I heard a term yesterday for the type of writer I am: a pantser. This week I have been trying unsuccessfully to revise a growing pile of manuscripts. My critique partner, critique group, and husband have been kind enough to read drafts and give feedback, and now it’s up to me rewrite. Which I don’t want to do. Revising is excruciating compared to putting words on the page in the first place. And I think that may be because I’m a pantser.
“The term for writers who write by the seat of their pants, that don’t outline from the get-go, they’re called ‘pantsers,’ right?” – James Monohan, The Narrative Breakdown Revision Techniques 1 podcast
Outliners, as the name suggests, outline their work before they begin. This gives them the benefit of structuring their work, of knowing what they want to say, when they want to say it, and ultimately, what their point will be when they sit down to write their piece. They have a dress maker’s form dialed to all the right measurements, they have their design drawn, their fabrics selected. They know the color scheme, and they know their colors work together. They have an entire outfit in their mind’s eye before they begin to sew, and all they then have to do is dress their form.
Pantsers, on the other hand, just start writing. As James Monohan and Cheryl Klein laugh about in their excellent podcast, pantsers don’t know where they’re going or where they’re going to end up. Pantsers run on the white heat, the excitement, the thrill of discovery. As a designer, a pantser would wander around a fabric store, her heart fluttering with each new suede, or silk, and she would buy every fabric she likes the texture of, or the color. She doesn’t think about whether the fabrics will actually work together. She knows she might want to make a skirt and top, but hey, it could be a dress too. When she gets back to her studio, she dumps her haul on the table and designs by feel, each placement of fabric a new discovery.
Mononhan and Klein discuss the benefits and downfalls for both types of writers in their podcast – by following a rigid plan, outliners may may miss out on the thrill of discovery that pantsers so frequently enjoy, and by writing without a plan, pantsers may end up with a mess of sentences that are great on their own, but don’t harmonize as a coordinated ensemble.
That latter – a mess of words that don’t work towards a unified goal – brings me to my ultimate point, which is that, as a pantser, I often don’t have an ultimate point. Each critique returns with, “This is great, but I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here. You’ve got a lot of directions you can go, but what is your goal with this? What do you want the reader to walk away with?” And I realize that I have lots of goals, and like most writers, I don’t want to part with any of them. I don’t want to put that skirt back just because I don’t have anything to go with it. The designer doesn’t want to ditch the suede even though it doesn’t work with the silk in her garment.
One of my New Years resolutions this year was to update my wardrobe so that my closet is filled with timeless pieces, so that I can better coordinate my clothes and feel less like a raggedy college kid and more like a polished woman. I have come a long way with that goal, and consequently, I feel confident and put together when I walk out the door. I want my writing to feel that way, too. Though I hate to cut this paragraph, or that sentence, doing so will make the piece more confident and put together if I edit towards a coordinated ensemble. And then, if I am still attached, like I am to a favorite blouse, I can pair the cut words with new thoughts to craft another design.
Luckily, Monohan and Klein gave some great advice on how to revise towards a polished, put together piece, even if you’re a pantser. I found two strategies that will help get me started:
1. If you are not an outliner, write by the seat of your pants to get your first draft. Once your ideas are on the page, go back and write an outline to help you better organize the construction of the finished piece. The outline will help you with the flow, find gaps that need to be filled, and see superfluous paragraphs that can be saved for another piece.
2. If you feel like you’ve got a lot of great ideas going on, but are struggling with cutting, or figuring out what your most important takeaway is, or what your point is, write a letter to a friend describing your piece – what sparked it to begin with, what your goals were in exploring the ideas, what your story is about, what you love about it, which parts you know aren’t working, and what you want the reader to walk away with. You don’t have to send the letter, but the act of writing it will help you figure out your goals and how to accomplish them.
Unfortunately, even though I am a step closer to starting my revisions (I listened to the podcast, right?), I am avoiding them by writing this instead. So I ask you, dear readers and writers, are you an outliner or a pantser? How do you think your writing style affects your feelings about rewriting, and how do you approach revisions? This is new territory for me as I transition from blogging (where, I admit, I publish first drafts) to submitting work for publication (where revision is critical). Give me a pep talk. Give me advice. And please feel free to link to articles that have helped you out. Thanks!
In The Narrative Breakdown, Cheryl Klein, James Monohan, and other guest co-hosts discuss storytelling tips and techniques of interest to any writer, student, or fan of quality creative writing, screenwriting, playwriting, fan fiction, English literature, etc.
18 thoughts on “Are you a pantser?”
I tell myself that picking one thing doesn’t mean abandoning the others. While (Capote?) said “kill your darlings” I think you can, less violently!, ask some of your darlings to take a potty break whilst you focus on others. It’s like single-focus-tasking instead of multi-tasking … by giving all your attention to (one) piece/sentiment/theme, you are more likely to create a memorable feast for your readers and less likely to overwhelm them with an overcrowded noisy cocktail party. Can I mix any more metaphors and win some sort of incoherent comment award, please?
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I totally got all of your metaphors, Les 😀 Maybe it’s that flitty mind thing… Love the cocktail party metaphor best – that will help me tons, especially since I enjoy and appreciate an intimate dinner conversation more than a noisy party. Thank you!
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I’m definitely a pantser. I don’t think about it, I just do it. Revision and all. I’m not one to give advice, as I’m not a published writer yet, but I think it is always better to go with the flow. 🙂
You don’t have to be published to have a method that works for you. I can often get out of my way on the first writing, but not with revisions. I get completely overwhelmed and can’t find a flow to go with. I’m hoping the letter to a friend will help with that. But thank you for the reminder to be easy!
I’m new to your blog, but am already really enjoying it. Thanks! And, of course you are a punster, with a blog name of “Butterfly Mind”! That is the fun of it. But, I really appreciate your links and advice.
Sorry… that’s to be “pantster”, despite what autocorrect thinks!
Thanks Barbara! Yes, I thought this post fit nicely with the Butterfly Mind theme. And sometimes I’m a punster too 😉
I love this term! Great post.
Isn’t that fun?! I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I’m a little of both, really. Outlining tends to consolidate your ideas, but, pantsing can lead you to the magic realm of the story writing itself, or the feeling of such.
Yes, to me the pantsing is the fun of writing – its what keeps me coming back. Outlining, as is evidenced by my resistance to doing it, kills the spirit for me. But I think it would make my finished products better, which is why maybe spilling the story first, then coming back with an outline might work.
Do you outline first when you outline? Or go back and forth? And do you approach different kinds of writing differently? Like perhaps outline an essay, but pants a short story?
Pretty much I outline fiction and pants non-fiction. When I do outline, I outline first, a sort of linear structural device. I might go back and change something but it helps keep me from going off on tangents. That helps with the editing process.
Honestly, I’ve found that the most fun I have with a certain work is the research, beforehand. Even if I abandon a project, I’ve learned something going into it.
If I try to outline my writing, I tend to get bogged down at that point. I feel you just gotta let the words fly.
Wow! . . .and how many revisions did this fine post go through? : )
Thanks for giving us something to chew. 65% pantser, 35% outliner, that’s me. Writing a letter to a friend? Too difficult for the pantser in me! If I cannot find a sparring partner to talk it over with, I leave the ‘rambling’ article for a day or two, by which time the outliner in me would have fully resurrected, ready to tame those unruly sentences without mercy! 🙂
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