Medium,  Writing

Are You a Pantser or a Planner?

When I was new to writing, I often didn’t know what I was doing. I spent the valuable (and few) minutes I had every day to devote to writing just floating around in a sea of words. There was often no direction or thought to where a story was going, which resulted in discombobulated bits of character and plot development strung together to create a somewhat-coherent story.

By all definitions, I was a pantser. If you’ve never heard of this term before, a pantser is someone who flies by the seat of their pants. It’s a word you might hear to describe writers when you attend workshops or conferences. At one of the first conferences I attended, there was a bit of an ongoing debate amidst the panelists about which was the way to go — planning out a story or winging it.

There are lots of successful writers who claim to be pantsers. They sit down at their computer with a vague idea of where their story is going and let the characters they’ve created move the story along.

Then there are those who are planners. Before even writing a lick of fiction on the page they have extensive notes; documents full of research and links to articles for reference; and they often outline their story down to the scene.

If you’re a pantser, you’re probably thinking planners sound like they’re the ones to kill the buzz at any party you’ve ever attended, and if you’re a planner, that description of how pantsers often write might be giving you cold sweats.

I was a pantser when I started out. I didn’t know the value of planning out your story. I specifically remember how one of my favorite stories that I’ve ever written made it over the middle of the story hill to trek towards its resolution. I got stuck (due to lack of planning) and decided that my characters would go Christmas caroling. In a story that until that point had no mention of it even being Christmastime.

Yeah, my review group could tell that this was me grasping at thin air for my next plot point.

Now, I would say that I fall somewhere in the middle. I plan out what I write, but only to the extent that I actually find helpful. This usually means I wind up with a decently in-depth synopsis of the story, a vague outline of the story arc, and an idea of how the story is going to end.

Anything past that is too much planning for me. I’ve made the mistake before of getting too involved in planning to the point of detriment. If I spend too much time on an outline and creating in-depth character sketches for each of my characters, I never get around to actually writing the story.

This is where the pantser part of the equation comes into play. You need a plan — a road map if you will — but eventually, you’ve got to drive! And you’ve got to be okay with tearing up that road map and buying a whole new one if the pantser side of your brain tells you to take a left when your plan says to go right.

That’s the beauty of writing. If you create well developed, well thought out characters (ahem, planning a bit) then they will start to come to life and direct your writing (pantsers, this is where you fly.) You have to be a little bit of a pantser and a little bit of a planner to be a good writer.

These days, I spend a week or two writing bits and pieces about the background of my characters and the plot of my story before I get to actually doing the writing. I let those plans inform where I start and where I finish, but for the rest of my time writing my story, I fly by the seat of my pants.

So are you a pantser or a planner? Maybe relax your plans a little bit if you plan too much, or, if winging it is your downfall, spend a bit more energy thinking of your story as a whole before diving in headfirst next time. A little bit of this and a little bit of that makes for a good recipe, a good story, and a good writer. So what are you waiting for?

Previously published in The Book Mechanic.

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