This is dedicated to all the pantsers out there.

P is for Pantsing

I understand it. Kind of.

Here’s what I know about pantsers:

  • Their creativity works best without an outline. They feel stifled and lose passion for a project with too much direction.
  • Sometimes they know the heart of their story, some of the plot points, the theme and then they just roll with it.
  • Sometimes after their first draft they might outline.
  • Pantsing sometimes requires more massive rewrites.

For the record I don’t think that one way is better than the other.

But I read about writers who are pantsers and after getting a book published, they try and figure out a little bit about outlining because now they have deadlines. They might not ever do a full-blown outline but they want to have less rewrites after the first draft.

I know some of you are pantsers – kind of sounds like gangsters – out there. So, tell me more about this writing style. Could you imagine if an outliner fell in love with a pantser? We’d have a total West Side Story on our hands.

Do my posts on story structure drive you nuts or do you find them helpful for the revision process? Or are you content reading me blabber on about it?

When and if during the process do you ever outline?

What kinds of craft books do you find the most helpful?

Do you spend time on character sheets or are your characters formulated as you write too?

I tried pantsing last summer. And even though the writing was okay, the plotting and story went absolutely nowhere. It must be a learned skill. One I don’t have.

Tell me about the joys of pantsing – sides to it I don’t know about it.

38 Responses to This is dedicated to all the pantsers out there.

  1. Becky Taylor April 19, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    I wrote my first book this way. It was written for an adult market and probably leans towards the literary side of things. It is heavy on character and I would challenge anyone, including myself, to find the inciting incident and turning point in that book.

    I now outline (my current books certainly have more plotting) but it still remains loose. There are events I want to happen at certain points…but for me, character is still king. If I don’t get invested in the person running the gauntlet, I don’t care how many bad things happen to him.

    In fact, just put that piece of cardboard out of my misery.

  2. Amie Kaufman April 19, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    Pantsers, I salute you. I’m an outliner through and through. I’m looking forward to reading comments and learning more about it!

    • Laura April 19, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

      Amie – I”m interested to see what our pantsers out there say too.

      Becky – yes – no matter how great a plot is, i have to connect to the main character!

  3. shelley moore thomas April 19, 2011 at 12:59 pm #

    Pantser here.

    The thing is, the reason I don’t outline is because I can’t. Outlining would require knowing what was going to happen in the story and I never really know. I just have to write and hope that I find out along the way.

    However, I do keep a document (I call it the manifesto) for each book where I write down any ideas that I have, possible scenes. Sometimes I will have an idea about the structure of the book (this book is told from alternating view points or this book has three distinct sections or there is a poem that begins each section) and sometimes I will have an idea about a secret that should be revealed somewhere. Usually I kind of know where the book will end, but I have no idea how to get there.

    So, I suppose my characters begin with a goal. I might even give them a one-sentence logline to stay focused. As long as the character and I keep moving towards the goal, I keep writing.

    (Sorry this was so long, obviously I didn’t outline first!)


  4. Andrea Vlahakis April 19, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    It’s not us versus them. Pantsers are not ‘other’. Every writer works differently. There’s no right or wrong. I’m more of a pantser. I say more of because I don’t just sit down with a blank document and write a story. I think the word ‘outline’ means something different to each type of writer. I do sketch out the story, the characters, the setting, the subplots, etc., but it’s more of a loose narrative or bullet-point lists. What I don’t do is follow this type of outline verbatim. I don’t sit down and think, okay, my protagonist has to do this, this, and this in this chapter. For me, this is where the pantser part comes in. Once I know basically what my story is and who my people are, I let them come along and write the story with me. I like to leave things open enough to discover new things along the way.

  5. Michael Di Gesu April 19, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    I am so the pantser… I never outline anything. I did however jot down names of characters for my first book because of the fantasy element. I have many characters and I needed to keep them straight. But after I wrote a while I remembered all. I’m fortunate, I have a good memory for who my characters are.

    For my second novel a y/a contemporary the characters were far less so I didn’t jot down anything.

    I always go with the flow, but I DO RESEARCH heavily. I guess that’s where I’m not a pantser. I must have my facts accurate and my writing has to be honest. If not, the reader WILL know.

  6. Karen Strong April 19, 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    I’m still in awe of pantsers. I agree with Andrea — these types of writers just work that way.

    Like you Laura, I tried to do a draft without an outline and it didn’t work for me. Probably because I use my logical brain for my day job.

    But that’s what makes this writing art so cool. So many different ways to approach it.

    Pantsers: Do you!

  7. Laura Marcella April 19, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    I’m a plotter, but I definitely admire pantsers!

    • Laura April 19, 2011 at 2:53 pm #

      Andrea is so right. It’s not us vs. them. I didn’t mean it to sound that way. I think there are extremes on either side and then some writers that fall in between and do a little bit of both. It truly is about what works for you!

  8. Jenny Lundquist April 19, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    When I wrote my first novel (which is moldering away somewhere, never to see the light of day) I pantsed my way through it, and it was fun! But the longer I write, the more of a plotter I’m becoming. Knowing my ultimate goal in the scene and where I’m writing to overall, is really helpful. My current WIP is a mix of pantsing and plotting. However, I have a secret project that I won’t let become my WIP until I have a really firm outline and idea of the characters.

    One area I am still a panster is in character development. Character worksheets suck the life out of me, so I have to keep writing until I find the character’s voice and then design around that. (Not to say that character worksheets aren’t helpful for a lot of other people :0))

  9. Lesli Muir Lytle April 19, 2011 at 3:30 pm #

    Yo yo, I’m a Pansta.

    I loved Shelley’s line~ (Sorry this was so long, obviously I didn’t outline first!)

    And then something about the day job clicked. I’ve been designing flowers for 20+ years and I think it may help you see things the way I do…

    I’d get an order for an arrangement–the occasion would be the genre, the cost would be the book length. $50 funeral arrangement only tells me how big and what the customer (publisher) is expecting. That’s kind of the only outline I get, UNLESS THE CUSTOMER IS REALLY SPECIFIC.

    If the customer is really specific, they get what they ask for, exactly what they asked for, but it lacks a lot of the artistic element they would have had if they left it up to me and flowers.

    If I’m given freedom to pants, I go into the cooler, look at all the flower options, color options (characters and possible plot ideas) and my creativity goes into overdrive. I snatch up what I want, including lots of variety in shape and size (I’m going to need both a heroine and hero, and some supporting cast, and some conflict–complementary colors to bring out the beauty of the main focal flowers, etc.)

    After I have my container, I pretty much go by feel and experience. I know how tall it should be, or how short, whether I’m going for shock and awe, or something my grandmother would have loved.

    The trick is to let the flowers tell you. They know what they want to do, what will make them look their best. They’re characters who fight over center stage. They’re branches of orchids that want to do something they’ve never done before, like drip from forsythia branches in little glass baubles.

    The gist is, you cannot plan this. Of course we have to try–we make sketches for brides and try to keep it as non-specific as possible because we don’t know what brilliant new flowers might be on the bucket trucks the day before the wedding that will make the event go from “what the bride’s mom insisted on,” to “what should be on a magazine cover.”

    And finally, you need to remember that part about experience. I am confident in my panstering because I’ve been successful with it, just like I know I can create something wild in a display window because I’ve done it a hundred times.

    Revisions are tweaking, and you get better as you go along. I can tweak anything. I can change a character’s GMC without having to rewrite the whole book. But that’s because I’ve done a lot of tweaking. And since revisions are not things I desperately want to avoid, why take the fun and creative freedom away by plotting?

    Can I plot? I’ve tried. I did fine, but the display window that came out of it was a bit flat compared to my other work.

    If you’re chemically balanced enough to plot, more power to you. The point is to keep writing, become great at revising, and you’re golden.

    (Sorry for the post inside your post.)

  10. Susan Kaye Quinn April 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    I think pantsers are intuitive storytellers. I pantsed (wow, that’s a strange verb) through three novels before deciding to outline one (my current WiP). However, after the first draft, I would go back and outline and work on story structure. My outlining process for the current book was a lot like pantsing (only with notes instead of drafting). But now that I’m drafting, I can see how my characters and setting are only now coming alive in my mind as I write them in narrative form.

    For me, it’s a completely iterative process.

  11. Pam Torres April 19, 2011 at 3:33 pm #

    I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me. Sometimes I just have to write until I discover what’s going to happen. Other times I do more outlining. I think I’m a cross between the two. Is that possible? Either that or I have a personality disorder that I need to sort out.;) Ha! Don’t we all…

  12. Lisa Green April 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    I am a strange bird. Yes, obviously you know I am a pantser. I am trying a very basic outline for my new project and we will see how it goes. Yes, I have about 5 partial manuscripts on my hard drive. So that’s the downside. Sometimes it goes nowhere. BUT then there’s the magic that happens when it DOES. When a character and a “what if” invade my mind and I set the events in motion and watch what happens. I am eager to know what will happen next. And honestly? If I examine afterward for structure? It just happens naturally 90% of the time. Of course there are revisions. Of course there are macro issues just like for everyone else. But oh how I LOVE a first draft. Sigh.

  13. Creepy Query Girl April 19, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    I think you have to have an equal balance. Over thinking/analysing/preparing your manuscript according to one or several archs, etc could honestly, for me, zap the fun out of the whole thing. I like a rough outline that’s changeable if need be. Usually once I start writing, better ideas start flowing the more I get to know the characters and the story.

  14. Heather Kelly April 19, 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    I love pantsing. But I always know beginning, middle and end before I start. I bottle up my book idea for months, and brainstorm emotional arcs and find a workable soundtrack, and really know what is what before I start writing. It’s not just putting pen to paper for me (or whatever the equivalent computer term would be) And I write from start to end. I don’t skip around. So, I don’t know if my style is like anyone else’s. I also have started revising as I go, so that I don’t get stuck in huge revisions, like on my first couple of novels. That stinks. 🙂

    I love reading about everyone’s methods!!

  15. Julie Musil April 19, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    I’m a plotter, so I can’t relate. Although I am a loose plotter. I don’t have every little scene plotted, but definitely a general idea of where I’m going, and yes, I do the character sheets.

    Your posts on story structure are food for my writing soul 😀

  16. Theresa Milstein April 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm #


    I don’t outline. I’ll jot a few notes when an idea comes to me, so I don’t forget them later. And sometimes I’ll think about future scenes while I’m writing the present scene. But other times, I just write and see where it takes me.

    This WIP has been my slowest, I have thought how things would unfold more than with previous manuscripts. But still, no outlines!

    But I don’t judge anyone for how they write. Everyone is different just like every book is different.

    • Laura April 19, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

      I love how we’re all so different! Lots of us seem to be a mix of both pantsing and plotting! I know my outlines definitely change so I think in some ways we all do a little bit of both!

  17. Laura Josephsen April 19, 2011 at 4:31 pm #

    Sometimes they know the heart of their story, some of the plot points, the theme and then they just roll with it.

    That’s TOTALLY me. I’m very much a pantser. I’m also a character author rather than a plot author. By this, I mean that my books have plots, and I have to make sure the plots are paced well and tight, but the plots develop around the characters, their pasts, their issues, things like that.

    I almost always know the ending of my story when I start, or shortly after I start, and often some major plot points. Then it’s a matter of writing from point A to point E, and sometimes the characters do crazy things in between. If I write a complete outline, then I feel like I’ve already written the book and lose interest. I have to have room for my characters to explore and develop. If they throw something unexpected at me (and they always do) it’s exciting and I get to figure out how it works in with the story.

    My co-author and I do a tiny bit more outlining when we’re writing our series together, because we’re working together–but we still don’t say “this is exactly what’s going to happen in every chapter!” We usually work out the overall theme/storyline, sometimes outline a few chapters in advance so we know what we’re doing when we pass the story back and forth, and say, “Here are the main plot points that have to happen, here’s what the ending is.” We’re also writing a twelve book series, and everything has to tie together throughout the whole thing. (This isn’t a problem. We’re on our fourth book and we have our major plot points and ending for the series as a whole as well as most of the individual books.)

    I write a lot of fantasy, and this requires a lot of world-building. If I find myself getting stuck on plot, I usually stick a posterboard to the wall (or in a pinch, use my kids easel with the dry erase board) and go crazy scribbling notes and staring at my world map. Sometimes visualization is the key to getting me to step back and figure out what I’m missing.

    My current novel was one of the hardest I’ve ever written–there was SO much plot and world-building. I knew my major plot points, but finding the path from one to the next was…quite an adventure, to say the least. 😉 But do I regret doing it that way? No. If I had tried to plan every single chapter, I would have lost interest. I would have lost characters. (Because writing myself into a box gave me at least one character who I adore, and who is a main character in the sequel.) I also did a lot of editing and rewriting along the way, before I finished the story, to smooth out plot points as I figured them out. I know that a lot of people say you have to just write a messy first draft and then edit and rewrite, but the more books I write, the more I’ve found I don’t work best that way. Sometimes I have to have the beginning/middle strong and in very good shape before I can write the ending.

    As far as writing the sequel (which is in the planning stages), I have a list of about ten plot points that I have to address. I know how the story has to end. I have a lot of vague ideas about how to tie one plot point to the next, but at this point, I’m not sure in what order half of these plot points come and I have no idea what my characters will do in between. As soon as my brain is refreshed and ready to go (I’m on a haitus to just read some books right now) I’m going to have to dive in and see what happens. It’s one of the most exciting aspects of writing for me–jumping in feet first and not being entirely sure where the journey will take me.

  18. Patti Nielson April 19, 2011 at 4:33 pm #

    For my first book I just wrote out possible scenes and figured out what would work best as I wrote. I would consider myself more a pantser than a outliner, but like a lot of people I’m probably in between.

    • Laura April 19, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

      Thanks everyone for sharing about your writing process!

  19. Andi April 19, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    This is also how I wrote my first novel. While I don’t find it wrong, I find it far too time consuming and will probably never do it that way again.

    I love all your posts!

  20. Marisa April 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    I am so not a pantser, but I look forward to reading these comments to learn more about how it works for people! 🙂

  21. Caitlin April 19, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    I’ve never heard this expression but, well, I guess I am one!

    Normally I get an idea, jot down a few ideas, and then get going! Somewhere throughout the first draft an outline might come into play, and it might not. But once the first draft is done and I’ve re-read it I write out an outline so that it’s easier to go back and find things while editing.

  22. LynNerd April 19, 2011 at 6:26 pm #

    This is all fascinating to me. I never heard the term “pantsing” before, except that if someone pantsed you, they’d catch you offguard and pull your pants down. So I’m wording where this term came from!

    I’m too unorganized to outline. I start with an idea for a story and let it brew for months, sometimes years. I jot down scenes or dialogue, anything that pops up. I try to save that napkin or scrap of paper, but oftentimes I lose them. Dang!

    I’ve tried to write character sheets. No fun. So I guess I’m a pantser. Wow!

    When writing with my co-authors working on a MG spooky series, we plot out the entire novel, then one chapter at time. We each write assigned chapters, but we have the freedom to pants (haha – love that term now that I learned it!)

    All these comments are so interesting. Yep, we’re all different and have our own ways to get our ideas into written form. That’s the important thing, just getting it down and enjoying the creative process, whichever way works best for us.

  23. LynNerd April 19, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    Oops, that should be “wondering” above, wondering where this term came from.

  24. Karen Lange April 19, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    I do a little of both, go figure. It just kind of depends on what I’m writing. I need to come up with a name for it! 🙂

  25. Carole Anne Carr April 19, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    Laura, do pop over to my blog and claim your award, and don’t bother about doing the rules if you’d rather not, very time consuming.

  26. Maria Toth April 19, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    Ah, so that’s why my novel took 9 years to complete ’cause I’m a panster!

    For the most part, I just sit in front of the computer screen, keyboard on lap and type away. But I never go it alone. I always ask my character to tell me their story and then I put it down. If I try to interfere, it just doesn’t seem to work, at least not yet.

    Come to think of it, I’ve always been a spontaneous person, but there are days I wished I had outlined my life a little more. LOL!

    But I am always open to fresh ideas! And I’m going to give outlining another try! Who knows,I might even like it. But I can’t speak for my characters. I guess, they’ll let me know.

  27. Lynda R Young April 19, 2011 at 11:33 pm #

    I used to be a pantser and I shuddered at the thought of outlining. Then last year I tried outlining and I have to say I’ll never go back. Pantsing requires so many rewrites and I’m not a fan of massive rewrites. With outlining I can gain a strong structure so I’m free to focus on everything else.

  28. Eleni Alexandraki April 19, 2011 at 11:40 pm #

    I giggled at your blog, here.

    The truth is, I can’t follow an outline to save my life. I think it relates back to how I can’t follow most people’s directions, either, but I give great directions. My parents got letters from Tennessee Standardized testing that, “your kid is a complete dumbass when it comes to directions” whenever I took standardized tests. I still have problems with this. So, for me to write an outline means I would have a lot of trouble getting Part IA with in X amount of pages written. I always go over, and then I get annoyed with my outline. And then, I’ll start developing a character in my head, and I go, “wait, let’s add a little bit more about that character here” and my story starts to not follow the outline like this:
    So, I toss out my outline, if I ever had one written down. See, that’s what I like about being a pantster. You get to know your characters as you write. Because a lot of the time, you don’t know them or GET to know them UNTIL you start writing them. True, you do start writing multiple drafts (my current manuscript went through 4 different drafts over about 2 years) but the characters would never have presented themselves to me if I hadn’t written them by the seat of my pants and relied on an outline. That’s the way I write.

    I hope that makes some form of sense.

  29. Botanist April 20, 2011 at 12:57 am #

    I guess I’d describe myself as a top-down-in-betweener. I need an overall view of roughly where I’m headed, but beyond that I do a mixture of outlining bits to greater or lesser depth (depending on how much forethought I think I need) and just plain ol’ writing what feels good.

    Does that make me an outcast from both camps?

  30. LynNerd April 20, 2011 at 1:21 am #

    No, Botanist, you’re not an outcast. I’d say you’re in good company!

  31. Leigh Moore April 20, 2011 at 2:46 am #

    only a 50-50 panster here. I like to have a road map and then from there I follow where the story leads. But I like to know the main sign posts, you know?

    So I guess that’s not helpful. LOL! 😀 xoxo

  32. Meagan Spooner April 20, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    I’m a pantser through and through. For me, the pleasure in writing is similar to the pleasure of reading. I want to find out what happens next, and that spurs me on to write the next scene. If I outline, it often satisfies that urge to “find out,” and it makes going back and writing to the outline feel pretty boring.

    That said, I do a serious outline after I’ve written my first draft–it’d be really difficult for me to revise efficiently without it.

    As for a pantser and an outliner meeting–I’m currently collaborating with an outliner (Amie Kaufman, through whom I found this post) and we’re both having to adjust our processes to work with the other. Luckily for us, it seems to be making us stronger, rather than becoming frustrating!

  33. Margo April 20, 2011 at 11:41 pm #

    I’ve actually been looking for a pantser to team up on a blog post with me – what if Hermione and Ron from the Harry Potter books were writers? Hermione (e.g. me, ha ha) would be an compulsive outliner. A fanatic researcher. Ron would be pure, glorious pantser to the core.

  34. Marcia April 21, 2011 at 5:42 pm #


    I think it’s partly because I wrote as a child. Back then, the idea of a “method” for writing wouldn’t have occurred to me. Although I must admit revision wouldn’t have either, and I do that. :)I’ve also read so many books all my life that I think story got into me by osmosis.

    I do some planning (and yes, more than I did as a kid. :)) I plan the characters more thoroughly than the plot, though. I usually have an MC and a supporting character or two, the inciting incident, and a general idea of where I’m headed when I start. Then I’m itching to plunge in, so I do.

    The thing is — I get the best plot ideas when I’m underway, and then the next things to happen in the story grow out of cause and effect. If I had to sit and do a complete outline before I could start writing, the quality of my plot points would be meh. AND I’d lose some of the passion for writing. It feels like writing-by-numbers. I’ve tried it. I didn’t like it. It actually put me in kind of a slump. When I went back to pantsing, writing came alive for me again.

    When the plot is underway, I do make notes to myself in the margins about what comes next, or what needs to be planted and foreshadowed earlier. So I build a loose outline as I go. For any kind of charting, I also like the 9 boxes you draw on paper, #1 being triggering incident and #9 being protagonist wins. You probably know what I mean.

    I pantsed even when I was writing series on deadline. It actually never really occurred to me to consider changing my approach. I generally had time for a draft, a rewrite, and a polish. I gotta say, it worked.

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