One of my least favorite terms used of late among writers is “pantser.”
When I was about 9 or 10, there was an annoying girl at the local swimming pool who – in the middle of a crowd of swimmers – would pull down my swim trunks while I was swimming in the deep end. “Pantser” sounds like a middle school term for such a person.
But it’s meant to capture one side of a debate about writing. “Are you a planner or a pantser? Do you outline the main points of your story before you write a scene, or do you start writing by the seat of your pants and see where it leads?”
Planning is like following directions off Google Maps. The key steps along the journey are listed, and it’s on the writer to fill in the details in between. Pantsing, to me, feels like “I know my destination is over there and I’ll get there somehow” or even “I’m going for a drive today, and I don’t care where I end up.”
Both have their merits, weaknesses, and uses. For me, outlining is the most successful method for two reasons:
First, as soon as I realize there’s a problem, I can pause my effort, brainstorm a solution, and get back on track. Going back to Google Maps, if I miss a step or take a wrong turn, I can stop and course-correct to prevent wasted effort. I don’t have to finish a full manuscript before addressing glaring errors or issues. The minute I see the “Wrong Way” sign on the side of the road, I can stop and turn around.
Second, laying out key decisions, actions, and events well in advance, which makes foreshadowing possible. I know how the external and internal conflicts are going to be resolved. As a result I can build toward a more dramatic climax in the story. I don’t have to be surprised with my characters when suddenly we reach the final battle.
The first drawback to those key qualities are a lack of spontaneity or creativity in the writing process. If suddenly an idea strikes me in writing scene A, I may not be able to include it, because of how it will impact scene B leading to scene C. At best, I would have to make some changes to the outline to incorporate this change. Pantsers get the liberty of doing whatever they want and fixing issues later.
The second drawback is that once the story is “told” in my head, it feels “written” to me. I already know how it’s all going to play out. As a result, I can lose motivation for the tedium of putting all those ideas down on paper (or word processor screen).
Still, the benefits outweigh the potential trouble. What I don’t want to do is find myself several thousand words into a story only to discover glaring flaws in the basic premise.
To me, that takes away the fun and joy, like getting lost on the way to the party, or getting pantsed in the swimming pool.
What’s your favorite method to organize your writing efforts? Are you a planner or pantser, and why do you like that approach? Maybe there’s an aspect to either side that I’m not considering. Let me know in a comment.