Planning Versus Pantsing: Why Writers Should Learn to Do Both

When it comes to starting a new story, writers’ approaches generally fall into one of two categories: planning versus pantsing. Planners meticulously outline their stories before they write. They make sure to get every plot element in just the right place. Pantsers fly by the seats of their pants. They fill up blank pages with whatever comes to mind, believing they can sort out a story later on. Everyone has a strategy they think works best for them. But knowing what kind of writer you are and what kind of story you want to tell will allow you to choose the approach that will get the best results.

Planning Versus Pantsing

Planning Versus Pantsing: a brain with gears illustrates the planning approach

I am a planner. I am organized, detail-oriented and analytical. As a college philosophy major, my professors repeatedly ingrained the importance of structuring arguments and building from supported premises to inevitable conclusions. When I wrote philosophy papers, I developed the habit of composing detailed outlines to make sure my arguments were sound. (In fact, I’m working from an outline to write this article.)

The practice of planning lends itself to a plot-focused story. Planners like to make sure events happen in a logical order, conform to an ideal story structure and deliver cliffhangers and plot twists at the moment they are sure to make the greatest impacts.

In contrast, pantsers tend to work off emotion and feel. They free-write, allowing characters and stories to develop organically. Pantsers sometimes talk about not knowing how a character will act until just before they write a certain action sequence. They create their stories as they go along.

Pantsing lends itself to a character-focused story. Pantsers tend not to feel concerned about having a rigid plot structure. They want their characters to grow and respond naturally to events in the story based on their particular personalities, which, in turn, are developed over the course of writing those characters.

Conceptual and Intuitive Writers

Screenwriter and writing teacher Corey Mandell makes a parallel distinction to planning versus pantsing in his comparison of conceptual and intuitive writers. Conceptual writers are akin to planners. On the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast, Mandell describes a conceptual writer’s mindset as “I need to figure out my story so that I can write it.” The inspiration for their stories involves a big idea, a plot point, a theme, a what-if question or a situation. Conceptual writers construct their stories so as to highlight these plot elements, a process that usually requires planning before writing.

As a result, conceptual writers invent their characters in response to their story plans. Plots drive their stories, and their characters are carefully constructed and exist to serve those plots. Unfortunately, such planning may lead to flat characters or puppets jerked along by the twists and turns of the story. Such characters don’t feel real; they seem contrived and one-dimensional.

Planning Versus Pantsing: a brain with a variety of images illustrates the pantsing approach

In contrast, intuitive writers are akin to pantsers. Mandell describes an intuitive writer’s approach as “I need to write out my story so I can find it and I can figure it out.” The inspirations for their stories revolve around characters or emotions. Intuitive writers don’t construct their stories so much as they discover them. They write their way into a story instead of planning it from the outset.

Consequently, intuitive writers shape their plots around their characters. They spend most of their time exploring and developing characters that speak and act like real people and then try to fit them into the plots of their stories later on. However, intuitive writers struggle with story concepts like structure, stakes, goals, logic, momentum and consistency. Their writing has deep, complex characters and polished, believable dialogue, but may never discover a compelling story.

Writing to Your Weakness

Writers are either predominately conceptual planners or intuitive pantsers. As they continue to write to their personal style, their strengths become stronger and their weaknesses weaker. Think of learning to dribble a basketball. Almost everyone starts by using their dominant hand. But if you never practice dribbling with your non-dominant hand, you won’t get very far as a basketball player. The same principle applies to writing. Conceptual planners who can only write by planning out a concept in detail will get very good at developing plots, pacing and tension, but will struggle more and more to write engaging characters. Intuitive pantsers who must discover their characters as they go will get very good at crafting interesting and realistic characters but will increasingly fail to sustain an intriguing plot.

Mandell’s solution is to force his writing students to practice their weaknesses. In a process he calls creative integration, he instructs conceptual planners and intuitive pantsers to adopt the opposite approach. This process helps writers improve their weaknesses until there are equal to their natural strengths. Conceptual planners learn to develop strong characters that fit into their already dynamic plots. Intuitive pantsers learn to structure seamless plots to frame their already engrossing characters.

Writing to Your Story

Whether to take a planning versus pantsing approach also depends on the story you’re trying to tell. Planning is essential for a story with a complex plot or a novel of ideas. A fast-paced thriller with several plot twists demands a well-ordered structure. And my most recently published title The Friar’s Lantern, a choose-your-own-adventure novel about free will, was a perfect fit for my natural planning approach.

On the other hand, pantsing is beneficial for literary novels structured around a theme or emotion and dependent on great characters. My current work-in-progress Parabellum follows four central characters in the year leading up to a mass shooting incident. It gave me the perfect opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and take a pantsing approach in order to explore and develop those characters.

In writing or any other discipline, it’s perfectly natural to play to your strengths. And when your strengths are exceptionally strong, they may be enough to produce great results. But in order to maximize your writing skills and master the ability to tell a variety of stories, it’s worth taking time to focus on your weaknesses. Though almost every writer naturally falls on one side of the planning versus pantsing divide, we don’t need to let our strengths define the way we work. Take a chance on a new approach—you might like the results, and you’ll become a better writer in the process.

Additional Writing Tips

Join my free email course Building the Book: Our Dried Voices using the form below for more about the lessons I learned in writing my debut novel Our Dried Voices. You’ll learn what it’s like to create a novel, from the spark of an idea, through years of writing and editing, all the way to a published book. Plus, I’ve loaded each email in the series with bonus content like my personal notes, diagrams and edited drafts that will bring the book to life before your eyes.

A previous version of this article was published in the July 2018 issue of Indie Authors Monthly.