The Great Debate: Plotting Versus Pantsing

No doubt you’ve heard this discussion before.  Some writers rely on advanced plotting when writing their books.  They outline in advance of actually writing the book, sometimes plot point by plot point, sometimes chapter by chapter, sometimes even line by line.  These writers will tell you that without this sort of preparatory work, their books meander, and both the writing and the revising is excruciating.

Others will tell you, with just as much passion, that they are dedicated seat-of-the-pants writers, or “pantsers” as they are affectionately known.  These writers will tell you that an outline robs their writing of spontaneity and keeps their creative juices from flowing.  They will say that they write “organically,” meaning that their plotting and character work seems to happen in the moment, sprouting from their imaginations.

Both sets of writers — plotters and pantsers — are sure that their methods are the best, and that they couldn’t possibly write any other way.  And often aspiring writers will find themselves wondering which approach they ought to take.  So allow me to weigh in.

First, let me say this:  Each writer has to find his or her own way.  Between the extremes of no advanced plotting whatsoever and outlining down to the most minute detail, lies a broad spectrum of possible approaches.  Each one of us should find the place in that spectrum where he or she feels most comfortable, regardless of what others are doing.   As I am fond of saying, there is no single right way to do any of this, and what works for me (or for anyone else) might not work for you.  Find the approach that feels best and use it.

Second, that spectrum I mentioned really does provide a myriad of possible approaches.  I think there are few writers out there who are pure pantsers or pure plotters.  Most people follow a path that combines elements of both.  These days I consider myself a plotter.  I like to outline at least a little bit, usually on a chapter by chapter basis, without getting into the minutia of individual scenes.  Which means that I still do a lot of my plotting on the fly, or, if you will, by the seat of my pants.  This also means that I also see my work as deeply “organic.”  By the same token, even the most dedicated pantsers I know tend to have some sense of where their narrative is headed before they sit down to write.

And third, the term “organic” means different things to different people.  I believe that on some level ALL writing is organic.  Maybe all art is organic.  Because even those who outline extensively have that creative spark at some point in the process, be it in the crafting of prose, or the generation of that first outline.  Creation itself is an organic act. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be a pantser in order to write organically.  It’s not true.

Finally, allow me to say this:  I think that for aspiring writers especially, some level of plot outlining makes sense.  Writing is difficult.  Piecing together a novel-length work is a challenge for any writer, experienced or not.  I have written novels with lots of outlining and I’ve written them with almost none.  I got away from outlining for a while but have come back to it, not because my plots have gotten more complicated — they haven’t.  I have come back to it because, in my experience, my novels are better — leaner, tighter, more coherent, better written — when I take the time to do some planning in advance.

That’s just my experience, of course.  As the expression goes, your mileage may vary…

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