alliteration.) In talking with other writers, it seems to me that planners are the majority.  I know quite a few writers who say they would feel lost without an outline.

Which is fascinating to me, because I am very much a pantser.  Which isn’t to say that I have absolutely no plan when I go into a story.  Like most things in life, I don’t think these are two hard-set categories, but rather a spectrum, with only a few people all the way on either end.  When I go into a story, I usually have the major beats planned out in my head, which you could argue is a sort of outline.  But my outline stays in my head, because I feel it’s more malleable that way.

For me, writing is as much a process of discovery as it is one of creation, if not moreso.  I start with a premise, a character or set of characters, and a setting, and go from there.  It’s like starting out on a journey of discovery.  I might have certain landmarks I want to reach, and those are the major beats that I plan out in my head.  But how I get there is decided along the way based on the journey thus far.  And sometimes I forgo those landmarks entirely when I discover a completely different path I’d rather take.

People who know me in person are often surprised when they find out I’m a writer, because they know me foremost as a software engineer with a degree in mathematics.  But for me, writing a good story isn’t that far removed from writing a good mathematical proof.  Math is all about, “What can we conclude given our assumptions and the rules we know?”  Swap out assumptions for premise and I feel like writing is the same way.

After all, there are rules for good storytelling.  They’re more malleable than the rules of mathematics, but they still exist.  When a character does something that’s out-of-character for them, or the story takes a sudden shift that wasn’t set up at all, those rules are being broken.  For me, the fun of discovery is, “Given the story I’ve set up and the rules of good storytelling, where can I take the story from here?”  Though I may have a destination in mind, if the rules lead me to a different one, the story will probably be better for it.

In contrast, the one time I tried writing a gaining story from an outline, I felt stifled.  It felt less like writing a story and more like when I wrote research essays for school.  The excitement of discovery was lost, because I knew exactly where the story was going and how it was going to get there.  I felt less like a writer and more like a secretary writing a note that was dictated for me.  There was a sense of, “The story already exists in this outline.  Why bother writing it?”

I’m certainly not trying to convince any planners reading this to “come to the dark side” of pantsing.  What works for you as a writer works for you, and advice that works for some of us is in no way guaranteed to work for all of us.  But given that I’ve also seen people say they have no idea how someone could write without an outline, I wanted to give my perspective on the topic.  And maybe, just maybe, another pantser will read this and something about it that they’ve been trying to put into words will ring true for them.

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