Pantsing 101: What the heck is pantsing a book?

NanoWrite is coming up in just another month, and with it will be the debate: Outliner or Pantser?

I’m not sure why there’s a debate.  You write whatever way works best for you.  Period.  It shouldn’t matter.

Yet, if I search the internet for pantser, I get a lot of outliners scratching their heads and trying to define it, then concluding it really doesn’t work.

And they never tried it.

So what the heck is pantsing?

The name comes from “writing by the seat of the pants.”  It’s not a very good name for what we do, and others have tried to come up with better ones: Gardener, organic (does that mean outliners are inorganic?), non-outline people.

But it boils down to a writer who does not use an outline to figure out their story.  Instead, they write it like the way a reader reads a book—they discover it and the characters as they type the words.  One writer I ran across said:

He picked up a pen and started writing because that was natural to him.

Everyone’s different when it comes to writing like this:

  • They might know what the ending is.
  • They might have no idea who it will end (the case with my current book).
  • They might know what happens in the next scene.
  • They might have no clue what happens in the next scene.
  • They might write the scenes out of order.
  • They might need to write them in order.

But if you read most writing books, and probably hit the writing message boards, it’s clear that the general opinion is that writing without an outline is a Really Bad Idea.

Why does pantsing get such a bad rap?

Outlining is easy to teach, like in Evan Marshall’s The Marshall Plan to Novel Writing.  In the book, he gives step-by-step instructions on how to write a book by building an outline first (I tried this.  My book failed by the time I hit chapter 3 and my creative side gave up on me).

It is also hard for people who are used to outlining to comprehend how someone could write an entire book without having everything laid out in a roadmap.  People have told me that my first draft is the outline, or even that I must be lying about outlining, because they cannot comprehend that I start a story one word at a time.

But the biggest reason is a craft issue.  If the writer is doing a first book and doesn’t understand the concept of story—a distinct possibility—pantsing makes it look ten times worse.  Writer submits it to a developmental editor.  Editor sees the horrible mess resulting from the combination of a craft issue and pantsing and declares that pantsing is the problem.  So the writer thinks their way of writing is wrong and that they should outline.

There’s a lot of misinformation about pantsing out there.  It’s important to trust yourself and not listen to what everyone is saying you “should” do.  Outline or not, it doesn’t matter.  The only thing that counts is the finished story.

5 thoughts on “Pantsing 101: What the heck is pantsing a book?

  1. I’ve been wondering about the ending of my current novel. I’ve got a prologue and a beginning. Sometimes I have an open-ended ending. The story is finished–I hate cliff hangers–but the characters (some of them at least) are ready to move on. Anyway, this one is probably going to be open-ended ’cause I just came up with the idea of moving my characters on and then on again…


  2. As a reader, I hate cliff-hangers. It’s disappointing to get something where you want to read more and you can’t. But I also ran into a story where the writer wrapped too much up. It was a good story, but she tied up every single loose end–and I mean every. Some of the things would have been better off left to the reader’s imagination, and the good story got ruined by the bad ending.


  3. Peggy

    In a writers’ chatroom discussion a while back (like… years?), I mentioned that I was writing a novel without an outline, and the question I got was, “How do you keep all that in your head?”

    That attitude – that we somehow have to keep the whole story in our heads the whole time – was fairly prevalent when I used to get into those discussions. I’d point out the quote about driving at night with headlights, and I’d further say that everything I needed to remember was in what I’d already written, so I just needed to re-read (parts of it) on occasion.

    I think a lot of the insistence on outlines (or very detailed notes, or whatever) comes from a basic insecurity or fear of “losing” or “not having” all of the story… never mind that you (or at least I) don’t need to have all of it all the time. (And to call out the outlining faction who compares an outline to a road map, I’d remind them that we don’t need to have the entire map open for the whole trip – just the part that shows where we are right now.)

    I’ll stop babbling now.


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