This is an age-old difference of opinion in the world of creative writing: To outline before writing or to just start writing and trust the process.
Many people say it’s a waste of time to start writing without knowing where you’re going. These folks are Planners who make outlines and bullet point lists. They like to know how to start, what has to be included, and where to end.
Pantsers on the other hand, (as in fly by the seat of your pants) like to wing it, just start putting words together and see where inspiration guides them. Pantsers like to be surprised.
In the creative writing community we try not to point fingers and make judgments. Still, Planners just don’t understand Pantsers and visa versa.
Which is the “correct” approach? Let’s duke it out in BATTLE OF OPPOSITES: PLANNER VS PANTSER
Pantser is up first:
Yo, so glad to be here and if you think I have written a script on this piece of paper I’m holding too tightly in my hands, well, you’d be wrong. I mean, I sort of tried to write a script but eventually one has to come to terms with one’s personality and accept themselves: I like to wing it.
Like an adrenalin junkie, I love the pressure of having to make a cogent argument without having all of my points and facts and figures on a list. Don’t overthink it; discover it.
Writing is about asking questions and if you already know the answers before you start writing, then there is nothing to uncover. Pansting allows for surprise directions, rhythmic language, ideas you didn’t realize you were thinking about, and fun. That’s right; it’s fun to start writing and not know exactly where your draft will take you.
It’s not like us Pantsers don’t prepare at all. I’ve been thinking about this blog post a lot. Had some good lines come through my head. They went out again, but that’s another story.
Writing is about being flexible. If you know exactly where you are going, then how do you find those unbidden, surprising thoughts or details that promote a bland essay into a conversation sparker?
It’s the wonder of this writing process that never ceases to amaze me and that’s why I proudly call myself a Pantser.
Next, let’s hear it for the Planners:
Have you ever been to London and tried to find your way from Convent Garden to Harrods? It’s impossible. Even the wizened old taxi drivers have to use their A to Zed maps because no knows the damn streets there. Over the past 1,000 years they’ve just added them willy nilly. No organizing principle guiding the layout of that city so you just have to prepare to get lost down the dizzying lanes, squares, walks, and courts.
Now, take Chicago. This urbs in horto, or City in a Garden, was planned out and it shows. It’s easy to find your way around this town. Not only are the streets laid out in a grid, north to south and east to west, but you can always get your directions straight by looking for the tall buildings. They hug the lake, and the lake is to the east. See? Good planning.
You may be wondering what urban planning has to do with good writing. It all comes down to time and not having enough of it. If you spend just a few minutes to outline that essay or write the slide deck titles first, then the rest will come easier. It’s important to make sure you are communicating exactly what needs to be communicated. The end result is just as creative as not planning and your essay is cogent and clear.
We planners are long-term thinkers, considering all the possibilities until landing on just the right one. When you plan ahead, you won’t get stranded in the middle of lane without a taxi in sight.
Who Gets Your Vote?
Whether you identify as Planner or Pantser, I bet you are really a combination. Every good writer includes elements of planning and thinking about what needs to be said. And no matter how well you plan, a good writer will always allow for discovery and the possibility of finding something unexpected.
This is my approach to just about any creative endeavor from writing to painting to cooking to cleaning up my closet. I may spend quite a bit of time thinking about the end result and how I can get there, but once I start the project, intuition takes over and I veer from the plan that I sketched. I know this and I’m okay with it. In fact, that’s the fun of any creative pursuit—not knowing exactly what you’ll end up with.
I like to think of writers and artists as great conversationalists. We like to have an idea of where we want the discussion to head, but we love the challenge and creativity that comes with following a thread or saying, “yes, and.”
So there’s no need to choose; consider yourself a member of both camps. Plan a little, then be willing to get lost. After all, you can always edit your way back.