When I was first getting serious about writing, somewhere between the ages of eleven and twenty-one (who can really pin down when they became serious about writing?), I was a definite pantster. I had one project and I flung myself into it with the careless abandon of a finger painting kindergartner. I let the story take me where it would. Characters sprang up out of nowhere. Story lines I never would have imagined branched off and grew. My one book grew into two, then three, and then four, finally fleshing out into a hefty five book series, each book clocking in at between 120- and 130k.
It. Was. Glorious.
And sloppy. And exhausting. And required so many drafts that I eventually stopped counting them after eleven or so. I mean, there’s no shame in taking 10+ years to draft a single project, but it’s hard to move other projects forward as well. And as a writer, I definitely hope to be more than a one-hit wonder.
These days, now that I’m an old lady and I’ve got things like jobs and kids to suck up my time, I tend to plan things out quite a bit more. I typically don’t start writing until I know the full cast, an unholy amount of setting, and at least eighty percent of the entire outline in detail. My books and characters still surprise me sometimes, leaving the path and running whooping and laughing down a flower-bedecked hillside instead. But generally, I know where things are going before I even type Chapter One.
I have sequentially planted my butt firmly on both sides of this fence, but I still can’t tell you which is better, pantsing or planning. (Hint: The better one is whichever one works best for you just then.) But just for the fun of it, let’s break these babies down a bit more.
Pantsing is typically a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants free-for-all where all you start with is an interesting premise and the determination to see it through to its unknown end. Planning is more in the vein of spreadsheets, flowcharts, and index cards; however they get it down, planners like to know what beast they’re working with and how to wrangle it- all before they step in the arena.
So what are the merits and demerits of these two schools of thought? I asked a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter and Facebook their thoughts on this, and here’s what our think-tank was able to come up with:
|Pantsing||Room for surprises
Get right to the fun of writing
More organic characters and relationships
Allows for more exploration of a theme or topic without plot restrictions
|Requires extra time in editing and cleanup
Wonky flow, pacing, and direction
Bloated first drafts
More prone to ‘getting stuck’ mid-draft
|Planning||Gives sense of the story’s direction
Enough organization to remember what I’m doing
Less prone to writers block
Cleaner first drafts
Faster first drafts
Allows higher degree of story complexity without getting messy
|Requires extra time spent in prep work
Can sap some of the fun and enthusiasm from a project
Sometimes creates rigid situations that serve the plot rather than agree with the character development
These are, of course, generalities. And like most things in life, these two poles rest on either end of a continuum, rather than being either a 1 or a 0. To reflect the murky middle ground, the term “plantster” has started cropping up around the internet as well, to represent those of us who like to hang out in the mix.
I mentioned earlier that I like to start a project with a mere eighty percent of my plot planned out. Because of this, and quite a few other gaps I leave open at a project’s advent, I don’t really think of myself as a true planner. I’m more of a preparation-leaning plantster. I like to have a really strong structure in place at the start of a project, and most of the major plot points planned out. But I also like to leave myself a little wiggle room for exploration, and an unscripted ending. I like leaving the ending unplanned because it usually takes me up until that point in the story to come up with an ending that a) fits the story naturally and b) isn’t coming at the reader with all the subtle surprise of a regularly scheduled freight train. Because of this, I do tend to have to go back and rework a bit of the earlier story (adding foreshadowing, tweaking storylines that end up being important, dropping the ones that aren’t, etc), but I’m fine with an extra draft or two.
Just so long as it doesn’t end up being closer to twenty drafts.
So whether you plan, pants, or something in between, keep doing what works best for you! The best routines are the ones that work, and don’t let anyone (or any table) tell you otherwise. Happy writing!
(And a special thank you to the dozen or so folks on social media who pitched in to help me articulate all the plusses and minuses of planning and pantsing- you guys are awesome!)