Plotting vs Pantsing

What are the differences between plotting a book and pantsing one? What are the pros and cons of both? Here are my thoughts.

Megan Eisentraut

3/4/20243 min read

Prior to two years ago, I had no idea there were different ways to write. I assumed that everyone sat down with a rough layout of what they wanted to happen and just started writing. When I sat in a Novel Writing class, I discovered I was very very wrong. Not only are there two vastly different styles of writing, but there is a spectrum between them.

On one side of the scale, you have the pantser. This person is named this way because they "write by the seat of their pants." They sit down with a plot idea or a character, start writing, and decide to see where it goes. This person has a lot of fun with writing, more WIPs than can be accounted for, and tragically, abandons a lot of ideas.

On the other side of the scale, you have the plotter. This person sits down to meticulously write out everything they want to happen during the entire span of the book. They are excellent at foreshadowing and they have finish everything the write, but they can also lose the joy they have in their WIP very quickly.

I found that I am somewhere in the middle. There are some days when I plot out exactly what I want to happen in the next few chapters, and there are some days when I sit down and just start writing. Typically, I find that I have a general goal for my writing. I have a plot point I'm trying to reach, an emotional place I need my main character to get to, or sometimes both. Then, there are times when I throw all caution to the wind and decide to spice up the drama or conflict. Three weeks ago, I woke up and chose to be a problem. That morning, I decided that because I felt like it, I was going to make my characters' lives very complicated. The good news is that they're fictional and can't complain. The bad news is that it meant I spent the next few days writing myself out of the problems I caused.

I couldn't tell you which draft of my novel I'm on. I've been working on this book for six years. I have loved every second of it, but it has also changed drastically from the original version. What started as a cute romance has turned into a book with assassins, war, and political intrigue. I think it's important for writers to find value in both sides of the pantser-plotter spectrum. If I was pantsing the entire book, I would have quickly given up after I realized the original romance had interesting characters, but really no plot. Instead, I was able to sit back and let the plotting side of my brain take over. I looked at the characters and the original storyline and thought about different ways I could expand it. I dug into character motivations and personalities and thought about different ways to tell the story.

Now, the book that I have fallen in love with over the last six years is wildly different than the original version. Granted- so am I. Writers, don't stifle your creativity by refusing to think outside the box, but don't get so caught on the importance of details that your WIP never leaves the "book ideas" notebook or list we all carry around with us. There is great value in both, and both sides of the spectrum are needed to write an incredible book. You also need to remember that this is not something that defines you.

If you pigeonholed yourself onto one side of the spectrum or the other, you will be trapped, and all creative juices will come to a halt. When I found myself stuck with writers block, I found that I had been plotting too closely. I was so wrapped up in the details of everything that I planned to happen that I forgot that I loved writing. It wasn't until I started working on a fun side project that I let myself write entirely by the seat of my pants and go wild that I remembered that joy. It is okay to use them when you need to use them. There is a time and place for knowing exactly what needs to happen, and a time and place for throwing caution to the wind and writing out whatever comes to mind.

When it comes to plotting or pantsing, one is not superior to the other. The spectrum is there for a reason. Embrace the joy of knowing there are so many different types of writers, and so many different ways to write. There is beauty in our differences as writers. For now, sit back and plot out your next scene. Or... just write it and see what happens.