When it comes to writing, I’m a pantser from way back. I get an idea and run with it, usually in a straight line, until the end.
But in my daily life, I’m a planner. Planners make lists, organising tasks in order of importance, working out the logistics beforehand in order to get as much done as possible without backtracking. Planners remember that everything takes longer than they think it will: they are realistic about what can be achieved. Planners pace themselves so as to keep going for prolonged periods without collapsing in a quivering heap. Planners understand they can plan as much as they like, sometimes things just don’t go their way. Flexibility is a key component of their plans.
I’m wondering why not apply this approach – also called plotting or outlining – to writing, since pantsing doesn’t appear to be working well for me. A seemingly good idea starts off okay but fizzles out as soon as problems arise. Without a plan, it’s just easier to jump to the next good idea, leading to a pattern of never finishing anything. Confidence suffers because the heckler that sits in the back row of every writer’s mind starts jumping up and down yelling, ‘I told you so. How did you ever think you could be a writer? Who’d want to read this rubbish? Who wants to know what you think about anyway?’ (My heckler sounds a lot like Mrs Danvers, doing her best to get the writer in me to self-destruct.)
Stephen King is one of literature’s great pantsers. In his book, On Writing, King says,
I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.
He starts with a situation to which he adds characters and keeps writing to find out what happens.
Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere.
Maybe, as long as the someone writing it happens to be Stephen King.
Just to be on the safe side, I’ve been looking through my how-to books for advice on planning my next project so as to increase the likelihood of success.
Success = finishing
If you don’t finish, you won’t succeed.
This is something I’ve heard over and over again on So you want to be a writer or as Allison Tait, co-presenter says, ‘Just write the damn book.’
But how, Al? I hear you ask.
That’s what the show is about. All 120+ episodes. But I digress. That’s what happens when you’re pantsing.
A plan is a guide, not a police officer.
Step Three in Kate Grenville’s book ‘Writing from start to finish: a six-step guide’ is about outlining. She suggests writing ideas generated from lists, cluster diagrams, research and freewriting onto index cards. Organise the cards into the beginning, middle and end of your story. The beauty of using cards is that you can add, subtract and move them about until you are satisfied you know who and what your story is about. There are helpful questions to prompt you if your outline needs more work.
Like most things in life, there is no right or wrong answer. There are probably as many ways of writing a book as there are books. Maybe the question should be, what’s the right way for you?
‘What if there is no right way for you? Why don’t you give up…?’
Shut up, Mrs Danvers!
Are you a plotter or a pantser?