When you’re writing, do you like to plan everything in advance or see where the story takes you?

First off yes, that is a bad sketch I made of pants with the 3-act structure on them.

Back to the title, which some may find confusing. It’s a term thrown around lots on blogs and podcasts about the way writers set about their projects – whether they plan them all out, or write instinctively and see where the story leads (by the seat of their pants).

So much advice out there is about the importance of planning and editing your novel.

  • Plan everything.
  • Writing is rewriting
  • Kill your darlings
  • Put it in a drawer for six weeks and then rewrite it
  • Make sure the structure hits the right genre beats
  • Most authors are rubbish at pantsing, so don’t try it
  • Make sure you know what your character will have for breakfast on Tuesday

You get the idea.

Lee Child is the poster boy for ‘pantsers’. In a recent interview he reiterated that he sits down and writes his books without forethought. His first draft is the one he hands to his publishers. He spends a year writing his novels, and in the interview it sounds like he edits as he goes along, so it’s not like he’s whacking novels out quickly and without consideration, but it’s still unplanned.

He relied on inspiration to guide him. Like a muse. Something very basic and mythical, without too much forethought. He likes his writing to be organic and spontaneous and authentic. But he had a glimmering of what was coming.

Stephen King is another famous pantser, and notoriously prolific with it. In ‘On Writing’ he says that he starts with the situation, then the characters, and then he ‘narrates’ the story.

Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort, and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and laboured.

The idea of writing with the muse on your shoulder and no plan in front of you is very romantic.

In the past I’ve written about how I enjoy starting with an image and taking things from there, without a plan. I’ve done it a few times.

I think the problem with pantsing, for me anyway, is that it can result in saggy structure. I’m generally happy nowadays with the way characters, prose and dialogue appear on my page in first drafts. There’s always tweaking to do, but I’m more experienced and my prose is less messy than it was even a year ago. However, when I read back over my work I see that the structure needs a huge overhaul, which often means a page one rewrite.

Despite this, I really like pantsing, and I think it’s how I write best.

I started to feel weird about this at the end of last year after reading one too many quotes about the importance of rewriting and planning. I felt like I was doing something wrong. Perhaps I did need to make a scene by scene, beat by beat breakdown for a 200 page novel. Perhaps I did need to know exactly what characters were going to do, and when.

In his Travelling To Work Diaries, Michael Palin–


(Here is Palin, with a man I am jealous of, 2 years ago)

–ahem, Michael Palin mentions that his wife – and he – feel that the things he writes best are the things he writes fast. His favourite sketches and TV episodes were all ones he wrote intuitively.

Palin is one my heroes, as a writer, presenter, and actor. I love his and respect his work. Reading that in his book at the end of last year, it hit me that this is how I feel about my work, and that maybe it was okay to feel that.

I’ve decided to accept that I am a pantser.

However, I’ve also decided to accept that I do need to have a bit of a plan.

I’m about to start a new novel from scratch. I’m going to make a top level structural plan, story world rules, get to know my character histories, and then pants it. See where the characters lead me in the world. However, I’m going to slow my pace down when writing, and edit what I’ve written the day before. I want to see if I can write a first draft I’m happy with and leave the editing to be of the tweaking variety, rather than massive rewriting as it usually is. Hopefully this will put me in a happy midpoint between pantsing and planning. Fingers crossed.

How do you write? Do you pants, plan or both?

2 thoughts on “To Pants or to Plan

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