Write it now, part 9: seat-of-the-pants writing and why it’s got to have structure

There is a wonderful scene in This Is Spinal Tap, the ‘mockumentary’ about the world’s loudest heavy metal band, where they end up performing ‘free form jazz’ at a zoo. The improvised song is, of course, horrible – and deliberately so.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdMusic usually needs structure. Experienced musicians can improvise – they know what’s needed to create structure on the fly. Or they’ll be working inside a known structure (let’s say, 12-bar blues) which, by nature, gives form.

The same is true, too, of writing. To me, ‘seat of the pants’ writing – ‘pantsing’ – as it is called, has huge advantages, because it lets the mind wander creatively. It has a freshness of expression you can’t get any other way – and which can also be lost, if you’re not careful, by repeated revisions.

But it also carries huge pitfalls. Aimlessness is the big one – ‘pantsing’ without knowing where the story, character, argument or whatever is going. To me, that risks sliding into the abyss of ‘writing as personal entertainment’, if we’re not careful – people writing as a pastime because it’s more fun than watching TV or playing Sim City.

The thing is, material produced this way is NOT likely to be usable in a published book. Why? Because a book – any book, but especially a novel – must have certain structural elements before it is publishable.  And a novel written by pure ‘pantsing’ – free-form writing and seeing what happens – almost certainly will not have that necessary structure.

So how do published writers do it? Many do – and did – write by apparent ‘pantsing’. Look at Isaac Asimov, for instance, who wrote his novels essentially full-formed in Draft 1.

What they were actually doing was pretty much the musicians’ method – the structure is actually there, they’re simply improvising around it, without leaving the tried-and-true form.

Asimov himself said so in as many words – he always knew the end point – where everything was going. Otherwise, he explained, you got lost. And if you read Asimov’s stuff, it’s structurally all spot on. In other words, he pretty much had the plan of his book in mind all along, and stuck to it.

My take is that ‘pantsing’ is an essential part of writing – any writing – but it doesn’t reduce the need for proper structure. The answer is a balance. Create the macro-sized structure – in effect, the framework. Know where you are going, in general. Then ‘pants’ the specifics. That, too, will get more structurally formed – on the fly – as your experience grows.

What’s your take on pantsing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week: ‘write it now’ – the world of macro writing structure; more sixty second writing tips, funny science geekery, and more.


13 thoughts on “Write it now, part 9: seat-of-the-pants writing and why it’s got to have structure

  1. I prefer to know the beginning and the end before I get too far into it. Then let it go in the middle. It makes cleaning things up a little tricky though. I’ll check back with you after I finish cleanup on a series of flashes that i’m working on. So far it has been an interesting experiment.

    1. Sounds good – let me know how it goes. Beginning and end are great anchor points. Curiously, the bio I’ve just finished writing, though non-fiction, demanded similar structural decisions; the beginning and end were clearly defined, but what to choose to say about the guy in the middle was another matter. Similar to novel-writing in a way, and the choice of ‘middle’ still had to tell a story to draw the reader. I went for his ‘character arc’ in the end (he had a distinctive one) to set the book apart from what other biographers have said about my subject’s politics and race-relations policies, the usual focus of such tomes..

  2. I tried pantsing once but found myself without them at the end! Now I plan a decent outline before I start. It can still be modified on the way but at least I have guidelines so the plot doesn’t veer off-course leaving the unfortunate story exposed to the world.

    1. Heh! A plan is definitely best – and adaptation along the way absolutely essential. The problem with writing via trousers is indeed that they usually explode along the way. I always start with a plan – even a rough ‘over-arching’ scheme of the book by chapters. Helps enormously, even if it’s thrown out half way and a new plan evolved.

  3. I admire anyone who can start writing a novel without any planning. Stephen King famously writes with no plans. A basic idea and off he goes. I need to plan. I will meander away from the plan, but its there to give me focus when I need it.

  4. My first novel was a pantser and while it will never go, I did learn how I write (my process) but that’s it. My next attempt was to “plan” the novel scene by scene but as you suggest, the trousers blew up. I found a hybrid, which is very similar to your suggestion of creating a general framework and pantsing the specifics. Whatever the result, my current manuscript has structure, and while I have always loved writing the first draft of a novel, this is my first initial draft with structure, and the difference is night and day.

    Also want to tell you that I have paid close attention to all your posts on writing, and this particular series has been so specific and so helpful. Much appreciated, Matthew.


    1. No writing is ever wasted – discovering by doing is a fantastic way to learn. It’s how I do it myself, as often as not. The trick to it is not being afraid to throw stuff away. And I think you’re right – whatever the writer does must be something that works for them. There is no absolute’ right’ or ‘wrong’ in approach.

      Thank you for your kind words too – much appreciated! I’m hoping to keep going with this series, there’s a lot to cover.

  5. Definitely agree…doing NaNoWriMo each year has made me into a bit of a pantser, but this leads to a LOT more work when I am editing because it means I have so much more to do with story continuity and structure. I’ve found that rigid outlines don’t work for me either…so I usually fall somewhere in the middle. Get the basics down, make sure it follows a structure, and then write from there.

    1. Absolutely! But I think even ‘pantsed’ NaNoWriMo material isn’t wasted, because everything you write adds to your experience as a writer and helps make writing become second nature. The key is not being afraid to throw stuff away and start again – sometimes a better option than trying to edit something fundamentally not great into anything usable.

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