I have come to the conclusion that the “pantsing vs. plotting” way of thinking about writing is as impractical and useless as nature vs. nurture, or talent vs. learned ability.
Are you a pantser who discovery writes from the seat of his pants, or a plotter who has to outline every character, every plot point, and the whole world first? Well, that’s about as useful as asking whether you were born stupid or whether you were taught to be. Probably a combination of both.
The pantsing vs. plotting dichotomy is something I learned early on, when I was just starting out as a writer. At the time, it seemed like a useful distinction to make. Beginning writers tend to make a lot of mistakes, and those range from world-builder’s disease (where you spend all your time outlining instead of actually writing), to rewriting the first chapter into oblivion, to writing yourself into a corner and having all your characters scream at you. It’s amazing how many things you can get wrong. By dividing these things up into pantsing problems vs. plotting problems, it was helpful to figure out how to fix those.
But then you start to identify with one side or the other, and that leads to an entirely new set of problems. Because the truth is that to write well, you need both. A pure pantser often writes himself into problems that he can’t easily get out of, or misses key elements that render the rest of the story moot (like “if only these two people would talk with each other, the obstacles to their romance would all go away” or “if only Hermione would use the time-turner to stop Voldemort from becoming the dark lord, no one else would have to die”). In contrast, a pure plotter often writes stories that are too mechanical and predictable, telegraphing every plot turn and reducing every character into an avatar for some theme or idea.
So, while thinking of it in terms of pantsing vs. plotting may be useful for the beginning writer in diagnosing the areas they need to work on, I’ve found that it’s not particularly useful for the professional writer. In fact, it can be damaging.
For the last several years, I’ve considered myself to be a pantser. Discovery writing is my mojo—give me a few good ideas and the barest outline of a plot, and I’m off to the races. Except… I always tend to stumble and fall in the middle. In fact, I often have to throw out entire chapters or set a story aside for months at a time, to “let the ideas percolate.” For the last several years, that’s been my modus operandi.
With Son of the Starfarers, I’m working on a set of very tight deadlines to finish the damn series as quickly as I can. It took way too many months to write book 7, and I can’t afford to take that much time for the last two books because that’s time I’m robbing from other projects (like Edenfall or Gunslinger to the Galaxy or The Sword Bearer). As a pantser, I can write any book if given an infinite amount of time, but that’s not practical. I need to find a new way to write, one that maximizes my efficiency.
And I think I’ve found it. I’m still tweaking it, of course, but it involves <gasp!> outlining. But wait—I’m a pantser, not a plotter! Except, it turns out, that I’m not. Because no one is.
Pantsing vs. plotting does not describe the writer so much as the method of writing. It’s not a question of where you fall on the spectrum, it’s a question of whether this particular project requires more discovery writing or more outlining. And it turns out out that there are ways to outline stories that actually make your discovery writing better. Every battle plan falls apart upon contact with the enemy, but you need the plan to know which direction to march your troops.
In the next few weeks, I’ll go over some of the new outlining methods I’ve been trying out. It took me almost five months to write A Queen in Hiding, struggling over multiple drafts, but it’s been only four weeks since I started An Empire in Disarray and I’m more than 2/3rds of the way through it, with a clean first draft, and I’m on track to have something finished and publishable by the end of next week. There are still a few kinks in the process to work out, but I think I have it down well enough to share.
So if you consider yourself a “pantser” or a “plotter,” and you’re still struggling to write as much or as well as you’d like, I’d urge you to revisit your basic assumptions about your writing process. That’s what I did, and it’s made all the difference.