Young woman holding cat and old book, close-up

Photo © belchonock | Deposit Photos

If you search for the phrase “Plotter vs. Pantser” on Google, you’ll turn up a lot of blog posts with some form of that title. All of them will follow a typical pattern of describing pantsing (usually pejoratively) as “writing by the seat of the pants.” The author will express puzzlement at this method, then proceed to explain how they outline in an authoritative tone.

Often the authors of these posts are also new writers…people who might not have finished a novel. You get a different discussion from a long-term writer. They’ll tell you that their method is the better choice, as Jonathan Maberry did at Superstars (outlining), and as Dean Wesley Smith does on his blog (no outline).

There’s such a sense of frustration from writers who don’t outline in the “prescribed manner” that they have all kinds of different labels for the halfway in-between like “plantser.” Others try to get rid of the uncomplimentary “pantser” with phrases like discovery writer or gardener or organic (I dunno. My food is organic. My writing never came with pesticides). James Scott Bell, who writes many books on the topic, calls the two sides, Outline People (OP) and Non-Outline People (NOP). Dean Wesley Smith calls it “Writing into the Dark,” or WITD.

I think the term “pantser” came from a putdown at some point during the early internet days and it stuck. There’s an implied putdown when you pair with “plotter,” as if the pantser writer doesn’t have any plot (seriously, people, learn the definitions of plot!). I started reading craft books in the 1970s and I never heard the term until I got online.

Because, until that point, it didn’t exist, or matter.

If a pantser visits a message board or associates with other writers, they are always pressured to outline. I believe it’s for no other reason than that it makes the other writers feel more comfortable. I could probably count pantsers as the nerds of fiction writing.

But why is outlining so dominant in everything?

It wasn’t always. Dean Wesley Smith says it originated in schools. I’m in the “Well…” zone. If it originated in schools, then outlines would be the more traditional format with the roman numerals. But they’re not.

A significant event happened in the 1980s. We got computers, which made writing a lot easier. Until that point, if you want to write a novel, you had to use a typewriter. Suddenly every one’s dreams of writing fiction because a little more possible by eliminating a barrier.

Writers quickly followed with lots of books on how to write. Some of these were written by people who had earned an MFA (which, by the way, does not teach you how to write; it teaches you how to teach writing). Many others were written by non-fiction writers without any fiction experience. I think that one or two of these writers wrote a hugely popular book and everyone else just regurgitated the information. At the time, I started looking at author bios after I started seeing the cookie-cutter feel of these books.

In-depth books like Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure faded into the background. You can still get it today, but it’s not a list of instructions, You have to read it, stop and think about it, maybe try what you learned out, then return to read some more.

The new writers coming in simply wanted someone to tell them how to write a book. The book authors found that it was much easier to explain how to outline. That could be discussed step-by-step, and better still, the book authors routinely did outlines as part of non-fiction.

Pantsing a book? It’s hard to offer instruction. Dean Wesley Smith and Harvey Stanborough both say to just type the next word. And I’m going, “Well…” because that never quite worked for me. It made me feel like I was doing something wrong.

And what if you had problems making your process work? No instruction existed.

Meanwhile, everyone was jumping on the outlining bandwagon, eager to cash in this sudden demand. Writer’s Digest and The Writer both added articles on outlining, or some form of craft instruction involved outlining.

Then the internet lit up writing. Suddenly writers could discuss among themselves how to write. Early on it was fun to talk about it, and no one cared about how you wrote. But as more people dived into writing novels, they brought with them now nearly 10-15 years of writing books about how to outline.

They could not see another way to write because no one had been teaching it.

Add to it the rise of developmental editors who also reinforced outlining, likely because it made explaining some skills easier.

Amidst this, the pantsers were looking for help writing in a world that suddenly wasn’t friendly to it. If they asked for help on message boards, they were told to outline, or given advice that couldn’t be followed without outlining.  Or they were told “Pantser stories are always a mess,” “Pantsers never finish,” or “Pantsers need lots of revision.” Many thought pantsers couldn’t get story structure without outlining.

Dean Wesley Smith added his book Writing Into the Dark for writing without outlining. The outliners read his reverse outlining, sneer, and say, “He’s not pantsing. He‘s outlining.” But WITD factions took a stance, practicing a more extreme version of pantsing. Likely this was an outgrowth of all the anti-pantsing reactions from the outliners. I had some of it myself at one point because I was tired of people treating me like I was stupid and informing me that my process couldn’t possibly work.

The people who can’t outline have never had much of a voice because of this dynamic. The WITD crowd states to just “write the next word.” That leaves me out because it doesn’t work exactly that way for me. I have to think a little (or a lot) about what I’m going to write.  But I also can’t map out beats or plot points as others recommend because either 1) I’ll feel like I puzzled out the story already and won’t write it or 2) I’ll aim at the plot points and shut out my creativity.

I also often have to stop and figure out what the setting looks like so I can write the scene. Now my creative side nudges me when I miss some of the details because they tie in later in the story. I keep a punch list as I’m writing—that goes against WITD as well. I use it for little things like “Decide on names for hotel conference rooms” or “Need another word for X.” Then I’ll mark it in all caps in the scene. It doesn’t stay in there long…only until the next day or two. But I’m such high input that if I jumped off to do the research, I’d end up in a rabbit hole and not return to the writing.

Others have to know the ending, like Michael Connelly (he writes about it in The Gods of Guilt).  Some outliners can outline, then change the direction of the outline as they write. Others need an incredible amount of detail in their outlines. A friend, Jennifer Brinn, needs the character’s background to write the story.

All a little different.

Plotter vs. Pantser. It’s not either/or. It’s not what this guru says absolutely works. It’s only about what works for you.

And it’ll look different from everyone else.