Planning versus Pantsing

I had the chance to chat some weeks back with the sublime and wonderful S.G. Wong (who you’ve GOT to read… she’s over at and please check her out).  She was kind enough to sketch out her writing process, which involves planning, outlines and careful plotting of the story arc well ahead of putting actual words down on paper.

She then asked about my writing process.  My stumbling newbie answer was “totally by the seat of my pants” which is true – I often sit down at my keyboard and start typing with absolutely no idea what’s going to come out or in what direction the story will move.

When this works, it’s like I am transcribing a tale as it unrolls behind my eyes… the words flow like water and I write chapters of really good stuff.

When this doesn’t work, of course, I’m sort of stuck.  I will read and re-read the same opening paragraphs, trying to get the words rolling.  I’m currently stuck within a short story that started out en fuego – the first two paragraphs popped into my brain and I was off to the races.  But five pages in and I have no idea where to go next.  A great opening and then… *crickets*

Sometimes when this happens I keep typing, almost randomly.  I’ve broken through a few story barriers this way, and once I get words down they are usually fixable; rarely have I had to throw everything out and start again.  My background as a newspaper reporter taught me to keep typing until I had something ready by the deadline, and my Day Job for the last 22 years has similar deadline-driven requirements.

But it’s not professional, is it?  I mean, surely I can concoct an outline now and then?

Actually, I don’t think I can.  Oh, I still remember Sophomore English, with its outlining and its thesis-building (I still see the chalkboard with “Introduction.  Thesis Statement.  Three Supporting Points.  Restatement of Thesis.  Conclusion.” in my nightmares….)  But my brain simply doesn’t work that way; I’d write out the entire essay and drive the teacher nuts by handing it as “final” when the class was supposed to be working on first draft outlines.  So long as I paid attention to where my thoughts were going, I could arrive safely.

I also once dictated off the top of my head a final paper for a college course over the phone when a buddy in the Engineering College blew a mental tire trying to write about Hemingway.  Come to think of it,  I ghost-took ENG 101 and 102 a half-dozen times, as the only Liberal Arts major among my group of friends.

So – a technical response for my Day Job?  I can almost write those in my sleep by now.  But in fiction, I’m learning all over again that I have to pay attention.  Pay attention to where my protagonist or antagonist is headed, so I can type them out a path.   Pay attention to internal logic, and whether the story arc is a smooth bend or a nasty switchback.

I also have to explain things that don’t exist outside the hamster cage that is my brain, and I’m learning that writing all this out into a cohesive story is a lot more difficult than any technical proposal.

I am also learning there is no correct way to write – just because my narrative lurches like that hamster is hopping across a pond full of lily pads doesn’t mean I won’t cross safely (though I might torture a metaphor until it squeaks).

I can remain in awe of S.G. Wong’s disciplined approach – of all the writers who know every single plot point before they even begin the story – but us pantsers can get the job done, too.

It’s not better, it’s not (okay, it might be a little….) worse – it’s just different.  And if it works for you, it’s the best way.



One thought on “Planning versus Pantsing

  1. I wish I could do either, but my brain cannons backwards and forwards between the two. Suddenly I will have a new character, some new peril and an outline that is now totally useless.

    Good article!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s