Write It Now Part 19: the secret behind seat of the pants writing

I often see debate on blogs and social media sites about ‘pantsing’ versus ‘planning’, usually in context of novel writing.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdPantsing – ‘seat of the pants’ writing – is also known as ‘discovery writing’ or ‘stream of consciousness writing’.

What is obvious to me, after thirty-odd years in the business, is that for some people the joy of writing is in that creativity – in being able to pour forth the stream of consciousness and see where it leads.

The problem is, if it’ not done properly, it leads only to messes and heartache. For writers who are just starting, even for writers some way down the track, ‘pantsing’ risks reducing writing to a pastime – fun, entertaining, personally rewarding, but not something others might want to read.

I can hear the screams now. But it’s a hard reality of the profession.

These days, if you want to write – and publish, and earn from those publications (so you can eat, have a house, support your loved ones, and keep on writing) it’s essential to follow the rules. It’s a competitive, tough field – and no matter how good your stuff is, there will be someone better out there – better at writing your stuff, better known.

Don’t be misled by prominent writers who insist they sit down and pour forth. Like Jack Kerouac, they usually have the story in their heads – and in any case have the experience to know what constitutes a proper structure, and the practised ability to be able to generate that on the fly. It’s a learned skill line any other. More on that next post.

Some apparent ‘pantsers’, like Jack Kerouac, already have the story in their heads – perhaps even have had several attempts at writing it, as he did with On The Road. When the moment came and all his thoughts had crystallised, he blurted the book forth in a three week frenzy of typing. But he didn’t start from a completely blank page.

Isaac Asimov once laid it out; yes, he wrote free-style, but he always did so knowing where the story began and how it was going to end. In other words, he had his plot and character arcs laid out. It was the detail of the story that he ‘pantsed’, not the structure.

Therein lies the secret. Structure and planning  are essential. But I also think writers should be free to develop the story as it emerges around that structure. And if a new structure emerges – fine. But that demands re-planning.

A blend, in other words. And experience counts – something for which there is no short cut. More next time.

Meanwhile – do you plan, pants or do both?

Copyright  © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, geekery, humour and all the usuals.

18 thoughts on “Write It Now Part 19: the secret behind seat of the pants writing

  1. Most of the time it’s more of “when the mood strikes” for me, but that’s certainly not conducive to getting my book finished (much less published!)..I blame my day job..


    1. It’s very difficult to get that balance between ‘work’, ‘life’ and ‘writing’ – something faced by most writers (especially if they want to eat, have a house, etc.. :-)).


  2. I’m busy with my first novel, so I don’t think I really know what I’m doing yet 😀 but I’m pantsing. Much like you described here, I’d spend a week or two ruminating over a chapter, writing a little each day, often deleting it the next, then one day things will suddenly come together and I’d write the whole chapter in one day. I know where the story is going, but I’m not sure yet how to get there and I guess pantsing is my way to figure out the route. It’s slow going, though.


    1. Doing things that way is a fantastic learning exercise – and you’ll likely end up with something good at the end. The next novel will be faster…and the one after that, faster still. Good stuff.


  3. I’m a bit of a mixture of both I guess. I had a carefully worked out plot, but as I have written the chapters I have been continually surprised by what has suddenly popped out of my subconscious – one definition of pantsing. These ideas have either embellished the existing plot or changed it’s direction altogether to make it better.
    My novel is based on a certain time and place in history, and as I get to each chapter I need to do some research, and this often changes the plot as well as I discover wonderful things that can be added in.
    So my careful plotting in the initial stages, that I thought was so watertight has continually been upgraded and altered as I have gone along (hopefully for the better!) by ‘pantsing’.


    1. It’s how it works. Tolkien did the same thing. The key is to keep focus on the overall story pattern and make sure it doesn’t drift too far – or know how to bring it back in if it does (sometimes stories DO seem to take on lives of their own).


  4. I usually write the synopsis first, so I have a basic outline, which I then put aside and write. I don’t analyse the structure again until the end, because I find that if I get too involved in editing and structuring while completing the story it affects the flow of the subconscious and when I obstruct the subconscious, it affects the pace (I’m talking fiction here).

    For a short story, it’s also a combination, foe me, sometimes they come out of writing to a theme and the plan develops as I write and also when I pause and take time out to rethink about where it’s going. But letting go and pantsing is important, because that’s often where the gems lie, the things you almost can’t think up, because they come out of left field and really make a story.


    1. That’s really interesting Claire. Especially the part about the gems coming from left field. I have found that to be true as I have just written without planning too much.


      1. All the best ideas float in unasked – unplanned. It’s one of the reasons why ‘pantsing’ remains important even in a writing world where planning is the key to publication.


  5. Planning. The basic structure is known, but the details may change. I like to have the beginning and ending down as well as the main turning points in the story and the character arc.


  6. I was told by a past supervisor that she felt I worked by the seat of my pants. I always had a schedule, but it often had a monkey wrench thrown in, whether by a patent, fellow staff or the supervisor did not matter, my plans were altered either by few hours or the whole day.
    I guess I do my writing the same way. Often an idea pops into my head and I’ll jot it down since thoughts disappear out of my brain with amazing speed. Most of the ideas are story beginnings. I write those then decide where the characters are going next. They surprise me at times. I did a rough outline for my second book and found it was easier to write it. I’ve decided that outlining may be a better way for me to go. Even if the characters surprise me with a twist, maybe I won’t be left totally in the dark where to go next.


    1. Sounds good. Ultimately it’s what works best for you – and leads to the end point.

      Your mention of being left in the dark reminds me – Tolkien ‘pantsed’ a lot of The Lord Of The Rings in precisely this way, with the result that he ended up with the Company sitting outside Moria. It was 1939 by this time, and he had no idea what to do with them, so the book stalled for a year or more.


  7. I’ve written first drafts of a novel and several short stories, but haven’t finished revising anything, so I have an incomplete understanding of my process. So far, I seem to mix pantsing and planning–even if only a loose plan existing in my head. While working on my novel, I had a good idea what I wanted for the end and some of the set piece scenes, and aimed at each one of those while pantsing.

    With the short stories, most of the time I already had a structure in mind and pantsed the details. Sometimes a rough plan for a new story appears in my head while I’m in the middle of other stuff, and I like to jot those down in a notebook so I can be sure not to lose them.

    I totally get that I should have some clue what I’m doing to ensure the finished first draft is something I can actually hone into a final product, but I don’t think I could ever be one of those writers that plans extensively before putting fingers to keyboard. There’s something about writing scenes that makes a lot of my better ideas appear, and I like to feel agile enough to adapt to them.

    I also do a lot of “discovery writing.” They’re basically just writing sessions where I sit down with some vague idea for a scene and explore where it goes. Sometimes they’re scenes I’m considering putting into the WIP, other times they’re potential ideas for some potential project in the future. Sometimes the results actually go in a draft. The ones that don’t? I suppose they’re writing practice.


  8. Definitely both. I don’t have enough experience to create the beginning, middle and end, without some planning. It is getting better with practice.


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