What the heck is a pantser?!

I did a post on workshops for pantsers, and several of the comments I got were “What’s pantsing?”  I guess I’ve seen it around so much, I don’t even think twice about it.

Pantsing means that the writer doesn’t use an outline.  The writer may know very little about the story when they start writing.  For example, they may not have any idea how it will end until they get there, or, if you will, they write the story by the “seat of their pants.”

Yeah, yeah, I know it’s a terrible name, but it’s a lot better than plunger, which is the name of a tool for a toilet, or NoP, which rhymes a little too closely with nincompoop.  Organic is somewhat better, but then outliners cry, “What does that make me?  Inorganic?”   Then there’s the very strange term, gardener, which has the flavor of the story being put out pasture.  Or mister, which is like a person feeling their way through a mist, though I kept thinking, “Why are they calling me ‘Mister’?”

Most of the time when I see a blog post defining it, it’s been more along the lines of “Plotter vs. Pantser,” with an outliner defining a pantser and then reaffirming that they are not taking this dangerous path.

It’s just a mistaken assumption that you can make it up as you go; it certainly decreases the chances that it will turn out well.

I guess to an outliner, it seems inconceivable that a story could be written without knowing what happens along the way and how it ends.  One outliner I talked to admitted that the thought of writing a story without an outline terrified him.  Maybe this is why it sometimes turns into a debate, with writers taking sides.

But in researching for this, I was amazed at how many posts there were that “explained” pantsers in a negative form and then pronounced that the only fix was to outline or plan — usually offering up the author’s method, which would, in their eyes, solve all the problems!

It doesn’t always work that way.  Some people can slide over to the outlining side.  And for some, it changes from story to story.  But there’s some where if they try to do an outline, it sucks the joy of the story or can outright put a stake in it.  If I try to outline, it lasts for 3 chapters, and then the story rolls over and dies.

Yup. I know people say outlines don’t rob the creativity or kill the story. Right.

I start with the idea, which isn’t a story.  It’s just a place to start.  The idea can be anything.

Then I start typing.

I try to focus only on the space of that scene and nothing else.  I try not to think about what happens in the next scene, or any other part of the story.

I don’t think about plot points, set pieces, or story acts.

I just follow where the story goes, and the characters magically appear when needed.

Yeah, sometimes I go in the wrong direction.  That usually happens because I start thinking about what needs to happen next or where the story goes, and the story lets me know right away and gets stubborn (all those things outliners keep wanting me to do).

Really, I just follow the road and see where it goes.   That’s what pantsing is.

11 thoughts on “What the heck is a pantser?!

  1. Wonderful! I also found that doing an outline killed my stories. I do sometimes use a timeline, which is much more bare bones, but I need to leave myself a lot of open space.

    I once went to a book signing where there were seven authors. During the Q&A someone asked all seven to answer the “Do you outline or not?” question. These were all multi-book, large publisher published authors with strong fan followings. Of the seven only three answered that they were outliners – and only one of those did an intensely detailed outline, the other two did sketchier ones. The other four were all various degrees of non-outliners. One said she wrote one of her better selling books with no more in her head at the start than a phrase she’d heard that had caught her imagination.

    We are all different. Writing is not a “cookie cutter” business. Like all the arts, and artists, we approach the end product via different paths. We all take our own road less traveled by.


  2. I detest the term ‘pantser’. For me, I tend to use ‘wingman’, though that makes me think of that terrible Coors Light commercial from a few years back, or ‘discovery writer’ if I want to sound more academic.

    Like you, I start with a scene or character that pops into my head. The rest mostly flows from there. I will say, I do a lot of ‘pre-thinking’ while showering, doing the dishes, driving, etc., but it’s not usually so much along the lines of “Okay, this happened, so next scene, THIS needs to happen” as it is picturing/hearing that next scene in my head. Nice post, nice summary, always good to meet another wingman–er, wingwoman!

    BTW, I do know you from AW, but popped over due to your comment on Writer Unboxed today, in case you want to know.


  3. Leon

    So much truth to this, and I think it’s brilliant advice. I can’t quite remember the saying but it goes something like, Just worry about the road you can see in front of you, the rest will eventually come into view..


  4. Great post, thank you for this!

    It’s not just me! I’ve wondered my whole life how people can write from outlines. The rare times I’ve tried it have stopped me cold, and the story too. I too have had bouts of feeling like a badly-made writer because of it. I spent thirty years feeling like I was flawed simply because I’m introverted. The older I get, the more i realize that just because other people say I should be this way, that way, or the other way, it’s ain’t necessarily so.

    Extroverts and outliners are fine, good for them. But introverts and pantsers are fine too! Honestly, the big thing that keeps me writing is wanting to know what’s going to happen next. I’m not kidding about that. How sad and disappointing would it be for me to know every step of the way then?



      1. I’ve come up with a respectful name for us. A name that honors how we write instead of sounding like a put-down:

        Intuitive Plotters

        That is what we are. We don’t just fly by the seat of our pants. We plot intuitively. We seem to have an innate sense of plot arch, an innate sense of story flow. Do we “blow it” sometimes and have to do a bit more revising than a heavy duty plotter/planner does? Yes. But we prefer to follow our intuitive sense of plot and story flow when we do our first draft and don’t mind having to revise.

        I’ve added it to my signature on my emails:

        Pearl R. Meaker
        Intuitive Plotter

        I think I’m going to do a post to my own blog about our new title. I’ll let you all know when it’s posted on my website!

        Write on, fellow intuitive plotters!



  5. I’m so glad you like it, Linda. 🙂 That was exactly what I was hoping for, that it would be positive, something that encourages those of us who write this way instead of discouraging us.


  6. Pingback: No more “Pantsers.” We have a new title. :-) » Pearl R Meaker & Twombly in the Heartland

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