I’m a pantser. No, that doesn’t mean I have a particularly strong penchant for jeans or that I slip on a pair of shorts every morning because I think pants are amazing (even though they are). Rather, it means that I don’t outline my writing before I begin. Mind you, this is only true for creative writing. I’d be lost if I didn’t outline that super long history paper I haven’t begun that’s totally not due tomorrow…
Now, I believe there are merits to both pantsing and outlining and that different methods work well for different writers. In this article, I will focus on the merits of pantsing, even though some of my favorite writers are avid outliners. JK Rowling, for example, thoroughly outlined her series before putting even a single word down on paper. A few other popular writers who outlined are Earnest Hemmingway, James Salter, and Jennifer Egan. If you’re interested in famous authors’ pre-writing plans like I am, you can check out this fantastic article.
With that being said, here’s why I don’t outline before I write:
1. I can’t. I just can’t.
I’ll admit it: I’m not good at coming up with outlines. If I’m left to my own devices, I will come up with something unbearably simple like: A girl goes to the grocery store, slips on a banana peel, and then has to be rushed to the hospital, the end. See — not very captivating.
Writers who have a whole story, or at least a vague sense of where their story is going, in their heads amaze me. For example, John Irving begins by writing the last scene in his story before writing anything that comes before it. Writers like Joyce Carol Oates have even gone so far as to claim, “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written” (Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Milazzo (1989). “Conversations with Joyce Carol Oates”, p.140, Univ. Press of Mississippi). I disagree with this. For me, it is much simpler to start with a small kernel of an idea. Ideas come from everywhere — that conversation I overheard in Wiggins, that scene I read in that book, that scene I saw in that movie, etc. My hands bouncing over the keyboard, I will grow the kernel and see where it takes me, all the while keeping in mind that writing is rewriting and I can come back and check for clarity if need be. Simply put, I don’t have the whole story in my head right away, so I have to start small, grow it big, and cross my fingers and hope for the best.
2. The first draft is a big brain dump I just need to get out. If I think too much about it, I’ll freeze up and it won’t feel right.
When I sit down to write a story and think ‘I have to write this perfect story according to this perfect outline,’ I can’t do it. I’ll write too carefully, thinking too much about every plot point I need to touch on. To write productively, I need to write freeflow, allowing my brain to dump all my ideas on the page; otherwise, the story will feel contrived. Again, I remind myself that I can come back and smooth out the discrepancies later.
For me, character drives plot, not vice-versa, so I need to know the character before I can know the plot. To do this, I need to just start writing my character and see where that takes me. This brings me to my next point…
3. I discover my character while I am writing the story.
What I love about Creative Writing on the fly is that, like the reader, when I begin writing a character, I don’t know them. Sure, maybe I know their appearance and a few simple facts, but that’s it. It’s just like when you’re meeting someone new. At first, you only know them on a fact-based level. Then, once you develop a relationship and discover all that is great about them, you also learn all their flaws and imperfections. You discover their humanity. At its core, I think storytelling is about humanity, and that’s why I need to discover my character’s humanity (or lack thereof) along with my reader.
4. A predetermined plot is not as interesting to me. I want to go on the ride along with my character.
Stories are exciting because they are packed with so much possibility. Anything can happen. I don’t want to follow a path that has already been laid out before me because I find that boring. I want to run through the hills and climb up the mountains with my characters. I don’t want to see the terrain in front of me because I want to be surprised by the sights and sounds I discover. Those elements of surprise and discovery are what makes creative writing fun for me.
Although planning works for some writers, others like me prefer to pants it out. Although a part of me wishes I was smart enough to form fully fleshed-out ideas in my head in advance, I realize I don’t and am okay with that. In fact, I find it liberating. Pantsing allows me the freedom to pour my ideas out on the page without pressure, grow my small idea into something big, and to buckle in tight and go on an emotional roller coaster of surprise and discovery with my character.