Pantsing vs. Plotting

Sometimes, Squiders, it’s good to go back to the basics. I would divide the writing process into the following steps:

  1. Outlining
  2. Writing
  3. Revising
  4. Editing
  5. Submission and/or Publication

Would you agree with that?

The first step of that is (arguably) outlining. It’s said that writers fall into two categories, plotters (people who plan a story before writing) and pantsers (people who write by the seat of their pants without an idea where the story is going).

I would argue that we all plot, at least a little bit. Even a pantser typically doesn’t go into a story without having an idea of length, main character, and premise. I mean, I’m sure people have, but I’m not sure they got very far.

Perhaps that’s a point for discussion another time. Does planning things out make it easier to finish a story? My experience says yes, but that’s only one bullet point.

So, I would argue that we all fall somewhere on a sliding scale between true pantser (no planning whatsoever) and true plotter (detailed, several thousand-word outlines, character sheets for all major and minor characters, world map, etc.).

People on the pantser side of the scale like to jump into a story with a minimum amount of planning and see where the story gets them. They can add in whatever cool new thing catches their attention because they don’t have to stick to an outline.

People on the plotter side, in general, have an idea where they’re going. This makes it easier to stick with a story and not get stuck. Plotting also helps you remember things, especially if you’re prone to forgetting your latest great plot epiphany or character motivation.

I think people kind of float back and forth along the scale throughout their careers. As for me, I started out close to true pantser, many years ago. My first novel, all I had going into it was a premise and a genre (murder mystery). It stands uncompleted at 29,000 words, and will probably never see the light of day again.

I’ve been drifting more toward plotter ever since. At first, I would pants the first half of a novel and then outline the rest so I could pick up the loose ends. My last few novels I’ve outlined the whole thing before I started using a fairly loose method that identifies key plot points (inciting incident, midpoint, climax, etc.).

Oh my landsquid, this makes it so much easier. It doesn’t kill your creative wiggle room, and taking stories in chunks, knowing where you need to be at a certain point and what you’re working toward overall, makes it easier to get there without wallowing in unproductive middles.

Of course, that’s just my experience. What about you, Squiders? Are you a pantser or a plotter? How have your methods changed throughout your career?

14 responses to this post.

  1. It seems like I never do the same thing twice. I prefer plots, but some stories require me to write 10K words before I can finish the planning. I’ve even used bookend outlines, one to get started, and another one to make sure all the loose ends are gathered up. My preference is to storyboard the whole thing before starting.


    • You know, I feel like some stories need a practice beginning–you try a few thousand words to test out theme, characters, tone, etc., and then you get into the real thing. Maybe that’s like your 10K pre-planning?


  2. I’m mostly a pantser, but yes, I do have the most basic idea of the story. The plot, MC, etc. But as far as everything else, I do best by just winging it. I tried to plot a whole novel and then write it, and I was so worried about getting it all in, I rushed through it and finished it in 25k words. It needed SOOOO much fleshing out lol


    • Huh, how interesting! Isn’t it funny how different everyone is? I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of getting somewhere too fast, har.


  3. First, I really appreciate your acknowledgment of the difference being a spectrum rather than mutually exclusive categories.

    Personally, I also started out as a pantser-end writer, but over the past year or so, I’ve become much more of a plotter. I find that it improves the overall quality of my first drafts astronomically, and it makes the writing so much easier. I know so much already, but I find I still discover a lot about my characters as I write from my outline and scene cards. It’s wonderful.


    • Sounds like you’ve gone the same way I have on pantsing vs plotting. Isn’t it so nice? It’s great to not have to overhaul the entire structure of a novel while revising.


  4. For me it highly depends on the project I’m working on. I’ve always gone back an forth between pantsing and plotting. However, I find that I’m predominantly a pantser, and that pantsing really ups my productivity. At the beginning of anything I write I always have either the end or beginning in mind


    • How interesting about the productivity! Do you find that you have issues finishing things, or has that generally not been an issue?


      • Not really, I think I haven’t finished only one novel. I do plan on revisiting it in the future though, but as for all of the short stories and novellas ( 5k to 35k) there hasn’t been a problem finishing the works.

      • Awesome! One more follow up question, because I love seeing how other people’s processes work–how does your revision process work? Do you outline for that? How many drafts do you typically go through between a first draft and a polished product?

      • Typically I put the first draft away for about 3-5 days, and the I do a read through. During that I jot down notes on what I want to change and change it up until I’m happy with it. After that it gets saved on a thumb drive to wait until I get the funds to get it edited

      • Cool, thanks!

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