The Writers Circle: Planning vs. Pantsing

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Do you plan your pieces out before beginning to write? If you are a planner, what tools do you use to keep track of your outlines or other plans before writing?

Or do you jump right into the blank page and start writing by the seat of your pants? If you are a “pantser”, do you have any tricks or strategies for keeping your story on track?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.


13 thoughts on “The Writers Circle: Planning vs. Pantsing

  1. Both! When I plan, it is usually for larger pieces requiring strategies to ensure cohesiveness, plot, and historical accuracy. I use a notebook to assemble and organize ideas for easy reference. Though I enjoy writing in my mind, I fear (and always do) forgetting most of my brilliant ideas by the time I get them recorded, so I am mostly a “pantser!” I love the ideas that flow once I start writing. I keep my story on track by keeping my main objective in mind, and spending more time editing than writing. I keep files for edited bits that I can’t completely let go of, in case I want to use them somewhere else.

    Some of us are simply wired to be planners, in all we do, while others more spontaneous and flexible. It helps to blend the two tendencies, gleaning benefits from both while minimizing the negative effects of being obsessively one way or the other!

  2. I was a confirmed Pantser for many, many years and the result was an untidy trail of never-ending-stories. These days, I manage to include a little bit of planning before I set off on a new novel, but many things can (and are allowed to) change before I reach the end. Although I plan out my character’s days (roughly, it has to be said) on a spreadsheet, the end result is often very different from the plan. However, as long as the end is reached, I am content. I liken my process to nailing down a snake (whose tail has already been secured to the plank) The beginning is set, the end is known, but the flexible middle can thrash around and create inticate and often surprising shapes as I write.

  3. I haven’t been writing a whole lot yet, but one thing I do know is I am NOT a panster. When it comes to writing on a deadline or meeting daily word-count goals, I MUST have a plan. Yes, once I get going, it’s great! But I’m not a fan of wasting 45 minutes of my one-hour dedicated time to write staring at a blank Word document.

    My next attempt at writing a novel (this year’s NaNoWirMo) will be plan based, a first for me. I’ve been doing my research and have settled on a simple planning method, combining two awesome blog posts/articles I found, one of them being The Snowflake Method, and the other being a milder twist on it. Notebook and pen, we’ll see how that goes!

  4. I wrote a blog post a while back that went over this topic. ( I am a planner in every sense of the word. My first WIP I planned with a three-page outline. I’m getting close to that length with my NaNo plan. That said, I’m working on another story right now where I’m trying to fly by the seat of my pants! So far, so good (though I admit I’ve planned it out in my head).
    As far as outlining, I use standard Microsoft Word for it. The best advice I got was to write to the plan for about half of the novel, then take stock of what I’ve written and re-plan the back half in light of what’s already happened. I did this without thinking about it with my first WIP and I plan to do it on my NaNo as well.

  5. I’m a planner. I start the WIP on an Excel spreadsheet, putting plot points as rows. Then I add character details (inserting rows, moving them around). I track which plot points/character details need to be followed up in a unique column.

    I may sound too organized. I worry about that. I posted about this on my blog ( and a reader shared that JK Rowling uses a spreadsheet. I even added a picture of it to my post. She hand-writes hers! My hand hurts just looking at it.

  6. I’m with Joan and Andrew on this. Like Joan, I can’t bear the idea of losing a great scene or piece of dialogue. Writing also has to have an element of spontaneity or it just feels like a technical exercise to me.
    Plus most of my ideas come from some dark place within my subconscious and I often have no way of knowing what’s going to come out until it does.
    Conversely, I do keep a chapter plan that contains notes on key elements, a detailed timeline, basic biographical details on characters (DOB etc) and often a map so that I don’t have any continuity errors creeping into my stories.
    I’ve tried nailing the snake to the wall but sometimes its head thrashes around!

  7. When I was a teenager, Dungeons and Dragons was a popular roleplaying game. Kids all around would sit there playing for hours, coming up with vivid and imaginative story lines as they did so, all under the guidance of the Dungeon Master. I, however, was not one of those kids. I enjoyed stting there with the blank sheet of paper and my set of specialized dice, rolling and spinning them to create cool characters just so I could give them silly names. I’d then write those characters into short stories, just to see how someone with a little bit more toughness or a little bit of magic in them could fare out, all alone, in the universe. There was no script or “Master”… there were only the random characters and situations I put them in.

    Since that point in my life, I’ve grown up. Every aspect of my life is scripted, scheduled and planned. Kids’ schedules, work deadlines, tv schedules, sporting event schedules, garden planting and harvesting schedules (to name a few). I wake up at the same time every morning and go to bed right around the same time every night, eat meals at around the same designated times each day and make sure to take these pills (meant to help keep me able to stay on all of these schedules for many more years) at the same time each day.

    All of this would lead you to believe that I’m a natural planner when it comes to writng. And in this you would be misled. I have probably planned about two writing projects in my life. Even when I was writing research papers in high school and they required me to “first do an outline”, I would write the whole paper and then create the outline from it (added benefit: I was always done with those nasty papers really early, leaving me more time to experiment on my D&D characters).

    I find it somewhat freeing to write by the seat of my pants and just see where the story goes. Sure, there is often a bit of extraneous stuff or even entire chapters that have no purpose. But often the story goes in exciting directions that I’d have never anticipated, directions which make the story better.

    There have been a few times where I’ve known what I wanted the ending to be but had no idea how I’d get there, so I’d start the story and just keep writing until the ending I wanted appeared on the page. But usually it’s a blank page and I write down the first words that come to mind, or I write down what I can see out the window or what the steam rising from my coffee looks like and then I just forget to stop writing.

    I *have* tried doing the outline thing for creative fiction from time to time, but I usually either just cannot do the outline at all, or I complete the outline and can’t write the story because “I already know the ending”. I truly want to be able to do the planning thing, though — at least to some degree — because I think there is a happy medium somewhere in there where I can work out some of the awkward bits ahead of time without knowing what the last page says before I start writing. So I will keep trying as an effort to improve my writing.

  8. An idea will take hold of me, oatmeal gluing on my brain and just as impossible to scrape off, and I start writing, fast as I can, ignoring the grammar and spelling errors. Then I slow down and start organizing, writing character bios, timelines, and plot points. I start researching and setting up support files, then get into my kind of outline, which is really a synopsis of what I plan to write, divided by chapter titles. So, a weird olio of pants that may not fit well and scatterbrained planning. No official writer’s programs, all Word docs. Works for me.

  9. I am a complete pantser. Okay, maybe not entirely. Usually, I get an idea froma song or something, daydream a scene, then start writing a story to which it could belong to. Usually I never get to write down that scene, though, because I abandon my story too fast. XD

  10. I do both! I usually plan my works up to about the first 100 pages, or ten chapters. After that, I pants it out, allowing the story to unfold by itself. I think a combination of planning and pantsing works well because I allow myself to be creative without always having to stick to a rigid plan.

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