In Praise of Pantsing

Plotter.  Pantser.  Zero drafter.  I don’t even know what to call myself anymore.

It’s all just labels anyway.  I’ve previously written about how, in their strictest sense, there’s almost no difference between them anyway.

As long as you end up with usable words on the page, it doesn’t really matter the method you employed to get them there.

And yet as someone who primarily works from an outline, I’ve spent the last three months pantsing my way through a rewrite of part of my WIP.

I took on this method willingly, because I mostly knew what I wanted to say, and because I thought pantsing could get me through the rewrite process faster.

The fact that my critique group is swapping and reading chapters on a weekly basis created something of a deadline in my mind.  The faster I could produce a chapter, the faster I would get it read.

I’m pretty sure this process has not been faster.

Previously, I discussed everything I hated about pantsing through this rewrite.  But I ended with the concession that the process wasn’t all bad, and that I could see myself doing it again someday.  Here’s why:

1) It was easier to hold a small bit of the story in my head

While I doubt I’d be so bold as to pants my way through an entire novel, I could definitely do it again in revisions, especially for a short, defined section of the story as I’ve been dealing with.

I found it very easy to hold the events of a single chapter in my head as I was writing it, as well as the major through lines for the seven-chapter micro-arc that comprises the first half of my second act.

In this way, I was still sort of outlining, but rather than with bullet points, it was all happening in my head (which is probably where it happens for a lot of whole-novel pantsers as well).

2) It forced me to trust myself (both now and later)

Part of what made this pantsing stint so challenging was that I was also writing on a (self-imposed) deadline.

With my critique group taking submissions once a week, if I didn’t get my chapter finished by the submission deadline, I’d have to wait a whole other week to get feedback on it.

This sense of urgency, I found, was at times invaluable in forcing me to stop naval-gazing about the numerous things I could write, and different ways they could play out, and to just write something—just commit to a direction and the promise that I could work it out later if it needed fixing.

This was something of a new experience for me.  I tend to be rather cautious as a writer overall; I’m usually loath to write anything unless I’ve contemplated it six ways from Sunday and feel confident that it’s the right direction for my story.

Never before have I just written things—introduced ideas—with no pre-existing plan for resolving them in the end.

3) It forced me to dig deep

This relates to point #3.  In order to keep submitting to my critique group on time, not only did I have to commit to ideas like I already knew they would work, I had to actually make them work—by any reasonable means necessary.

Even when it seemed like I’d written myself into a corner—especially when it seemed like I’d written  myself into a corner—if I didn’t want to restart from scratch, I had to leave no stone unturned in searching for a solution amidst all the cards already on the table.

And surprisingly, oftentimes I found that solution.

4) It reconfirmed my regular writing process (at least for now)

Besides being a plotter (or perhaps more accurately a zero drafter), I’m also a slow first drafter.

Even with the security of an outline, it’s often difficult for me to pull words out of the void for the first time.

Pantsing—even pantsing under a deadline—did nothing to change this fact.

Despite pushing to make my weekly deadlines, I often missed them, and not just by a little bit.  I barely felt the strain of having to wait another week because the week was full of me still working on the same chapter.

However, where I really shine is in revision.  Once some version of the words finally exist, I can push through a revision like my life depends on it.

Pantsing brand new material only verified this.  Often it would take me two whole weeks to release a chapter to my group.  But in that time, I’d have written and rewritten that chapter three or four times in the final three or four days, essentially ending up with a fourth draft instead of a shitty first one.

Whether I gain access to the good writing by actually writing the bad stuff first, or instead just think through it while drafting it slowly, my need to get below the surface refuse remains the same, at least for now.

Like all things in one’s writing process—like my years-long journey to come to appreciate pantsing—anything at any time can change.

How has your writing process changed over the years?

(Image source #1 and #2 – via Stencil)

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9 thoughts on “In Praise of Pantsing

  1. Your comment – that most writers can keep the whole thing in their minds – is true. I can’t – no sooner do I have a bunch of stuff loaded in from one side than it starts falling out the other. Which is why I can no longer program supercomputers. Same skills in many ways. Darn. I used to be good at the programming.

    The first novel I pantsed, I think. No outline or anything. It has some great pieces, and solid characters, and I have not the slightest idea of how to improve it, assuming I want to save some of it. Now, I’d create a structure from what I already have, and hope the structure could be clothed in much of what I already have. There’s a pretty good way to do that in Dramatica for Screenwriters, and I’d start there to see whether I have one coherent structure, or a small set of things that need resolving.

    It won’t happen for a long time – I have a bigger novel to finish first, and I’ve never done the retrofit so I’d have to do some reading and some fiddling.

    But it’s comforting to know that I have a method available, and I’d probably use it.

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    • I definitely don’t count myself as a writer who can keep the whole thing in my head; not beyond the broad strokes. Every time I read through a draft, I encounter story events I completely forgot I’d written. To a certain extent, I think I have old knowledge falling out the other end as well. Some things are not worth trying to remember, especially when I could just look it up and relearn it with relative ease.

      I really can’t see myself ever trying to pants a full novel from the blank page. It would be far too inefficient – too much rewriting and backfilling and reconsidering. The resulting list of things to go back and fix/add as I continued along would essentially be the same as an outline, so why not just do the outline up front and save myself the aggravation? When it comes to doing a bit of pantsing/off-roading beyond the confines of a pre-planned outline, or as part of a small revision, though – that I could see myself doing again.

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      • Some people claim that if they know where the story is going (as from an outline), it bores them so much they can’t write. Those are the ones I consider the true pantsers: it’s systemic.

        They say they sit down every day to find out what exciting thing will happen – and that their readers like the results. Those books drive me nuts if I get into reading one accidentally. I tried to learn from Lawrence Block when I started – and finally realized I can’t write like that, and I don’t like his books. They’re charming – and drive me to distraction with his lack of structure. I stay away from books like that now.

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  2. New to writing I HAD to stop pantsing and start outlining. I kept writing myself in a corner with no way out. Outlining for me keeps me on the road. It’s writing in the slow lane, but the rewrites move along at the right pace.

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    • I can definitely relate to writing oneself into a corner. I’ve done so more times during this short pantsing rewrite than during any other time in the writing of the novel. I can’t imagine pantsing an entire book with that danger swinging over my head. With an outline, I know it will work before I commit to the effort of writing it.

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  3. Welcome to the club. It’s way more fun – for me anyway. With a vague sense of direction, purpose and how it all might come together I enjoy just throwing my characters in and seeing what happens.

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    • For me, it’s just felt too inefficient: way more rewriting and backfilling and reconsidering than when I’ve pre-planned. A lot of times, when I threw the characters in nothing happened because the setup just wasn’t there. That killed a lot of the fun real quick for me. I’m okay with being an occasional visitor to the Pantser Club, but I don’t expect to be a permanent member.

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