The Art of Writing by the Seat of Your Pants

You find someone every day writing about the goodness of outlining, how to do it, and why you should. Perhaps you laugh. Perhaps you cringe. Perhaps you cry, start pulling your hair out, and gnashing your teeth, because no matter how hard you try, you just cannot stick to an outline.

The chances are if you are nodding your head at that last statement, you are indeed, a pantser.

What is a pantser?

A pantser is a writer, author, novelist, screenwriter who “writes by the seat of their pants.” Often, they write the way they live, with spontaneity and a life filled with no planning (or the bare minimum anyway). These writers get an idea in their head, and boom! they are off filling the page. They have no clue where their story is going, get just as surprised as their readers when a twist gets thrown in, and generally can’t tell you the ending until they are at least 3/4 through writing the story. Even then, the ending is subject to change, and they are okay with that. They are content to let their characters and the story lead the way.

So, why does outlining matter?

For a pantser, it doesn’t. Some writers would suggest that outlining your story before you write is a sure way to have a flat story. I’ll explain.

What’s wrong with a comprehensive outline?

Outlining, character sketches, and spending a lot of time weaving the intricate details into an outline can create several issues:

  • It takes away from time you could be adding another word to the actual story. When your time is already stretched, creating an outline can leave your story as just that: an outline.
  • It’s not a house, a business meeting, or a PTA event. It’s creative. When you create an outline, you’re making it work instead of art. If your writing is art, it doesn’t need an outline to succeed.
  • are you a translator or a creator? When you sit down with an extensively drawn out outline, you become a translator turning your outline into prose, introducing your characters to your readers based off a sketch. Where is the surprise of character reaction? When do you get to create rather than translate? The best writing happens by accident—when the writer is discovering something new about the story, plot, or characters.
  • we don’t want to micromanage our readers experiences. We want readers to create their own interpretation of our story, leave them with shades of gray, mysteries to sort through, and perhaps even unanswered questions to keep our stories at the forefront of their memory. We want to leave our readers satisfied, yet unsettled.
  • outlining the action ahead of time offers the risk that a writer decides what the reader will get out of the work, and that’s not a fiction writer’s job. Our job as writers is to provide the windows into conclusions of whatever theme our story has focused on. We want to advance the discovery, which is best done through discovering ourselves, not through an outline.
  • Detailed outlines take away the surprises, the journey to discovery, the little quirks that character’s reveal as a story unfolds. In short, for a writer, particularly a pantser, it stifles the creative process, leaving a dull book and a frustrated writer.

Am I suggesting that everyone stop creating outlines and toss out their notes?

Not at all, especially if you need them to get started, or to keep the story from getting away from you (as all pantsers can attest to!), if you’re writing a series, or working in an unfamiliar genre. There’s something to be said about having a plan for anything, even if it’s just a brief sketch.

If it keeps you from going new places in your writing, exploring your story and the characters, places, scenes within it, then you should try a new approach. Start writing wherever you are in the story, and let the words lead you. After all, the oft-quoted phrase “just write” means more than not editing as you go. It means tossing that outline to the side and letting the story lead. Should you get stuck somewhere down the line, and you probably will, move on to the next scene, the next chapter, or a different character. There are tons of posts out there on how to keep working your story through a block. Who knows, I may even write one.

If your #writing is #art, it doesn't need an outline to succeed. #writerslife Click To Tweet

Is being a pantser challenging?

Yes. It most definitely is. Like the fails of a comprehensive outline above, not having one has it’s own set of drawbacks as well. I’ll list a few here so you know you aren’t alone when it happens to you (because they inevitably happen to every writer).

  • Writer’s Block. You are already familiar with this, and probably have your own system for breaking through it. Without an outline of any kind to guide you, you become an easier prey to this beast. I mentioned some tips for getting past this above, but I’ll sum it up here. Whenever a writing block happens to me during my writing, I just move on to another paragraph, another scene, or I go back through what I’ve already written and do minor editing, revising, and adding details that enhance the story.
  • Overwriting. I daresay a pantsers biggest curse is the ability to write beautiful flowery descriptions for everything. And I do mean everything. Yes, this trait gets refined the more you write and the more experience you get, but there is the bonus an outline provides—you focus on the important parts of the story, that vase that will show up later rather than the color of the shoelaces on the sneakers your character is wearing. Don’t get me wrong. You can overwrite with an outline too, it’s just something a pantser is more susceptible to.
  • Narrative Cohesion. As pansters, we tend to sit and just let the words flow and give our characters control of the writing reins. This can lead to a lack of narrative cohesion. Story arcs become an important asset to your work when this happens. Sometimes, just taking a few minutes at the end of a writing session can help you find and solve those situations when they arise.
  • No Structure. What I mean here is that sometimes we get so involved in telling the story, it just goes on and on, never really moving forward. Sometimes getting to the peak of the story takes way too long, and writing that conclusion? Well, that’s exactly what’s holding me up from putting the final touches on Elven Games…
  • Letting your characters go. Speaking of Elven Games, that brings me to the final challenge of being a pantser: You get so involved with your characters, you are loathe to let them go. Tribba is basically my child at this point, and a much beloved one. Even though I know I’ll see her again in another book, I’m not quite ready to let her go. This has become my biggest challenge as a panster… letting my characters go.

Despite the challenges I face as a pantser, I still hold true to the form. I’ve tried outlining, and like my best laid plans, it always goes awry. I live spontaneously, and I write spontaneously. Do I envy the ability of plotters to stay on task? Sometimes, especially when my story gets to rambling.

The truth for me is this simple: the less you know before you start, the more you’ll reveal as you write, and that my friends, is the true art of being a pantser.

So, how do you write? Are you a full fledged pantser like me, or do you hold to some form of an outline? Are you a full on plotter? I’d love to hear about your writing process.


One Reply to “The Art of Writing by the Seat of Your Pants”

  1. Love this, Stephanie!
    I’m a partial pantser. I start by writing the scene that sparked the story in the first place. Then I write a veeery loose outline about where the story will be going. Sometimes I have the end in mind, other times I let it surprise me further down the line. The outline serves to stop me from panicking when I start to go on a tangent or hit writer’s block. And, the outline often changes. I’m sure that, like me, you’ve heard about the dangers and drawbacks of not outlining by many writers. When my mind starts making me feel guilty about it, I think of an interview I read with Anne McCaffrey (Dragon Riders of Pern) who, when asked if she outlines, she said something like, ‘Why would I want to know what’s going to happen as I write? I would be bored.’

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