If you’re a writer with even minimal involvement in the online writing community, chances are that you’re familiar with the terms, “plotter,” and “pantser.” And if you’re a plotter who manages to successfully finish books—and by “successfully” I mean get out a sloppy first draft with a rough approximation of a beginning, a middle, and an end—then you probably don’t have much angst about being a plotter. You get an idea for a story, you work on an outline and sort out your story arc, you might even plot scene breakdowns, and then you write according to the plan, adjusting as needed.
Sure, the process is still a whole huge ton of hard work, that’s what it takes to write a book, but overall you feel good about your process and it seems to work for you, especially after you’ve written your first novel and you somewhat have the hang of it.
So, what does pantsing look like? Well, most writers assume that it means exactly what the name implies. You fly “by the seat of your pants” and make up the story as you go along. And while there is some truth in that, it also doesn’t accurately cover how exactly the process unfolds as a creative cycle, or why pantsing is a better approach for some writers.
As a rule, pantsing as a creative process is wildly misunderstood by most writers and so, if you are a pantser by nature, deepening your comprehension and skill set around the process of pantsing can be a long, bumpy, and very lonely, road.
For starters, almost all writers assume that plotting vs. pantsing is a choice made by the writer before they begin their novel. I’ve seen many writers express confusion over why someone would “choose” to pants their way through writing a book, or issue warnings that if writers don’t outline, their project is sure to end in disaster. Usually, the writer then uses the example of how they tried to write without an outline in the past and everything went south very quickly.
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This is because a) the writer is a natural plotter, and pantsing doesn’t work for plotters, ever. Or, b) the writer is a natural pantser but has no idea how to actually pants their way through a novel and has been trying to educate themselves on the process of writing by consuming material on “how to write” written by plotters.
Plotting vs. pantsing is not a light-hearted choice. It’s not like picking between chocolate or vanilla ice cream. It’s also not about choosing between “hard work” (outlining, writing scene breakdowns, etc.) and “fun” (merrily letting your imagination run in all directions). Pantsing gets a bad rap, even if it’s not explicitly stated much of the time, because there’s this assumption that it’s haphazard, disorganized, and that all real writers worth their salt know good and well that you have to do the hard work of planning a novel before you sit down to do the hard work of writing it.
The truth is that pantsing involves just as much hard work as plotting. Because pantsing is not “making things up” as you go along. Its real name is intuitive writing, and what it actually involves is the writer going deep within themselves, bypassing the logical side of their brain, and using their intuition to pull images out of their subconscious (or out of a different reality, depending on the writer’s belief system), and then translating those images into words, which are then recorded on the page.
“Making things up” as you go along is what plotters do when they are pantsing and it doesn’t involve the intuitive side of the mind at all. It’s a plotter continuing to use the same faculties they use to plot—the rational side of the brain—in an attempt to pants. Pantsers also try to use this method when they don’t understand what it means to properly pants. And this is why both parties fail miserably at pantsing when they try to do it this way.
In addition to this, most pantsers actually do not know they are pantsers. They just think they’re failed writers. Most pantsers are usually introverted, intuitive personality types (INFJ or INFP), and so they’re used to living in a society where they’ve always felt out of step and where they’ve always had trouble with the mainstream processes of learning. So, what we end up with, is the INFJ or INFP writer who is a born pantser, but who has tried to educate themselves on the craft of writing by consuming articles and guides that have been almost wholly provided by plotters.
And that’s when we see writers who love words, live through books, are ignited by passion and beauty and emotion, but have also started three novels and never finished any of them. Or the writer who begins writing their book full of inspiration, but then hits the middle of the book and has no idea where it’s going and gives up.
These writers are not failed writers. They are pantsers living in a plotting kind of world with little to no resources that will teach them how to work with their characters and story on the level of emotion and intuition, which is the only thing that will actually get them to that place where they finish a novel.
If this is you, if you’re reading this and little lightbulbs are going off in your brain, then know that you are not a failure at writing and you don’t need to apply yourself even harder to the process of plotting, something that will never work for you anyway. The solution is learning how to become more of what you already are: an intuitive writer who needs to learn more about your own intuition.
Lauren Sapala is the author of Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers, a guide to help any HSP, INFJ, INFP, or introvert writer move past resistance to selling and marketing their work. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers.
Thank you for this. You may have just changed my life.
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I’d say that every writer that doesn’t have some thought-through concept of something like the Four Pillars (https://cslakin.teachable.com/p/the-4-foundational-pillars-of-novel-structure) that they’re setting themselves up for failure — planner or pantser.
Maybe you start with one pillar, but by the 2nd or 3rd chapter, if you haven’t worked out in your mind the other three, your end product will either never materialize. Or, it will be an unreadable mess.
I’m no shill, but CSLakin’s book is prolly the best novelist’s friend out there.
This pantser thanks you for a fresher look at what pantsing really is. Also – while I usually let my characters run amok in my universe, I HAVE taken a lot of time planning out their playground. As a gardener, I spend a lot of hours doing mundane tasks. Weeding, trimming, pruning, repetitive boring stuff. This is perfect for my worldbuilding. I immerse my mind into my world and work on it, in my imagination. I build currency systems. I figure out how this world came to be in the first place. I lay out the streets of the cities, I decide what the personality of each neighborhood is like. By the time I shower off the bug spray and get the vegetables into the crisper, I’m eager to throw my characters into my world and see what they think is going on there.
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As a happy plotter, I accept that I don’t really “get” the process of intuitive writing. Writers are often so eager to judge someone else’s process based on whether it works for them. The slightly clichéd truth is that each author has their own ideal process.
Read what works for others, but don’t treat it as the be-all end-all. Try it if it seems good, and throw it away if it doesn’t work for you.
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Wow, this is a great one, and the term ‘pantser in a plotter world’ really does describe my life in general. Thanks for this!
Pantsing (v): Pulling someone’s pants down in public.
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An interesting take on the old pantser vs. plotter debate. I think it can change from project to project and as a writer develops and hone her craft. One shouldn’t be afraid to experiment a little with both ways.
Thank you. I have never been a plotter in any aspect of my life. That’s not me. That’s not how I write 🙂
Oh great. I write under the name Sandy Pants, but I’m more of a plotter. However, I stray from the plot when I think, “my character wouldn’t do that,” or, “this action would be funnier.” Then I have to go back and change things to fit the change of plans. I recommend outlining each chapter as you write along to facilitate changes. I guess I have plots in my pants…
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I am a pantser. I have finished writing 3 novels and a number of short stories. I do NOT plot in any normal fashion. However I’ve been reading novels and short stories for more than 40 years so I have a pretty good idea what needs to be in the finished product. While pantsing can be challenging, it can be very enjoyable.
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“If you’re reading this and little lightbulbs are going off in your brain, then know that you are not a failure at writing” DO YOU SEE MY LIGHTBULBS???
For real, deep down I know this but it’s still so good to have someone else say it. I’ve written 1 post on pantsing v plotting and it was quite hard to articulate my thoughts because of our plotter-focused community. This post articulated it perfectly.
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So nice to see understanding and respect for my fellow pantsers!
One piece of the argument that usually gets tossed about is how much more quickly a plotter finishes a MS, allegedly because all the chapters were laid out, etc. But that never holds up, because my longer drafting/revision time more than balances with what they spend outlining and sketching and planning.