Pantsing vs Plotting

I can’t believe how often the question of Pantsing vs Plotting comes up in various writing forums. I usually prefer the terms “discovery writing” and “outlining,” but I acknowledge the desire to use alliteration when comparing the two!

These are often portrayed as two opposites, but the reality is that they lie on a spectrum. Most writers naturally fall one way or another, but will switch between them as they write. As such, Fablehenge is designed to support both creative modes.

“Pantsing”, or “discovery writing” or “multi-drafting” is the process of discovering your story as you write it. Heavy-duty discovery writers tend to just start typing and see what comes out. Because “what comes out” tends to be disorganized and full of continuity errors, the “first draft” is usually not very compelling. However, at this point, the author understands what their story is about and is able to craft an outline from it that will inform the second draft.

In contrast, “plotting” or “outlining” is the process of planning your story in detail in advance before you start banging out sentences. An outline-focused writer can usually bang out the first draft very quickly once the outline is completed because they know exactly what is going to happen.

Discovery writers will often say things like “outlining kills the joy of writing,” while outliners consider pantsing to be a waste of time. Neither side is correct, because every author is different.

Personally, I find my story boring once I know what all the pieces are. This suggests that I am a discovery writer, but in fact, I tend to outline my ending and then discovery write my way from the beginning towards some variation of that ending.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter how I write the story, I’m still going to become bored with it once I know how it ends. But regardless of whether I start with an outline or not, “knowing how it ends” is going happen well before I complete 50% of the work. Luckily, I was raised with a “finish what you start” mentality, so I have a lot of training in finishing stuff even after it gets boring.

And that’s the key to finishing a book: you have to finish it. The debate, or question of discovery writing vs outlining is really just about how you start the book. Finishing it is going to involved creating an outline at some point, and you are going to spend a lot of time on revisions regardless of how you started it.

Writing “a story” is so much more than writing a bunch of scenes. You need to go back through it and ensure that foreshadowing happens at the right time, and that people are not in two places at the same time (unless, of course, they are supposed to be — anything is possible in fiction). You have to edit every line to make it sound exactly how you want it to sound, whether that is exquisite prose or without distraction. You have to analyze your character’s motivations at some point, and understand who they really are. This is true regardless of how you met those characters. You have to hit your plot beats and you have to reveal things at just the right time; not too soon and not too late.

Some of those decisions happen earlier for outliners than for discovery writers, and others can only be handled in the revision process either way.

It doesn’t matter how you start. It matters that you finish.