The Perils of Being a Pantser

In case you’ve never heard the term, “pantser” is short for seat-of-your-pants. Many writers now call this a “discovery writer”, contrasted with a plotter or outliner.

A plotter structures her story first. She’ll outline – sometimes she’ll have trouble deciding when to stop outlining and start writing. When a plotter sits down to write that first sentence, she knows everything that will happen in her story, including subplots and exactly what will happen when. She can finish the first draft faster, and she’ll probably need fewer rewrites.

A pantser, or discovery writer, begins writing without knowing all that. He knows his characters, setting, the basics of his story. But for a discovery writer, the story changes and evolves as he writes. This can lead to characters and story that seem more alive, but it also makes it easier for the writer to get stuck, with no idea what to write next.

It can also lead to a lot of wasted effort.

For the first half of my novel, I’m a discovery writer. When I get to a certain point, I sit down and do a chart of the novel. Sometimes some of my work has to go.

This is a slow way of writing a novel, but it seems to be the only way for me.

E. L. Doctorow said,   “[Writing is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”*  That’s discovery writing, in a nutshell.

What brought this on? Well, I just threw away two chapters of my work-in-progress. I struggled with them for days. They seemed lifeless and boring. Then I realized my story had changed, behind the scenes so to speak. Now I’m rewriting.

Which is the right method? Neither, or sometimes a hybrid of both. In something as complex as writing a novel, there’s no formula that works for everyone. The most important thing: keep writing, and finish your novel.


*Doctorow quote from an interview in the Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 94, Winter 1986.