Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a terrible planner in every aspect of life. Outlines and lists were never my strong suit. It was too much effort for my taste, and my scatterbrained nature made it damn near impossible to organize all my thoughts (though it probably would’ve helped me). The idea of being organized always appealed to me. The concept of having an outline always filled me with this sense of ease–this idea that yes I knew where this story was going. But I never stuck with it.
Even for school assignments, when teachers demanded outlines for essays, I tended to write the essay first. I just went back after the fact and scribbled out an outline so I had something to turn in (sorry to any former teachers that may be reading this). Sure, having the outline could make me feel at ease, but that was only once I had my ideas. But in order to have the ideas, I needed to let my mind run buck wild.
Do you see my problem here?
Outlines have their place in fiction. So does flying by the seat of your pants. But over my time as a writer, I’ve discovered a happy medium. I like to call it flying by the seat of your outlines.
Planning vs. Pantsing
The main difference here is that planners think first and do later. Pantsers are the opposite. They’re the kind of people who go “What a great idea! We’ll figure out how that fits… later.”
I like to compare this a bit to people shopping at Target. Planners can walk the whole store, list in hand, identifying exactly what they need and picking only those things. Pansters, on the other hand, are the ones walking out with carts stuffed with about $100 worth of impulse buys because they just needed to have that $5 DVD and how could they pass up the Christmas decorations at those prices?
I’ve flip-flopped between planning and pantsing throughout the entirety of my writing life (and my real life, but that’s a talk best saved for me and my therapist). Sometimes, I really benefit from planning. I have an entire novel that I outlined so heavily that I even bought timeline software to make a timeline of events in the story. Other times, I just start writing and stop when it feels right. Yeah, not every idea is golden, but that’s what revisions are for.
My point is that both methods take you about the same amount of time, and they get you to the same place. It’s just two different methods of arriving there.
There’s a Little Bit of Planner in All of Us
Relating to my previous point, you need to plan your novel. You might not plan it beforehand as most planners tend to, but without planning at all, you won’t have structure. You need to know your characters, your setting, your plot, etc. This is all planning. The difference, really, between a planner and a pantser are how much planning you do and how well you stick to that plan. You’re going to plan at some point, whether it be before or after.
The “Before” Planners (aka True Planners)
The biggest perk of being a planner (or at least a before planner) is that you know exactly what’s coming. You know where you’re going and how to get there. The real upside here is that knowing all of your key events before they happen allows you to really balance your narrative and make sure the pacing stays exactly where you need it.
However, before planning can almost give you too much control. Sometimes, planners face the problem of restriction. Unlike pantsers, Planners are unlikely to follow an impulsive idea, which ultimately limits their own creative freedom. Planners risk getting to attached to their outline, to the point where sometimes they won’t budge, even if a better, more exciting idea comes along.
My advice on this con? Try going off-plan. Writing is one of those arts where you can always go back and change what you’ve created. You haven’t painted the canvas the wrong color–or maybe you have, but the point is that this isn’t permanent. You can change whatever you want, whenever you want. Even if your impulsive little idea doesn’t fit your story at the time, writing it anyway may benefit you, as you never know when you’ll have that blissful light bulb moment where it all falls into place.
Post-Plotting (aka Pantsers)
Pantsing, though a bit controversial, is pure freedom from an authorial stand point. You can move freely without worrying about more complicated details in your story. For instances, Pantsers may dream up a brilliant new character to base their story around, while a Planner will focus more on a series of events in the plot.
The con with Pantsing, obviously, is the complete lack of structure. Pantsers often fall victim to plot holes and pace issues. If you’re dedicated, there’s nothing you can’t fix, but they’re often problems that could have been easily avoided with a little pre-planning.
The Style of Success
When it comes down to it, the easiest way to avoid the pitfalls of Planning or Pantsing is to simply combine the two methods. There’s nothing wrong with taking the bare bones of a plot and developing that into something more structured as you go. In fact, that tends to be what I do, and sometimes I find entirely new stories along the way. It feels like a journey of self-discovery in a story, and I love the thrill of knowing I could twist and turn the plot around at any second, should I choose to.
There’s also nothing wrong with outlines. You can outline to your heart’s desire, if that’s what you need to get started. Just remember to cave to your impulses from time to time. Don’t get caught up and restricted.
Ultimately, you need to choose a style that compliments your own personal writing process. It will be a trial and error process to find it, but when you do, it will feel more natural than you could ever imagine.
So, where do you fall on the spectrum? What side of the coin do you prefer? Are you into outlines? Or do your pants fly?