Thoughtful Thursday: Pantsing vs. Plotting

Thoughtful Thursday is my own little meme in which I share my thoughts on a certain topic relating to writing, reading, and (on very special occasions) random things.

I’m one of those people who likes to plan. I’m a list addict and I make budgets for fun and I’m very anal about certain things. My shirts are organized by color and I have a bookmark in just about every color so that I’m never forced into a horrid situation where I have to pair an orange bookmark with a blue book cover.

So I guess it’s no surprise that I’m more of a plotter than a pantser. Which can be a bit of a problem because I’ll get so caught up in reading books on novel writing and making elaborate charts and diagrams for my stories and characters that by the end of it, I’ve got a stack of blueprints and outlines and worksheets and a word count of 2 (those two words say as follows: Chapter One). It’s a bit like rolling down a hill; once you start plotting, you can’t stop.

Or at least that’s how it is for me. I know plenty of people who loathe outlines, and sometimes it works for them, sometimes it doesn’t. I know plotters who hate plotting but do it anyway because otherwise what they write will be crap. I know pantsers who can sit there with an idea and just spill out something beautiful without a single thought for graphs and charts and writing techniques. It really depends on the person.

But with that being said, there are some definite pros and cons to each method.

Plotting Pros

  • No surprises: You’re much less likely to find yourself 30k into a first draft before realizing that it’s all wrong.
  • Less writer’s block: You won’t be sitting at your desk staring at a blinking cursor for hours at a time. With an outline, you’ll at least know what comes next, even if you’re not sure how to write it.
  • Fewer plot holes: Outlining is a big plus in this way because it’s much easier to see issues in your story when looking at a chart or spreadsheet rather than when you’re writing the actual novel. And if you write the whole thing by the seat of your pants and go back to read it, it’s likely that some of those same issues that would’ve popped up in the outline will slip past your radar.
  • Cool stuff: Plotting can be so much fun with all of the cool techniques and software and books that are out there. I mean, color coding and drawing giant maps and doing elaborate designs is pretty awesome, especially when it doubles up as an actual means of productivity.

Plotting Cons

  • No surprises: If you’re the type of person who enjoys discovering the story as you go, outlining will take that first-time thrill away from you.
  • Time eater: Sometimes you can get so stuck on plotting and using cool software and tricks and marking every tiny detail that you never get around to the actual writing (it’s certainly happened to me).
  • Burnout: It’s not uncommon for a writer to spend so much energy and effort on an outline that by the time they’re all prepped and ready to go, there’s just no drive left to write the actual novel.
  • Potentially choppy first draft: While an outline is certainly useful, it’s easy to get stuck on following it to the point that you’re just checking off scenes. Protagonist breakdown? Check. First date? Check. Protagonist conquers evil? Check. And it won’t be very fun to read because there’s no real life in it.

Pantsing Pros

  • The thrill of discovery: It’s a wonderful feeling to have epiphanies during writing. Every word you write is a kind of discovery. You get to know your characters and your story and your setting in a very fresh, exciting way.
  • Writing only: Without an outline, you have nothing to focus on except writing, which can mean you get more writing done in less time.
  • Less boredom (possibly): If you never know what’s coming next, there’s bound to be more excitement in writing, and because of it, you’ll probably get more words on the page.

Pantsing Cons

  • Revision will be hell: Your first draft is most likely going to be very messy and revising it is going to equate to rewriting the whole thing.
  • Major issues popping up: You could very well end up with 50k of plotholes, underdeveloped characters, and it can be really overwhelming to see how much work will need to be done to fix everything, which could put you off the whole project.
  • Your plot will likely be rather basic: Without an outline, it’s hard to thread more complex storylines together to make a more interesting read, so it could end up rather dull.

I think the important thing to remember when considering how to write your novel is that there is no right way. No two people work the same way, so your method of writing will and should be completely unique to you. You may be 100% plotter or 100% pantser, or a mix of both, like me. Just find what works best for you and do it.

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3 Things to Consider When Writing A Novel

These three questions aren’t in any particular order, and they certainly aren’t irrefutable nuggets of truth. My ideas about writing may not match your ideas, and that’s perfectly alright. These questions simply explore what I have experienced and felt as both a writer and a reader, and I wanted to share them.

A Note: While I’ve geared this post toward novel-writing, I’m fairly sure it’s applicable to not only other forms of writing, but really to any form of creative expression.

This is huge. HUGE. You can’t write without a reason. Or, come to think of it, you could—theoretically—but there’s a 95% chance that whatever you wrote would be crap.

There are thousands upon thousands of reasons why people write. It can be therapeutic, rewarding, entertaining, but it has to be something. You wouldn’t spend $1 million on a mosquito, would you? (For those of you who answered yes to that question, kindly escort yourself away from my blog and into a mental hospital, please and thank you.) Not unless you had a reason for buying that mosquito. Maybe the mosquito is actually a robot and you are a collector. Maybe the mosquito is the last mosquito on earth and you are a (deranged) scientist who wants to preserve the species. But there is a reason you want that mosquito.

In the same way (leaving the horrid mosquito metaphor behind), you must have a reason for writing. Maybe you’re writing to make money (good luck, mate); maybe you’re writing to distract yourself from something unpleasant in your environment; maybe you’re writing because some mad bloke is holding a gun to your head demanding you write him a sonnet.

Whatever the reason, it must exist, and it must be solid. Otherwise, you can write, but you can’t create.

Personally, I write because I enjoy it. It’s fun, it’s interesting, and I’m good at it. That’s my reason. What’s yours?

This isn’t particularly related to formatting, although that’s certainly something else to consider. But what do you want your novel to be? Do you want it to be cute and fun like Pulling Princes? Dark and dangerous like Dracula? Charming and magical like Matilda? Write with the spirit of your idea. If you’re going to write about a murderer hunting his next victim, don’t drop in slapstick humor just for the hell of it. If you’re writing a children’s book, don’t build a plot around real estate marketing or quantum physics research. Consider your content, your objective, and your own personality, and write with a certain tone already in mind. This will help you not only get to know your story better, but help you write it better too. A lot of writers don’t plot everything out from the beginning, but the good ones have at least the feel of the story and write every word to fit that particular mood.

3 Things3

This is sort of a trick question. You ought to be writing for your own sake, because you want to or you need money or some other reason that involves you. Writing is in many ways a selfish occupation, and using it for gain, healing, or entertainment is one of its primary functions for people. You must write for yourself before you can write for anyone else.

But with that note aside, consider your potential audience. You may not plan for your novel to ever see the light of day, which is perfectly alright, but if you have even a smidgen of an inkling that someone other than yourself might someday lay eyes on your work, think about that. Think about the kinds of people your book may attract and ask yourself what you would say to that group if given the chance. If you’re writing a teen romance, who might pick up that book? Teenage girls, of course. So what would you say to a teenage girl? What advice would you have to offer her? Perhaps you might want to remind her that breakups aren’t the end of the world, or her own self-worth is more important than any boy, or there are worse things in life than having zits or nagging mothers.

This isn’t something that you necessarily have to incorporate into your novel. Your theme doesn’t need to revolve around any particular gem of wisdom you have for your audience, but it will likely be influenced by how you answer this question.