Fighting words, or musings on pantsing vs. plotting

My friend, and fellow science fiction writer, Bud Sparhawk has some fighting words for me this morning. For context, before continuing, you should go read his post. Bud and I have given several talks on online writing tools, and pantsing vs. plotting at various science fiction conventions. Today, however, Bud made it clear that he feels plotting is the superior form of writing. While I can’t deny that it might be superior for some, I can say that it doesn’t work well for me. And so let me take up each of Bud’s jabs one at a time to give a little of my perspective of this heated debate1

“Life is largely unplotted…”

Bud writes:

Jamie writes by the seat of his pants –which is akin to running with scissors IMHO– while I choose the wiser and more prudent course of carefully plotting my works.

While it is probably beside the point, I was always taught that there is a right way and a wrong way to run with scissors. Or perhaps, a safe way, and a dangerous way. On those rare instances where I run with scissors, I opt for the safe way, holding blades curled in my fist to prevent myself from stabbing anyone, especially me.

But Bud also goes on to say that he chooses the “wiser” and “more prudent” course, and that is carefully plotting out everything he writes.

It might be wiser and more prudent for Bud, but it just doesn’t work for me. When I try to plot out my stories, the result is stories that are too neatly plotted. Everything fits together too well. Coincidence rears its head more often than it should. In other words, the stories feel plotted.

Instead, I have become a big believer in Stephen King’s suggestion that life is largely unplotted. For me, planning out too much makes the stories feel artificial. I prefer a more natural approach where the plot develops from the situation the characters find themselves in and the actions that they take. This has worked well for me. The stories I write organically, without planning every step of the way, have sold faster, and in general been more successful than those that I have carefully plotted out.

Practice makes perfect

Bud goes on to talk about my prodigious output, although he exaggerates slightly. While I have been aiming for a 1,000 words/day, I average about 850. But I do write every day, and haven’t missed a day in 656 days now. In those 656 days, I’ve written 575,000 words. So Bud is right; I write a lot.

But then, my plotting friend goes on to say:

Instead, due to his hasty and impetuous headlong dash to finish something he has to throw out most of his words, edit with a chainsaw, and rewriting practically everything.  From this I draw the conclusion that writing by the seat of your pants is wasteful of time and talent. (Emphasis is mine.)

Here is where Bud and I part company. Would a music teacher say that it is a wasteful to practice your scales? Would a medical school professor tell students it is a waste of time and talent to intern? Would professional baseball player say that it is a waste of time to practice hitting in the batting cage? Would a flight instructor tell a student pilot that it is a waste of time time practice takeoffs and landing?

Then why do we think that it is a waste of time for writers to write. Bud is correct: I write a lot, and much of it gets re-written from scratch. But I don’t see it as wasteful of time; I see it as the practice I need to develop my talent. I know of no other way to become a better writer than to write. For me, the proof is in the numbers. Prior to writing every day, I sold 1 story on average every 3 years. Since my writing streak started, I’ve sold one story or article every 45 days.

Pantsing and plotting are not opposites

I find that people think pantsing means that opposite of plotting–no planning at all. For me, at least, that is not the case. I know where my story will start, and I have an idea of where it will end. Then I start writing, working my way toward that ending. The planning happens more informally, more in realtime than it might if I plotted it out. Sometimes I hit my mark, and the story ends where I imagined it would when I started. Other times, the story surprises me. The same is true for those, like Bud, who plot everything out ahead of time.

But I also need the writing experience to be a discovery for me. Plotting out things ahead of time has the same effect on me as talking about my stories: it spoils the excitement of the story.

The most important thing is to write

Bud is a more experienced writer than I am2 and can put that experience to better use than someone with less experience. But as I see it, the only way to gain experience is to write. It doesn’t really matter whether you are a plotter or pantser. What matters is that you find the process that works best for you, the one that feels right, the one that encourages you to keep at it day after day after day, through the rough patches, and through the rejections. The most important thing is to keep writing.

  1. Not really heated. Bud and I are friends and this is, of course, all in good fun.
  2. Isn’t that a great way of saying he’s much older than me?

2 thoughts on “Fighting words, or musings on pantsing vs. plotting

  1. I agree with you conclusion, Jamie, that the only right way to write is the one that works for that individual writer. Personally, I’ve been both a pantser and a plotter. I find that what works best for me can vary from one project to the next, though I typically find joy somewhere in between the two.

    For my current project, I’m trying out something that Chuck Wendig has suggested: writing an outline in screenplay format. The result for me thus far is something that’s not quite a first draft but much more robust and detailed than an outline. It’s working so far. We’ll see what happens next.

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