There’s a great dichotomy among writers: plotters (those who outline) vs. pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). Most writers fall into one camp or the other and sing the praises of their choice. Nothing wrong with that. Everyone’s mind works differently, and what works for you may not work for me.
I’m one of those rare birds who uses both methods. I plot out a short story or an essay like this – it’s the only way I can make sure I don’t lose track of my theme somewhere in the middle. But when it comes to novels, I’m a pantser.
I start out with a concept, plus a beginning, an ending, and a few scenes in between. But once I start writing, I let the characters take me where they will. That process sometimes means the intended scenes don’t make it into the manuscript and, at least once, it’s meant that the ending isn’t what I originally envisioned.
Yet I can see the point of plotting, especially when the story is complex or there are more than a few characters to keep track of. Not too long ago, I read a book in which all but one of the sub-plots was left dangling at the end, and I remember thinking that the author could have made good use of an outline. That’s one of the benefits of plotting – making sure everything that’s started has a resolution.
But as far as I’m concerned, whatever works for you as an individual is fine with me.
However, I recently read a blog post by someone who swears by outlines. The blogger spent quite a bit of time belittling those who don’t plot ahead, saying things like “some authors can’t be bothered to outline”, “an outline is the only sure road to success”, and “I never read a good book that wasn’t plotted out beforehand”.
Really? This blogger contacted every author whose book she ever read to determine if the writer used an outline? And never enjoyed a book whose author said “NO”? What about those dead guys, like Cervantes, Twain, Dumas and Voltaire, whose works are still held in reverence – did she contact them by séance?
Or did she maybe just assume that bad books are not plotted and good books are? You all know what happens when you assume…
So, in support of all the non-plotters out there, here are some quotes about writing from your fellow pantsers. Now I haven’t read all of these books, but I’m fairly certain most of them are pretty good.
I’ve never written a book with an outline or a predetermined theme. It’s only in retrospect that themes or subjects become identifiable. That’s the fun of it: discovering what’s next. I’m often surprised by plot developments I would not have dreamed of starting out, but that, in the course of the writing, come to seem inevitable. Susan Choi (American Woman)
I don’t plot the books out ahead of time, I don’t plan them. I don’t begin at the beginning and end at the end. I don’t work with an outline and I don’t work in a straight line. Diana Gabaldon (Outlander)
I cannot outline. I do not know what the next thing is going to happen in the book until it comes out of my fingers. Patricia Reilly Giff (Maggie’s Door)
In fiction, you have a rough idea what’s coming up next – sometimes you even make a little outline – but in fact you don’t know. Each day is a whole new – and for me, a very invigorating – experience. Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard)
I do not outline. There are writers I know and count as my friends who certainly do it the other way, but for me, part of the adventure is not knowing how it’s going to turn out. Joyce Maynard (To Die For)
I don’t outline; I listen to a kind of whisper inside the material. Jayne Anne Phillips (Shelter)
Writing is a process of discovering. I could never outline a narrative; that just sounds boring. There’s no joy of discovery in what you’re doing if that’s your strategy. Bob Shacochis (Swimming in the Volcano)
I don’t outline at all; I don’t find it useful, and I don’t like the way it boxes me in. I like the element of surprise and spontaneity, of letting the story find its own way. Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner)
I don’t write a play from beginning to end. I don’t write an outline. I write scenes and moments as they occur to me. … I sequence them in a way that tends to make sense. Then I write what’s missing, and that’s my first draft. Richard Greenberg (Life Under Water)
The important discovery I made very early is that my novels had to be written without any given plan or outline. I can’t do it in any other way. But then they are dependent on the sentences, my intuition, and, as I have experienced many times, the subconscious. Per Petterson (Out Stealing Horses)
The way that I write novels in particular is I don’t usually outline; I just write. Part of the fun is discovering what’s happening in the story as I’m going along. John Scalzi (Old Man’s War)
I never work from an outline, and often I don’t know how the story will end. Patricia MacLachlan (Sarah Plain and Tall)
Choosing to write a play is some kind of surrender. I don’t make an outline. I sit and work, and suddenly the door opens, and out it comes. David Rabe (HurlyBurly)
When I sat down and wrote the first paragraph, I was like, ‘Oh, I can go with this.’ I didn’t do an outline. I didn’t do anything. I just wrote sentence by sentence, not knowing where the story was going. Colleen Hoover (Losing Hope)
7 thoughts on “To Pants or Not To Pants – 14 Writers’ Opinions”
To plan is to turn writing into a chore. But the chores are doubled when it comes to revision!
So true, but I think good editing is much more important than an outline when it comes to the final product!
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Good post Clifford! I’m also a pantser in all my writing. I think the secret to making sure all the plots and characters work is in the revision and editing – just as Bruce suggests above! That’s when I’ll write out diagrams of the plot – making sure everything ties up nicely.
Thanks for the follow! 🙂
Welcome, Rob — that’s what I do, too! About half-way through a MS, I’ll start outlining the chapters I’ve already done to make sure all the plot threads are covered. Makes it easier to write the synopsis as well! And careful editing is priceless, whether you do it yourself or have a critique partner.
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Absolutely! Always find a partner so helpful!
Oh, boy, I’m a bonafide plotter, but I never get bored. My characters still surprise me. So do my story lines, but to each, his own. Whatever works!
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Hi, Judith, I so totally agree! Not everything works for everyone — and sometimes people switch it all around, try out new things. Whatever moves the creative spirit along. If someone wants to write while standing on their head, I say more power to them!