Saturday, August 6, 2011

Are You a Pantser?

You're a pantser if you use seat of the pants story telling, or writing without benefit of an outline. The real question is whether this is a good trait, or whether you should immediately abandon the practice.

There are two schools of thought on the issue. On one side you have Chris Baty's No Plot, No Problem. This philosophy drives the concept of Nanowrimo with it's thousands of writers working to finish a novel each November. Stephen King in On Writing suggests something similar. If you have a great idea, just start writing and see where it takes you. One could argue that much of what happens in Nanowrimo, while good for the individual isn't publishable. However, no once can argue that King isn't a great story teller.

The other side of the argument states that you're basically wasting your time if you don't structure your story and use at least a rudimentary outline. Larry Brooks in Story Engineering states that you need to structure your story in a series of plot points, basically conforming to the quarters of the story, so that you continually draw the reader forward. This is essentially the format used in screen writing.

So what's right. Recognizing that few of us can compete with Stephen King, should we outline before we write? Personally, I think a writer should use whatever method makes him or her comfortable. I can see drawbacks with either mode. If you're a pantser, you may end up rewriting to make your story conform to a plot line. On the other hand, if you plot too tight, you may miss character interactions that would make your story special.

So what's the advice? If you have a good feel for story arc (and Stephen King is apparently one of those writers.) you may do your best work by having the idea and letting your characters tell the story. If you find yourself muddled about a third of the way through the story, not sure of where to go, I'd suggest outlining and trying to fit your story to major plot points.

Whatever kind of writer you are pantser, outliner, or a combination, keep writing. You will find the mode that's most comfortable for you and find that what you write is salable.

Nancy Famolari
Winner's Circle available from 


  1. Nancy, interesting post. I'm a pantser at heart, but I do outline and sketch out plot points, make notes on scenes. Then I start writing, and of course, things don't come out quite the way I had thought they would. I do find, though, that having an idea of where the story is going helpful.

    No outline, no plot points, means I would to go back and work the plot arc out on a rewrite. My first book (not out yet) is a chapter book -- and it went through at least three major rewrites, partly because I didn't know beans about writing novels when I started, and partly because I just picked up my keyboard and started writing with no outline, no nothing.

  2. Good summary Nancy. I suspect that pantsers have some kind of intuitive outline in their heads, either at the start or they bring it in as they work. Writing a full length novel without good structure is so very hard that the best pantsers (like King) must just create innate and natural structures as they work. Most of us can't keep that kind of outline and control in our heads though, so putting the structure in a written form makes the whole writing process faster and easier. I really like Story Engineering - I'm finding it helpful in the outlining of my next novel - a very complex book that requires strong structure to hold it together.

  3. A Pantser, I'm definitely a Pantser. I get to some point in the story, then I sit back and say, well, what comes next. Sometimes I'll have a pretty good idea of how the story will end, but for what is between the beginning and the end, I wing it. That's just the way I am, I doubt I could do a real plot outline and stand any faint chance of following it.

  4. Nancy, I loved this piece! I tend to be somewhere in-between the two. If any pantsers are looking for a good book about by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing, I'd recommend "Ron Carlson Writes a Story." I just finished it, and came away really inspired!

  5. Thanks to everyone for their comments. I'm a pantser. However, I agree with Maggie, having an outline at some point is very important. If you're a pantser, you have to have, like Maggie said, some kind of outline in your head. I call it the endgame. Jim, I rap with what you said. I'm a pantser, but I do have the endgame and it also means that I have to rewrite. Still, by rewrite time, I know my characters. Dallas, so glad you liked the piece. I think you and I have the same sort of writing. I'm also between the two. Personally, I think that's not a bad way to be, but in truth, whatever works for you is what's right!!

  6. Thanks so much! You have a fabulous blog! I want to award you the Brilliant Writer Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

    Go to and pick up your award.

  7. I like to work with a loose outline and then deviate from it. so I guess I'm an occasional pantster.

  8. I'm pretty much a pantser, although the two books I've written were based fairly closely on my grandmother's life, so that in itself gave it somewhat of an outline, I suppose. Having a journalism background, I also write pretty spare to begin with and go back to flesh it out, so I've decided I'm actually writing my outline when I write the first draft!

  9. Nancy, Great information. It's so true that every writer has to write the way he/she feels comfortable. And, sometimes that may be different for different stories.

  10. Thanks everyone for your comments. Karen, it is so true, we all have to find out own way. That's what makes it so interesting!


We would love to know your thoughts on this post!

Forget Book Sales: Think Career Building

 It Isn't About Book Sales: It's About Career Building By Carolyn Howard-Johnson Adapted from the multi award-winning flagship...