The debate between ‘pantsing’ – seat of the pants free-form writing – and ‘plotting’ is one of the bigger arguments among writing groups and across the internet.
It shouldn’t be.
When I was learning the craft as a teenager – formally, through writing courses at what’s since become the Eastern Institute of Technology – stories poured out of my fingers into the typewriter. Totally without plan or care. The joy of following my imagination was as much entertainment as TV. It meant I could think of myself as a ‘writer’. My skills were unconsciously incompetent – I was doing courses, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and that meant I thought I knew it all.
Sounds harsh? I discovered the next steps the hard way. The process involved critically looking at what had to be done to improve, understanding what constituted quality, and doing it. For hours, days, weeks and months. Then years.
That was a hard row to hoe, but it led to some exciting places; and after thirty years of hands-on work, forays into freelance journalism and over fifty published books (most of them with Penguin and Random House), I haven’t stopped learning. The lesson from that experience is that pure free-form writing doesn’t work.
So why do some authors – I’m thinking Stephen King – do it? As we saw last time, when we delve into the way top authors write their stuff, it’s clear they are not pouring out an undiluted stream of consciousness.
They are working from experience, and they usually know the beginning and end of the story along with the structures needed to make it work. In other words, they did some planning. That leaves them free to create the filling. Their skill with writing is automatic; they have unconscious competence.
It’s possible for an experienced author to keep the structure of their book in their head – to know the word count needed to maintain that structural balance, and write coherent text. I do myself. But it took many years to learn how it was done, and only through practise.
Planning is vital to a successful book – fiction and non-fiction. Especially while working towards the ten-thousand hour point of unconscious competence. The next few posts will cover how this can be done – without sacrificing the freedom of ‘seat-of-the-pants’ creation.
In other words – keeping the fun in writing. And I want to share the technique with you.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013