Plotter vs Pantser: The Pantser

I don’t really like the term “pantser.” It makes the whole thing sound like we don’t know what we’re doing. Of course, I find the term “discovery writer” to be pretentious, so pantser it is.

Here’s the thing about pantsers. We know what we’re doing. We’re just doing it differently.

Take outlining.  One of the things everyone takes for granted is that pantsers don’t outline.  This isn’t true! We are perhaps the most exhaustive outliners in the industry. What we’re doing when we draft a story is we’re laying out a highly detailed outline in narrative form. What most people think of as the first draft is really our outline, and in most ways it’s the same as your outline; we write down what’s going to happen in the story next, and then quickly move on to whatever comes after that.  We just don’t use bullet points. This is why I’m far more likely to add to a draft in revisions than to cut; I’m fleshing out my outline.

I will also do a retroactive outline for purposes of revisions. This involves going through the manuscript chapter by chapter, noting briefly what happens in the scene, what the mood of the scene should be, and what the driving conflict is for each scene. This type of outline allows me to go through and fix things that are off-tone, to move events and chapters around, and to identify which portions of the chapter needs to be punched up a little.

But if you’d outlined, you’d have gotten it right the first time.

This is also absolutely not true.  All authors at some point in their career face the dread of knowing you’ll have to go back and make changes, changes that will sometimes rock the foundations of your story and send ripples through neighboring chapters and beyond.  This happens to plotters, and it happens to pantsers. It’s just the nature of the beast.

But pantsers are just making it up as they go!

I hate to break this to you, but all fiction authors are just making it up.  That’s the backbone of our entire jobs. Even the hardest core of hard core plotters deviates from their prewriting. Those of us who aren't just making it all up are probably writing books that you don't want to read.

And we all do it kind of the same way.  We get our arcs sketched out.  For me, that means writing down the beginning and the ending.  Then we fill in the little details that happen along the way, pick out and build our B stories, choose which members of our supporting cast get to have their own secondary arcs, and think about whether or not we’ll leave a few things open for the next book.  It really is the same.

I’m not going to go into anything self-congratulatory about how pantsers feel constrained by outlines, because I think that in saying those things we denigrate our siblings, the plotters.  I want to be absolutely clear; I’m not here to say that my way is the best way. Not at all. In fact, I have a project coming up that I’m going to need to do some more organized pre-writing for, and I regret not having honed that skill more.

In fact, I find it more likely that there are a lot of pantsers out there who are kinda like me. When the whole story is already laid out, it’s incredibly intimidating. I mean, there’s a whole book there on a page or two!  Terrifying.  But it’s written out in long form, I can never see more than a few paragraphs at a time, and that’s much more manageable. Then I can just sit down and put one word after another after another, and it just works.

And that’s what we’re all here to do. To make it work.