Pantsing or planning – that is the NaNoWriMo question

It’s National November Writing Month – the month when writers around the world join in a quick-fire effort to complete a story of 50,000 words in just 30 days. I’m marking it this month by re-posting some of the material I’ve published in past years to help writers get to that goal.


The big question with NaNoWriMo, for a lot of writers, is whether to ‘pants’ or ‘plan’.

Writing fuel!
Writing fuel!

You know – whether to sit down and ‘just write’, with the story going where it will as one navigates ‘by the seat of the pants’, or whether it’s better to have some sort of written structure.

The fact is that writing worded with the heat of inspiration often flows better than writing that is wrung out, one laborious word at a time.

A lot depends on the temperament of the author and what works for them, of course.

The problem with ‘pantsing’, though, is that there’s ‘pantsing’. And then there’s ‘pantsing’.

It’s like this. I know that beginning authors like to ‘seat-of-the-pants’ their way through a story – enjoying the free-form creativity that this brings. That’s usually the appeal of the activity – the joy of creativity. But that’s not writing: that’s entertainment.

In past years I’ve even seen NaNo writers tweet their progress along these lines – ‘I’ve just decided to kill off 32 of my main characters’. Wham!

The problem is that what emerges, more often than not, is structurally awry. The character arcs (if they are arcs at all) don’t mesh with the dramatic moments in the plot. The plot itself is mis-structured so the main climactic moment comes too early, or there’s an ‘information dump’ opening that drags.

That’s where planning comes in.

But – but – I can hear already. Experienced writers ‘pants’ their work. Why can’t beginners?

The difference is that experienced writers know what they are doing – they can do a lot of stuff on the fly because writing has become part of their souls.  And they usually do have a plan, however skeletal it might be. Isaac Asimov, for instance – a famous ‘pantser’ – once explained that he always knew the beginning and end before he started. That way he knew where he was going.

What he didn’t say was that he was also a very, very experienced writer.

Which brings me to NaNoWriMo. The conceit is that the 50,000 word ‘first draft’ pushed out in 30 days somehow won’t be any good. Usually this is for structural reasons, as much as anything else. Actually, I say it will be – if you follow the guidelines and approaches I’ll be publishing in the next few weeks.

The surface wording might need revising, sure – wording always does. But if it’s done right, the NaNo novel should be a solid foundation for development.

The other challenge in the month is getting 50,000 words out in 30 days. Most of the problem with doing so, I think, is that authors who haven’t planned spend a lot of their time either re-writing or trying to work out how to get their story out of the hole they’ve fallen into.

The key to completing NaNoWriMo on time – and to quality – is getting the structure right, which means meshing plot developments with key points in the character arcs. And that means a certain amount of planning – even if the gaps are left to be filled by ‘pantsing’.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015 and 2018

13 thoughts on “Pantsing or planning – that is the NaNoWriMo question

  1. I can’t imagine how anyone can sit down with nothing and get far. Last year I wasn’t prepared for NaNo like I’d want to be, but at least I’d spent the six weeks leading up to November mulling ideas and had a framework in my head that I committed to paper on October 31st when I decided to participate. Even so, I was still forced to devote too much time to planning. Fortunately, I didn’t jump into NaNo last year to produce a novel as much as experiment with Deep 3rd (this year it’s about a novel). During NaNo I witnessed the deep hole you reference in your post. The graph looks like people who pound out 2,000 words/day for the first week to 10 days, sputter for another week at 200-300 words/day, and then quit. I was pleased that I finished around 65K.

    I view structure as a huge warehouse I fill with ideas, tools, props, and resources. I’m then free to run around the warehouse and construct what I’d like. The more time I devote to filling that warehouse the greater my production possibilities. No structure is more like waking up in the middle of a desert with only the clothes on your back. You start walking in one direction, change direction, walk in circles, and eventually collapse. Too much freedom, you discover, is akin to having nowhere to go. If you couldn’t come up with a framework before you sat down to write, what makes you believe you’ll come up with one while you’re writing?


    1. You’re right. Writing without planning anything is akin to being lost in the desert – a great metaphor! As you point out, that seems to be reflected in the word count stats of some NaNo contestants. To me the issue is symptomatic of the difference between writing as a personal pastime or entertainment, and writing that seriously tackles the demands of what is, in fact, a profession – one that anybody can enter but where other professionals in it have set the quality bar rather high…

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  2. This is the first year that I’m planning it out. I’ve never really done that at all, period. I’m interested to see how it’ll help me get through this year’s NaNoWriMo

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    1. Let me know how you get on! And all the very best for NaNo. I find planning essential in all my writing – even if only to provide direction, followed by more planning (more on this soon… 🙂 )

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      1. This year I have two jobs going, I’m giving a talk in Salt Lake City, and I’m doing four classes in my last quarter for my degree, so I want to be as prepared as possible so I don’t waste time being stuck.

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  3. I tried this NoNoNoWriThere’sNoLimit a few years back and found it didn’t suit me. I prefer to take a bit of time over things. Although Kerouac would have excelled here, cleary. Best of luck to anyone having a go.

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    1. I don’t do it either. I don’t need to be nudged to write, and deadlines always press – I can’t take a month out of my writing schedule in order to write. It’s pretty popular though – I gave a talk yesterday in a public library not far from a huge stand they had promoting it, and this in NZ.

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    1. Planning is always a boon when writing, even if the plan doesn’t survive the first engagement with the paper. I believe even Kerouac planned ‘On The Road’ a good deal more thoroughly than might be imagined from the fact that he blurted it out in three weeks (great book, I will have to go and re-read it). Actually planning’s good anyway, for everything (not just writing)… but maybe that’s just me…

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