Why the Pantsing vs. Plotting Writing Process Debate is Irrelevant

Spend any time talking with writers about their writing process and you’ll likely encounter the debate of pantsing vs plotting.

Pantsing. No, it has nothing to do with pulling off someone’s trousers in this context. Pantsing refers to writing by the seat of your pants. Winging it. Sitting down to your story and just writing it down as it comes to you with no or few pre-made ideas of where the plot is headed or what it’s doing along the way. Some authors refer to this writing process as discovery writing.

Plotting. The opposite. The plotting writing process is all about outlining a story or outlining a novel before you start the actual writing. Before a plotter sits down to write, he or she knows exactly where the story is going and knows all about the characters who are taking it there.

pantsing plotting outling discovery writing

Pantsing vs. Plotting – Is one writing process better than the other?

Not really.

Both sides do have their benefits.

The discovery writing process is spontaneous and can be surprising. Making up a story as you write it can also mean you get to the end of the first draft quicker than if you had spent a lot of time plotting everything together. Writing that messy first draft by the seat of your pants might be just the freedom you need to silence your inner critic and just get something down on paper.

The plotting process can mean your story stays on track as you’re writing. Taking the time to outline your story gives you the opportunity to nut out the layers of your ideas and get into the less obvious and more original connections.

Both sides also have their drawbacks.

Spontaneity in the discovery writing process can lead to use the first idea you have which might not be the best idea. Also, a discovery writer typically has more work to do when it comes time to start editing that first draft. This is why discovery writers are also often called multi-drafters.

Outlining a complete story before you start can be time consuming. It might also risk sucking the creative fun out of writing, and feel a bit stifling when you sit down to start writing your first draft.

It actually doesn’t matter a single bit which writing process you decide to use. Here’s why…..

The distinction between discovery writing and outlining is a myth.

Writing a story by the seat of your pants is essentially the same thing as outlining. You’re just using a lot more words in much greater detail than a strict outline.

Outlining a story before you start writing is essentially the same thing as pantsing because you’re creating the outline from nothing in the same way you write a first draft from nothing if you were winging it.

Any writer who uses outlines will tell you it’s a rare thing if the story stays following that outline through every scene. Similarly, it’s a rare thing for writers who wing the first draft to end up not changing and shifting huge amounts of the story when it comes time to edit.

Further, even discovery writers will have a general idea of where their story needs to be going. All stories have structure. Sometimes these structures are rigid, like writing murder mysteries, or looser, like experimental literary fiction. Narrative structures guide the discovery writer to know at least what type of action needs to come next, even if that general plan is only in the back of the writer’s mind as he or she goes along.

So, which one should you do?

Should you outline your story before you start writing, or take it as it comes and pants it up as a discovery writer?

Both sides of the writing process debate essentially end up with the same goal – a finished story – so it’s really up to which works for the individual writer.

The method that results in the best story that was the most fun to write is the best writing process to choose.

Pantser Who Wants to Become a Plotter?

In fully embracing the nature of pantsing vs. plotting as a dynamic spectrum, I’m both. I used to be a hardcore pantser, but I also hardly ever finished anything I started writing. When I started outlining, I tended to finish more stories. Again, this is just me.

The book that helped me learn to be a plotter, but still allowed me lots of discovery writing wriggle room was Take off Your Pants: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker.

I love to plot my stories before I write.  I also love the thrill of the pantsing discovery as I bash through an outline, filling in the blanks with whatever occurs at the time, and even going back to change the outline as things change along the way. The best thing about a guide like Hawker’s is that it keeps you on track for the shifts that need to occur within a classic narrative structure, but still allows you to make everything up along the way. Highly recommended for both pantsers and plotters and everything in between.

Are you a discovery writer or an outliner? Why do you prefer one way over the other? Do you ever change your writing process from one project to another?

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Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on www.katekrake.com.
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6 Responses to “Why the Pantsing vs. Plotting Writing Process Debate is Irrelevant

  • I actually do both. I start off with plotting as much as I can but have no qualms about wandering off into the bushes if something strikes me organically. I will often wind up changing the original story plan because of something I discover while actually putting down the narrative. They’re not mutually exclusive.

    • Kate Krake
      1 year ago

      I write in very much the same way as you, Michael. I love the direction and guidance of the outline as much as I love winging it with what pops up as I write.

  • Thank goodness for the term discovery writer. I’m tired of hearing about “pantsing.”

    • Kate Krake
      1 year ago

      Haha! Yes, me too. Isn’t it funny how these phrases develop and find their place in common use.
      Do you find yourself more on one side of the discovery/plotting spectrum in your writing?

  • I’m very much a discovery writer. My creativity seems to flow better if I just write it out. Having said that, I do like to outline as well. If I have a clear idea, I’ll put a basic outline down and then do the discovery writing, updating the outline as I go (or rather, I try to).

    Interesting article!

    • Kate Krake
      4 months ago

      Thanks, Mattias.
      As we go along, we work out the best way, the way that works for our unique styles of creative expression. If that’s discovery writing, then go for it!
      Do you find any difference in writing from scratch to writing from an outline?

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