Novelists, Writers, Poets: Are you a “Panster” too?

To what extent, when writing, are you comfortable "rolling the dice"?

To what extent, when writing, are you comfortable “rolling the dice”?

As I work on transforming a number of my blog posts here into a writer’s handbook, “Writing For You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction,” I’ve been thinking a lot about the distinction between planners, those who write from an outline and do a lot of pre-writing prep, and pantsers, those who write by the seat of their pants. I’ve been evaluating my personal approach to writing, which falls squarely in the pantser camp. And it’s struck me how extremely out of left field it is that I would be a pantser.

Those who know me on a personal level could vouch for how careful and cautious a person I am. I’m not a huge risk-taker, and I don’t do many things spontaneously. I make sure to eat healthy and get some exercise. I appreciate order and routine in my life.

Heck, when I started my PhD program, which used a quarter system–meaning much shorter class lengths than the semesters I was used to–I began researching and writing final papers during the second week of a course. I was terrified of running out of time and not making deadlines. I don’t like to leave many things to chance, and I don’t generally put off until tomorrow obligations I have time to fulfill today.

Because you never know when unexpected lightning's gonna light everything up....

Because you never know when unexpected lightning’s gonna light everything up….

You would think I’d outline. You’d think I’d appreciate the order and organization involved in using an outline. The lesser risk of things falling apart, or of sinking lots of time into a project doomed to fail. But I adore writing as a panster.

I mean, writing as a pantser is where–more than anywhere else in life– I fulfill that drive all of us have, to some degree, for risk and spontaneity. For adventure. So the process of flying without a safety net works for me. I’ve thrown out a lot of work, but somehow, that doesn’t bug me. Not at all. I’m okay with chalking the “failed” novels and “failed” beginnings of novels up to growth, to developing a new wealth of experience to draw from in the future.

In some ways, the “risks” involved in writing as a pantser have become a major part of the reason I continue to write, and why I love writing so much. I like to think the risks involved in my approach to writing help me to be more comfortable taking other risks in life and experiencing new things. I need that push to get out of my shell.

So, are you a planner or a panster? If you lean toward the pantser side of the spectrum, have you found that what I’ve said here rings true for you, or is your experience completely different? I’d love to hear what people think about this! Because truly, it just feels so odd–knowing me the way I do–that I would wing it so much in my fiction, and truly enjoy doing so.


32 responses to “Novelists, Writers, Poets: Are you a “Panster” too?

  1. I’m a hybrid. I write an outline. Then I write a first draft, which usually veers way off path from the outline, because when I wrote the outline, I didn’t really know the characters, and the result would be such melodrama if I stuck to the outline. After the first draft, I read through it and see what parts I still don’t like. Then I write the second draft, using as much as I can of the first draft, but willing to rip out supporting characters and entire chapters, possibly replacing them with something else I hope is better. After that initial outline, though, I just don’t have the discipline or desire to write another one, so whatever happens in the subsequent drafts is mostly by the seat of the pants. Of course, because of the outline, I have a desired end result in mind during my drafts, so it’s not 100% seat of the pants writing. Like I said, I’m a hybrid.

    I like having the initial outline, just to give me an end goal. If I don’t have that, I spend too much time writing side plots that end up detracting from the story rather than enhancing it. I think the real danger with pantsing is the temptation to leave in the final product more of what was written than what belongs in a published story.

    • sounds great, Michael! I think it’s really interesting how you take a frame of mind that you’re writing a second draft and beyond, because I don’t think of my second drafts that way. After I get a first draft down I just consider everything editing–even when I am cutting and rearranging and adding some new scenes.

      • My second drafts need editing! They really are second drafts. I start a new file and rewrite the whole thing, referring back to the first draft and copying what I can use.

        In the second draft, I cut out characters and subplots that don’t help the story in some way. For those characters who stay in the story and I hadn’t recognized as being so important until late in the first draft, I introduce them earlier in the second draft. I find new subplots to replace the ones I cut, that advance the story or show character better than the subplots I cut.

        My true nature is as a pantser. Writing an outline before the first draft is an exercise in getting down as many ideas as I can before they evaporate. I know when I write the outline that it won’t survive intact.

        • that is so interesting to hear!!! While I’ll save my file under a different name when I start a revision so I’ll have the first one as well, I never start again with a blank doc. I just make comments and make changes to the doc I have in front of me. I would never have even considered going about things the way you do. I just LOVE how different approaches can work for different people. It’s fascinating to me.

  2. I’m like you. A planner in real life, a pantser when I write. Like you, I tended to finish academic essays weeks before the deadline haha. And I think the discrepancy is peculiar, too. In fact, I wrote pretty much the same blog post as this one just a couple of days ago! Here it is:
    Great minds think alike, aye?

  3. angel7090695001

    I am a 100% panster. When I think of an idea I write it down. No plans or outlines at all. I have lots of ideas and rubbish stories which I could edit and write but I don’t for some reason.

  4. I’m the exact opposite of you. I enjoy spontaneity, randomness and not planning in real life, but I’ve tried the panster approach in two different novels and came to a screeching halt somewhere in the middle, whereas when I outlined this screenplay I just finished, it was all smooth sailing.

    • oh my gosh that’s so great!!! I guess what’s true for me is true for you too; we both write in a way that allows us to experience acting in a way we generally don’t elsewhere, and that works for us. Even if everything’s flipped where we’re concerned. That’s amazing!

  5. You and I are similar in this. I am a very organized planner – except when it comes to writing. I’m grateful for this, because so often what emerges out of the process is better than what I could have planned or foreseen. It is one area of my life where there are no controls or “shoulds” and I think that’s a good thing.

  6. I am not a planner in any aspect of my life other than recently planning out my meals for the week to limit trips to the grocery store everyday for last minute items. I never write from an outline because for me, it simply restricts my creativity when I sit down to write. I need the freedom that comes from being a pantser. I need the ability to go far away from my original plot if that is where my writing takes me or to make small changes here and there as the mood strikes me.
    So in some respects, yeah I don’t use an outline because of the risk involved in not using one but mostly it is because I find them too restrictive.

  7. A fascinating post, Victoria.

    Unlike you, I always know exactly where my manuscripts are going. So I guess that makes me a planner. Outlines for books come to me in a matter of moments. Over the following weeks or months, I’ll make notes firming up the shape of the book, the story arc, the sub-plots and so on. The books that result take years to write, and often aren’t begun for several years, but the basic schemata that I envisaged for them at the start tends to remain pretty much the same. Incidentally, I also find that restrictions engender creativity rather than stifle it.

    I’ve encountered Michael’s approach before. William Golding – and what finer model could one wish to have? – used to write three drafts of his novels, starting completely afresh each time.

    • Oh my gosh, I didn’t know William Golding did that! I LOVE “The Princess Bride!”

      I think it’s awesome that you love outlining. And I definitely agree that in a lot of ways and for a lot of people, restrictions can produce productivity. It’s a problem-solving thing: how can I accomplish this given the limits I have to accept?

  8. To be a panster is reallly a risky way but it´s so pretty! It´s dangerous but much more creative. It´s only an opinion. From Spain Happy week Victoria

  9. Interesting post. I’m a combination of the two, really. I write out a basic synopsis, usually with an end in mind all the time, and then start writing. As I write, I edit what I have written previously, and rewrite my plan as it changes. I try not to do any major rewrites as I just find the thought of that too depressing, so I only really do one draft. But, I do rewrite and edit as I go along, constantly referring back to earlier chapters, until I am happy with them.
    I wrote about this subject too. It seems to be an endlessly fascinating subject for writers!
    The ‘Snowflake’ of the title refers to Randy Ingermanson’s method of planning.

  10. I´m very surprised when I´ve read about your degree in spanish literature. It´s wonderful. I´ve not too much options. My tales are written in spanish but all are developed in US. You blog is very useful and I´ll follow your blog with a real interes. Thanks from hearth. Now in Madrid is very late, but is delightful know about the deep south. Thanks newly Victoria

  11. A pantser through and through! Outlines make me feel like I’ve written the story even before actually writing it, and that totally kills the excitement I get from seeing where my characters will lead me next.

  12. Colin Noel-Johnson

    I just dive in without any plan, though after a few chapters I know how it’s going to end, nothing in between the two, but I at least have a basic idea where it will end up.

    • I too dive right in. Often times, after a few chapters, I think I know where it’s going to end and then after a few chapters more I see I was totally wrong! haha! I love the adventure and the surprises of it.

  13. Sleepy. Should be in bed…panster here 😀

  14. I’m a hybrid like Michael K. Eidson.

  15. I’m definitely a pantser. I’ve tried to plan but I never stick to the plan and the characters take me another way. I have folders of half started or half finished ideas, but you know I don’t care. Often they become something else.

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