Planning is everything for writing

One of the biggest debates I’ve seen in writing forums and blogs is ‘pantsing’ versus ‘planning’.

Wright_Hobbiton4Writing ‘by the seat of the pants’ is writing free-form – writing to see where the story goes. And it’s often advocated with huge enthusiasm – largely because it’s spontaneous. It captures the instant of creativity.

Kind of like free-form jazz, I suppose (anybody who’s seen This Is Spinal Tap will know what I am getting at).

All of which is good, but it’s not how professional writers do it. Fully ‘pantsing’ a story, for any author, is actually writing for personal entertainment, which is fine, but not if you want somebody else to read it. Like free-form jazz, it usually ends up as a kind of noodly blunge that only those creating it get anything out of.

The authors who successfully ‘pants’ a story are those who have enough experience to get the structure in their heads and stick to it – the ‘pantsing’ is flowing around a defined beginning, middle and end with proper character arcs. Novice authors and even those with fair experience usually can’t do this without putting that base plan down. Even Jack Kerouac, who blurted On The Road out with one draft over three hyperactive weeks, had already written versions of it beforehand. He knew what he was intending to do and had the plan to hand – which is how he wrote so quickly.

So – if you’re Stephen King, pants away. But for the rest of us:

  1. Planning keeps you on track. It means the story doesn’t wander, and it’ll have the right structure. Even if you revise the words later, that first-time-right structure means a LOT less re-writing, later.
  2. If you’ve got a plan, you’ll usually do the ‘creative writing’ part a lot faster, because you’ve already done the hard work figuring out where the story’s going and how it will develop. That’s vital for any writer on a deadline.
  3. Plans act as a ‘bad first draft’. You can shake out the wrinkles from the story before it’s written. Guess what – that means more productivity to time.
  4. With a plan, if you dry up at one part of the story you can jump to another. Maybe things will flow better there. Then back-fill. It’s a productivity trick made easy by word processors. And planning.
  5. Plans force you to have the whole story in mind before starting – which means you can focus on the closer details when writing, instead of struggling with strategic direction.

Plans don’t have to be hugely detailed, of course – and that’s the trick to it. ‘Pantsing’ has its place within planned structure – once you know what the structure is, you can go off and do the fun free-form creativity around it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


10 thoughts on “Planning is everything for writing

  1. For the sake of experimentation I tried pantsing once. It was a writing shop of horrors. A mass of burnt goo in the bottom of the oven that was supposed to be a cake. I’ve since concluded pantsing is like interior decorating and planning is like building the house, adding electricity, installing plumbing, and following through on the best decorating ideas. Without planning you have furniture sitting in a field.

    1. Quite true – ‘pantsing’ is good for creatively filling in the plan…but you have to start with a solid plan, and that can’t be made up on the fly. Very experienced writers can do it in their heads – appearing to ‘pants’, but actually they’re not. And I still wonder about the results they get, sometimes.

  2. I’ve always believed a novel has two important layers: the story and the theme. The story is the vehicle by which you explore the theme. If a writer is ‘pantsing’ how do they know the theme and therefore what they’re trying to talk about?

  3. I need to have the opening scene, the concluding climactic scene and the prevailing theme nailed down before I start writing. If all goes well, scenes flash up within that framework and practically write themselves. The hard part is filling in everything in between. I do make lists of key plot points, sometimes with alternate possibilities as I go along, but don’t create detailed outlines. This method works for fiction, but a methodical, detailed plan must be necessary for nonfiction.

  4. Hi Matthew! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article as a guest post for tomorrow. As usual, it includes your credit, bio, and link. Thanks!

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