Do you plan your story meticulously or write by the seat of your pants?
Broadly speaking, those of us who pursue the writing life fall into two camps: those who plan (planners or plotters), and those who write by the seat of their pants (pantsers). Both approaches are perfectly valid, but vastly different. Not to say these are the only two approaches, but most others are variations of them.
I’ve written by the seat of my pants for years. I always had a vague notion of an idea, sat down, and wrote. As I was usually writing what I consider short fiction or short non-fiction—articles, short stories, scripts—this worked fairly well. I generally worked on projects ideal for the sort of creative freedom such an approach provokes.
When it came to planning or plotting, I worried that to notate and research everything I could about my story, my characters, my setting and—horror of horrors—create an outline, could only hinder my creativity. I recall feeling certain that if I worried at an idea too long I’d wring all the life out of it before I could get it all down.
It was never a conscious decision, but one day, I began to plan. I carried a journal with me everywhere. I jotted down every little notion I had and watched my idea change and grow over the months until everything began to solidify into a coherent whole. I even wrote out entire scenes with dialogue and description if I needed to see how a particular moment would work. As the details of the story grew more complex and believable, I realized I was hooked on the process.
Could I have done this all electronically? Yes, of course. I do have extensive documents on my computer, but the journals were for brainstorming. I wrote down ideas and answered questions as they came to mind without worrying about format or organization. It was an informal method. I wrote to myself and for myself with no thought that any other soul would ever see the journals. Later, I transferred everything onto my computer dividing character details, background, world building, politics, and plot summaries into their own documents. I keep the journals in case my computer, my backups, and my brain all fail at once. I don’t want to be unable to recreate it all.
What surprised me most was how rewarding it was. I began to feel like I was accomplishing something. I began to see my story take shape. This made me want to pull out the journal more and more often. I wrote during breaks at work in waiting rooms at doctors’ offices and car repair shops, and banks. Anywhere I had to wait, I used the time to further my story. The more I planned, the more questions I answered about the world I was creating, the more my confidence grew.
I became immersed in my writing in a way the freewheeling approach hadn’t allowed and after months of planning, I sat down to write.
Now, writing from an outline sounds like a chore, but I think that’s because most people assume that they’re tied to the outline. Tied, chained, yoked, imprisoned…I know that’s what I thought. The truth is the outline isn’t carved in granite. You can revise it as many times as you need. Start writing, and if the scene you thought was going in chapter twenty-two would work better in chapter five put it there. If it doesn’t work at all, delete it. Move on to the next idea.
What I learned doing this is that the planning makes you a more confident writer. Being confident that you know and understand the story you’re writing from the very first sentence means you have less of a tendency to come to a complete halt in the writing process just because a question comes up that you hadn’t considered. Even if that happened, you know you can deal with it because you’ve been doing just that for months.
None of this means I’m never going to write by the seat of my pants again. I will probably do just that from time to time. I’ll decide project by project. The liberating thing about this is that I’ve broadened my approach. I have more options than I ever did before. So am I a planner or a pantser? I can honestly say I’m both.