Every writer has heard the “pantsing” versus “plotting” debate. The crux of it is that some writers prefer to plan a lot before they start their novel and others don’t plan as much. In a community dominated by plotters, here’s some things I wish people understood about writing a novel by the seat of your pants.
1. We Don’t “Just Wing It”
For someone who follows an outline, or who likes to plan all their plot beats and character arcs ahead of time, writing “by the seat of your pants” sounds like writing without any preparation. I’ve heard many times that pantsers “just wing it” which isn’t true.
First let’s differentiate between by the seat of your pants and wing it. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:
Definition of seat-of-the-pants
employing or based on personal experience, judgment, and effort rather than technological aids or formal theory.
Definition of wing it
to do or try to do something without much practice or preparation.
There is no more “winging it” involved in pantsing a novel than there is in plotting one. Believe me, I’ve done both.
I can’t speak for every self-identified pantser, but the way I see it is that pantsing is the writing process where most of the planning happens at the same time as drafting. Sometimes, this means reordering scenes or deleting scenes I’ve already written. Sometimes it means brainstorming ideas and dismissing them immediately. This is why I prefer the term “discover writer” to pantser. It’s about figuring out what works best for the story. Some people do that with an outline and others do it while drafting.
2. Pantsing Is Not Better Than Plotting & Vice Versa
I feel like writers who say they follow their instincts give the impression that they think they’re superior. Writing by the seat of your pants is no way better than plotting it out before you start. It’s just different.
There’s also this idea that pantsers don’t finish their writing projects because they don’t plan. I’m not saying this doesn’t happen. Truly, if you tried to sit down and simply button-smash the keyboard until something happened, you won’t finish a story. The pantsers that do finish their projects are the ones who are thoughtful, who consider what is best for the story, and who aren’t afraid to make drastic cuts and changes.
Recommended Reading: What “Pantsing” Really Means, and Why Most Writers Have it All Wrong
3. We Don’t Need To Outgrow It
Because the method is so personal and intuitive, there’s very little writing advice for how to be a good pantser. Personally, I’ve struggled with this idea that if I don’t outline my novel, I’m a failure, that I won’t ever finish it and if I do, that it’ll be unstructured, unfocused, and a complete editing nightmare. I have found tons of articles decrying “How To Outline If You Hate Outlining” and “How To Plot If You’re A Pantser” and “I Used To Be A Pantser But Then I Discovered X.”
All of them say the same thing: That pantsing your novel is unprofessional and you need to grow out of it.
And I try. Honest, I do. But outlining doesn’t work for me. I don’t know what it is. I can write an outline, I can name and place all the plot beats in the Three Act Structure, I can list my scenes in order, my characters wishes and goals… but I won’t write the novel I’ve outlined. I think I get too wrapped up in what the story should be that I just can’t sit down and simply tell it. Maybe I feel like I’ve already told it, so I’m just repeating myself. I honestly don’t know what it is.
The stories I have finished, and the ones I like the best, are ones that I allowed myself to do what felt right. I followed my instincts. I didn’t always think I was going to make it to the end but I did.
A writer’s method changes over time. I’m not saying I won’t find the perfect outlining method one day, but I don’t like this expectation that I’m not a real writer until I do.
If you’re a pantser, don’t let people dictate how you write. You’re not a lesser writer for not following a certain formula.