Should You Write as a Pantser? (Plotter vs Pantser)

POSTED ON May 2, 2023

P.J McNulty

Written by P.J McNulty

Home > Blog > Fiction, Writing > Should You Write as a Pantser? (Plotter vs Pantser)

If you’ve started the process of researching how to write a novel, you may well have encountered the term pantser. But what exactly is a pantser? If you were too shy to ask, this article has got you covered. We’ll explain exactly what writing as a pantser entails, explore if it’s the right option for you, and provide some other ways of writing you may wish to consider. 

Unlike other terms related to book writing, pantser is less than obvious. If you hear the term ‘plotter’ you’ll immediately understand it has something to do with plotting. But what about pantser? No need to get your pants in a twist – let’s delve straight into it.

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What is a pantser?

A pantser is a writer who works without an outline, a term derived from the concept of writing by the seat of your pants. It stands in contrast to a plotter who is someone who outlines their work to a greater or lesser extent.

That’s not to say that pantsers go into the book writing process totally blind. They may have the start of their story in mind, or an overall theme or concept. However, they let the direction their work takes develop during the writing process itself. This approach has both advantages as drawbacks as we will explore later in the article. 

But before we get into the pros and cons of being a pantser, and determine whether it’s the right approach for you and your book, let’s contrast it in more depth with the other approach to writing – plotting.

Pantser VS plotter

A plotter is someone who takes the time outline the events of their story in advance of writing it. Rather than letting the story evolve organically as they write, plotters start the process with a detailed breakdown of the events that will occur. 

Plotters can prepare to various extents. Some may have a vague outline, such as writing down the major scenes that will occur, while still giving themselves some flexibility as far as exactly what happens and how they get to their major story milestones. Others choose to write not only every chapter, but a detailed structure of exactly what will occur in that chapter and in which order. 

Pantsers, on the other hand, allow themselves total freedom to go with the flow and let their story develop freely.

Put simply, the issue of pantser VS plotter comes down to the level of detail in place regarding a story’s events before the writing process begins. Plotters prefer to work with a greater level of freedom, while plotters prefer to write to a plan.

Now that you know the difference between the two major schools of though regarding writing planning, let’s take a closer look a the plus sides and drawbacks of taking a pantser approach to writing fiction. 

What are the benefits of writing as a pantser?

Choosing to write as a pantser has a number of benefits. After all, if it didn’t no writers would take this approach! So what are some of the major benefits and plus points to writing without a detailed outline?

  • See where your story goes. Once you are engaged in the process of writing fiction, your mind will work on it, both consciously and subconsciously. If you write to a strict outline, you lose the chance to form new connections and realizations mentally during the writing process. Choosing the pantser route allows you to follow your instinct and intuition as you go, writing whatever feels natural and proper in the moment. 
  • The freedom to change your mind. If you have a detailed outline before starting your story, you make your mind up about your characters’ fates before you really get to know them. Pantsing allows you to adopt as you gain greater familiarity with your characters – allowing them to act in ways that feel right after you’ve spent some time writing them. 
  • Excitement of discovering your plot. Stephen King is one of the most famous pantser writers. He describes the process of writing a story as like excavating a dinosaur bone. You might have a rough idea in mind of its shape but discovering what it really looks like gradually is part of the pleasure. Pantsing allows you to experience the excavation process.
  • Quicker to get started. Outlining your book can be a time-consuming and sometimes tedious process. This is especially true if you choose to write an in-depth breakdown of each and every chapter. If you opt to write as a pantser, you spend less time preparing, allowing you to get into the thick of writing quicker.

These are some of the major reasons why you may wish to adopt the pantser approach for your book.

But what about the drawbacks?

What are the dangers of writing as a pantser?

Of course, writing as a pantser has a number of potential disadvantages to be avoided. Skillful writers can mitigate most of them, but to do so, you need to know what they are in advance. 

  • Uneven pacing. One of the major risks you take as a pantser is distorting the pacing of your book. You may get caught up in the flow and make your opening section longer than it should be, for example. Experienced writers have a natural feel for how long fiction should be, including its various sections, but this may prove challenging if you’re a new writer.
  • Lack of structure. Most stories follow a tried and tested structure, whether that’s the hero’s journey, the three-act structure, or something more complex. If you take the pantser approach, you may end up missing out on the tried and tested story structures that readers expect and have been proven to love. 
  • Getting stuck midway through. A huge advantage to writing to an outline is you always know what’s going to come next. As a pantser, you run the risk of running out of ideas midway through. Or, you might come up with an idea but it would contradict something you’d written earlier. Outlining in advance allows you to avoid this dilemma.
  • Lack of careful deliberation. When you outline your novel, you give yourself the chance to carefully deliberate and way up the pros and cons of different sections. You can also see how all the pieces fit together, ensuring your story’s ending makes sense with the way it starts. Pantsers don’t have that big picture advantage.

So now you know the potential downsides of choosing to write as a pantser. 

Before you explore how to choose the right approach for your next book, let’s consider whether plotting and pantsing can be mixed to any extent. 

Can you mix being a pantser and a plotter?

For the most part, no you can’t mix being a pantser and a plotter. They are opposite approaches. If you have planned out your book, you no longer have the freedom of writing as a true pantser. 

However, there are ways you can take something of a hybrid approach as long as you’re not totalitarian about your definition of what a pantser is. 

For example, you might wish to plot in detail certain key moments of your book, but allow yourself the freedom to reach them in whatever way you come up with in the heat of the moment.

Another technique is to outline your story, but try and put it out of your mind and write as a pantser. You only refer back to your outline if you get truly stuck. However, you can argue this is not really pantsing as the outline will have influenced your thoughts to some extent, even if you’re not aware of it. 

For the most part, it’s far simpler to pick an approach, either writing as a plotter or a pantser, and get truly comfortable with it. You can always choose the other approach during a later project. 

How do you know if you should write as a pantser?

Hopefully, at this stage of the article you’re equipped with a sound level of knowledge about what plotting and pantsing each entail, and you have all the info you need to choose an option and get started.

But what if you can’t decide?

For the most part, we recommended most writers to take the plotter approach to fiction, at least when they’re just starting out. Juggling everything that makes a novel great is hard enough as it is without having to come up with its plot on the fly.

However, nothing beats getting hands on experience and seeing which approach you prefer and which produces better results for you.

As writing full novels is time-consuming, why not test the waters by writing a number of short stories, some according to the plotting approach, and others according the the pantser approach?

By doing this, you’ll have personal, first-hand experience to support whichever route you just to take for a full-length novel. 

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