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Pantsing vs Plotting: A Primer


Ah, pantsing vs plotting, the eternal dilemma for a writer!

There are two general ways that most writers write, and it depends on a whole bunch of factors as to which method a writer might choose. But a lot of it does come down to your basic personality. There is a way that just “works” for you.

Pantsing – this is very free-form writing. You start a story, and see where it goes. The writer discovers the story as he/she goes along. This is the type of writing where characters just “show up” and plots happen organically. Why “pantser”? It’s short for “writing by the seat of your pants”.

Plotting – a structured approach. You plan the story and most of the major plot points before you start. The writer has  a very good idea of where the story is going right from the get-go. An outline is a plotter’s best friend.

Now, to be fair, probably most writers will not write entirely as a pantser or a plotter. Most will have elements of both in their writing process. A pantser might have a general idea of where the story is going, and some plot points along the way. But he/she holds those very loosely, and is willing to veer off in a different direction if the story wants to go that way. But force a pantser to outline and he/she might break out in hives. And a plotter might be  open to making some of those course directions as well, but needs the security of having some kind of structure to start with.


I am definitely a pantser. And I have mixed feelings about that. On the one hand, I absolutely love to be able to dive right in to a story and just start getting the words flowing. I love being surprised by characters and situations. There is something fantastically writerly about the magic of pantsing. And I have found myself utterly amazed by this process a time or two, especially in the writing of my book.

Characters appeared that became integral to the plot, characters I couldn’t have imagined if I hadn’t been following the rabbit trail of “hmm, now what?” And even small details have connected to the larger story in incredible ways.

But there are definitely downsides to this method. First of all, you tend to do a lot more writing than you might have done if you had thought it through to start with. You do tend to write yourself into dead ends at times, and get forced to abandon thousands of words of progress that took you hours to write. This is not the best method for people who like quick results. It is not impossible to be a pantser and to write to deadline. But it gets harder to do that the longer the work you are writing.

Secondly, my Achilles heel when it comes to writing is endings. Oh, how I struggle with those. And that’s because I have a great idea to start with, and I start running with it. But sooner or later that idea fizzles out, and I just don’t know where to go from there. This is when I wish I was a plotter, and that I had a nice outline with the ending already fixed. Because once you know where you are going, it is so much easier to write towards that end goal.

Thirdly, you have to be careful as a pantser not to wait until inspiration strikes to write. There are lots of times I’ve had no idea of where to go, and have forced myself to keep going. Asking questions like “what is the worst thing that could happen now?” can at least get you going somewhere. Once you have words on the page you can fix it.


And finally, as a pantser you have to embrace the revision process. Let’s face it – either you spend the time doing the outlining before you start and the writing itself doesn’t take too long, or you spend a lot of time writing and a lot of time revising.

For plotters, the downside is that you can get so stuck on your outline that you might lose a wonderful rabbit trail that might have made your story better than you had originally envisioned it. And I suppose (although I don’t know, as I’ve never actually done this), you can get so wrapped up in writing the outline that by the time you get to the writing of the  story your enthusiasm for it all has waned.

Awhile back I thought it might be a good exercise for me to try outlining a short story, just to give myself some practice as a plotter, and to see if it helped me with my problem of endings.

It was interesting. And really, really hard. But to tell you the truth it didn’t help with my ending problem because, well, I had just as hard a time coming up with an ending using this method as I did with pantsing. Blah. I got characters in place, with back stories; a setting, a little bit of world-building; an inciting incident for the plot….and then, it all fizzled. I finally decided to start with what I had to see what might happen. Heh.

I’m happy with the story that I wrote, and I definitely got an appreciation for the value of outlining. But I won’t be switching sides to #TeamPlotter any time soon. It kinda made my brain hurt. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing once in a while, but not they way I would necessarily want to write all the time.

It’s a fascinating process, and there is always so much to learn. If you are a beginning writer or a seasoned one, I would encourage you to try out both methods. You might be surprised at what you discover.


  1. sdorman2014 says:

    surprise? i am so surprised that you are a pantser! i know your are a meticulous researcher (i am in a limited way) and thought this went with careful outlining. definitely doing it by the pants method here, but, in the latest fiction, the endings occurred to me almost from the start, owing to circularity in a spec fic conceit. engaging handling in this post. thanks!

    1. L.A. Smith says:

      Yes, it is kinda weird that pantsing is my method, I agree. But it just works for me. 🙂

  2. This felt like I wrote it myself!
    I’ve been suffering with my endings since I started writing. I have to admit though, when I started writing academically (as a PhD candidate), the importance of having a pre-structure and a definite deadline, thaught me a lot!
    So now, I’v become a semi-pantser. I do some prepping, but never hesitate to follow the rabbit down the hole. It helped with my endings too, now that I know the main points of the plot, and that it has to end by a certain date, I can guess (feel) the organic way the story ‘should’ end, and I allow it (most of the time).
    It’s like you said, you have to try both and find the balance that works for you.
    By the way, did you hear about the snowflake method? It helped a lot with my previous NaNo novels.

    1. L.A. Smith says:

      Hi there, and thanks for stopping by! Yes, I’ve heard of the snowflake method. Too much (shudder) outlining. But I suppose I should give it a try, just to see how it feels. I’m not against an experiment! But I don’t feel immediately drawn to it, if you know what I mean. 🙂

      1. I know exactly what you mean! To be honest I only use the first 3-4 steps of the method just to have a general skeleton of the story path, it gives me a possible ending (with some obvious conflict), therefore a better chance at moving the novel forward. However, I wouldn’t even bother to think of full pages of ‘everything there is to know about every MC’ and the like. The idea of knowing that much before the story has taken places is just… ugh!

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