Disclaimer: If you’re not a writer, this post is likely to bore your socks off, for which I apologize. I also refuse to take responsibility for your sockless state, so please don’t harangue me about your cold feet.
Lately I’ve noticed quite a few posts weighing in on the great pantsing versus plotting divide. I wish I could say that this was something new, but if you’re a writer connected even very loosely with social media, I think you’ll have to agree that this debate rears its woolly head at least once a month, sometimes once a week. Being a sucker for punishment, I read quite a few of those posts, and at the risk of being tedious, I thought oh, what the hey, why not chime in with some of my own (possibly obnoxious) observations.
Have you noticed that there’s a pejorative connotation to the term “pantsing”? “Plotting” and “outlining” sound so much more…professional, organized, efficient, planny. (Shut up, planny is perfectly acceptable English, thank you for your lexical concern.) “Pantsing,” on the other hand, with its implication of a writing process that leaves one’s ass hanging in the breeze, implies that the writer is careless, sloppy, disrespectful of her craft.
I’ve read a lot of posts slamming “pantsers.” Sometimes the slam is an up front, in your face declaration that pantsing is just plain wrong-headed, that pantsers will necessarily end up taking far longer to finish their novels than the the more disciplined outliners. (This may be true, I don’t know, but (a) since when did this become a race? and (b) I’ve read posts where people talk about having spent months on their outlines too.)
Sometimes, and this is more the norm, the slam is more subtle–just as slammy, but slammy in an “everybody has their own process, of course, but clearly some processes are more delusional than others” way. The poster will say things like, “of course, a lot of pantsers are plotters/outliners and just don’t realize it.” Or “we all have to find what works best for us, but beginning writers will find the journey much smoother if they use the outlining method.” Or “there’s no right way to do this, but as a former pantser I can tell you that outlining really does streamline the process and saves no end of grief.” The old it happened to me therefore the experience must be universal perspective.
The Finger-Pointing and Mockery
I’ve also read a lot of posts that talk about the defensiveness of pantsers, their stubbornness, their unwillingness to try a different method. Oh, and then there are the mocking posts: “Pantsers say that outlining sucks all the creative joy from the writing process. Poor delicate flowers. Maybe they should find another hobby.” “Pantsing is like setting out on a journey with no map, no compass, and no idea where you’re headed.” Like that’s a bad thing. Pantsers are accused of pursuing a “romantic vision,” (again, like this is a bad thing), and being
You may find this one hard to believe, but one blogger suggested that a writer who lets her/his characters dictate the direction of the story meant that the writer was stealing other people’s ideas, because clearly her/his subconscious would be incapable of coming up with any original ideas. Seriously. I read that. With my own boggling eyes.
You’re probably going to tell me there are a bazillion and forty-two posts out there extolling the virtues of pantsing and slamming plotters, and perhaps you’re right. Maybe my Twitter feed is skewed in one direction, who can say? All I know is that, from my reading, the trending opinion seems to be that plotting and pantsing are both valid approaches, except pantsing really isn’t.
For me the bottom line is this: there are as many ghastly novels penned by plotters as pantsers (I know, because I’ve read quite a few of them), and there are as many roads into a story as there are stories. If one approach works for you, rock on, my friend, but please refrain from trying to convert your fellow writers to your interpretation of the creative gospel. By all means share your successes, because those are always delightful to hear and may be instructive to others struggling to find their own paths. All I’m asking is that you make some small, genuine effort to accept that there are other, equally valid paths, and to forego the sneering because, honestly? It just makes you look like an asshat.
When I was thinking about this post, I visited the The Paris Review Interviews site to see how some highly regarded published authors work their writing mojo. Unsurprisingly, there is no agreement on on process. I didn’t do a head count, but a healthy percentage of those authors outline, a healthy percentage say “never!”, and another respectable percentage adopt(ed) what the kids are now calling the “plantser” approach–a hybrid, best of both worlds reconciliation of plotting and pantsing techniques.
And, in the interests of full disclosure, that brings me to my own process, which is exactly that, a great wodge of pantsing leavened by the judicious addition of plotting when I get stuck. It’s not relevant to the debate, though, and if I’m ever published, it still won’t be relevant. We all have our own processes, and what works for you, or me, or Stephen King, or Cormac McCarthy, or John Irving won’t yank the next newbie writer out of their quagmire of a plot hole if their own unique process keeps dragging them in a different direction.
Now, if I was going to behave myself, I’d end this post with the usual “so, tell me, are you a plotter or a pantser,” but to be brutally honest, I couldn’t really give a toss. All I care about is that you’ve been able to find a process that works for you. The nuts and bolts of that process are your business.
So, instead let me ask you whether you think this ridiculous debate is ever going to die, and, if so, what can we do to hasten its grossly overdue demise? And, yes, I do realize that this post isn’t exactly doing its part to let the issue die. *shakes fist at self*