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Pros, Cons, and Recommendations From A Die-Hard Pantser Writer

Plotters and Pantsers

pantser, plotter, planteer, lightbulbs, flower, editing process, writing. illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy

There are two main types of authors: Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters are distinguished by their preference for mapping out their story ahead of time, creating detailed outlines before they begin writing. A pantser writes, “by the seat of their pants.” i.e., they don’t plan, plot or outline. Instead, they just write.

Side note: to "fly by the seat of your pants," can mean to do something without the necessary skill or experience. Or, more charitably, to do something by intuition. If you don't like this unflattering description, I have heard 'pantsers' be described as 'forresters'. Pantser if funnier, though.


Can You Tell A Pantser’s Writing From a Plotter’s Writing?

No, not really. I thought I could and was 80% convinced that Charlie N Holmberg was a pantser, but alas, she reports that she is a plotter. Describing herself as a type A personality that outlines all of her books.

Famous Authors Who Are Pansters

  • Stephen King

  • Margaret Atwood

  • Pierce Brown

Not a very long list, I'm sure there are many more out there, but either I couldn't confirm it, or they are in hiding.

Why Am I Die Hard Pantser

I heard a rumor (lol, Umbrella Academy) that a lot of authors start off as pantsers and later change to plotters. I’m unlikely to ever be a plotter; plotting kills my idea on arrival. I cannot write a story I’ve even thought about too much. Even when I was trying to resolve plot problems in my books, I would think about it, plan the solution in my head, start writing it, and then write something else instead. It is, frankly, ridiculous. I would love to plot. I think it sounds great, but I can’t do it.

Playing The Spectrum (or a Plantser)

Most writers are going to sit on a spectrum between plotter and pantser. Maybe you plot a little bit, starting with a planned character arc and a plotted scene, and let it grow from there. People who sit on the spectrum sometimes call themselves Plansters. Some authors like J.K Rowling claim to vaguely outline and then let the story take them where it will.

The Pros Of Being A Pantser

  • The freedom to let the story and characters take you where they will.

  • You get to the writing bit faster, no plotting, no spreadsheets of character descriptions. You just get to write.

  • A pantser's writing style is much less formulaic, which can result in a more intriguing read

  • Characters are often more realistic, guiding the story naturally rather than being forced through the will of the writer

  • The writer gets to discover the story as the type, which is arguably more fun.

  • As there are so few of us pantsers out there, we get feel like special little snowflakes.

  • There is more room for mistakes, and it's easier to fix them.

The Cons Of Being A Pantser

  • It’s much easier to get stuck or write yourself into a corner

  • Editing plays a much bigger role in the pantsers life—a lot of rewriting scenes and abandoning character and plot elements because, whoops, it turns out it doesn’t make sense.

  • Pantsers can miss expected plot beats and frustrate readers with uneven pacing and meandering asides.

  • Pantser plots can be weaker; plot holes are not unheard of

Recommendations From A Pantser Writer

lightbulb, flowers, editing process. illustration drawing by Katherine M Kennedy

Develop Your Plot

While not true for every pantser, plots can be weaker when writing by the seat of your pants. Characters with minds of their own and who dictate the story often refuse to follow the ideas and plans of the writer. It’s intensely frustrating but also funny, depending on how your day is going.

You need to motivate your characters into engaging with the plot, introduce new characters that inspire or strong-arm them and write in the backstory to reshape them into the type of person who would open that door or stumble down a dark alley. Cattle prod them into submission.

Try To Plot As You Write

Keep a separate document open to jot down developing plot points, dates, characters, and location descriptions. It’s tedious in the moment, but it will save you a lot of grief later down the line when you need to remember what someone looks like or when a major plot element happens. If you are on a roll and don’t want to interrupt your flow, keep writing and plot major beats once you’ve finished writing.

Watch Your Timelines

Timelines can go awry as you pant, don’t forget to add in a few days, weeks, or months so your epic tale doesn’t take place within the space of a day or two.

Everything Doesn’t Have To Go In Your Book

Sometimes we pantser go off on tangents, long, wonderfully boring tangents. Trying to help your character find the plot but letting them stumble from one situation into another until something finally grabs their attention. These side quests are not very satisfying for the reader, summarize them or omit them altogether, saving the writing in another document outside of the main narrative. It’s going to feel horrendous, but if it doesn’t serve the plot, let it go. Pantser, by nature, tend to have stronger characters than plotters. We need to work on our plot, not our characters.

Plug Your Plot Holes

Ugh, the agony of plot holes. They lie in wait and develop slowly with insidious intent, looking to trip us up and make us look stupid. It’s a painful exercise, but the best thing to do is plug the buggers before anyone else notices them. Beta readers can be excellent plot hole sleuths, but you want to find as many as possible before sending your book into the wild.

Your First Draft Is Going To Be Messy, And That’s Okay

Embracing your first draft is hard, like, really hard. I’m going through it right now, trying to see the value through the rough and, frankly, bad writing, to assess whether I should take the time to edit or bin the whole thing. The first draft is likely to be rough. It’s likely to make you cringe and wonder why you bother. This is often worse for the pantser because all the outlining and characterizations (which a plotter did in advance) are happening on the page as we write. It’s messy and needs a lot of work to get to something more polished.

Figure Out What You Have And What You Don’t Have (most of the time pantsers don’t have a plot)

I tend to have a character and what I describe as ‘a cool idea’, but I always lack a plot. You might have a plot, a character but no ‘cool ideas’ that sets it all apart from other stories. Find what elements you have and try to develop what you don’t.

For example:

You could have a Harry Potter, a boy whose parents died. He’s brave. He’s kind. He’s not like other boys. Then you have the cool element, he’s a boy wizard who attends Hogwarts, a school of witchcraft and wizard where he meets other characters and learns magic. All solid, but now you need a plot. You need the philosophers Stone, the Triwizard Tournament, and the overarching story of Voldemort. Character, cool idea, and plot. If you’re writing more than one book in the series, you’ll likely need two plots. The monster of the week plot and the overarching series plot.

Prepare Yourself To Edit, Edit And Then Edit Some More

Pantsers have to edit, a lot.

Plotters also have to edit, of course, but not nearly as much and not nearly as ruthlessly. Just prepare your brain for it. Because pantsers aren’t writing to a script, locations, characters, and plots can all undergo a startling metamorphosis that we need to discard or embrace.

Tip: Copy major character beats into a separate document and read it through to make sure the language they use, characterization, and motivations are consistent. If there are any significant changes, interrogate why to make sure there is a strong rationale behind the changes (that has been included in the writing, not just in your head).


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