Can Writers Actually Plan Ahead, or is it a Waste of Time Trying?

Planners, listen up.

I am a planner. I rarely accomplish anything if I don’t have a to-do list. I like to know where I’m going before I get there. I plan trips months in advance. I’ve had a list of things I wanted to accomplish before I turned 30 since I was 24.

I am a planner … at least, in every area of my life except for writing.

As a writer, I plan almost nothing in advance. And that’s the way I personally like it.

However, just because I do something a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the best way for everyone. Some people are hyper-organized planners only in their creative endeavors. And many wonder if planning anything out before you sit down to write is even worth it.

Here’s what I have come to believe about balancing organization and spontaneity as a creator.

To me, writing is the most fun when I don’t know everything that’s coming my way. In this realm, at least, I love being surprised. I love when my characters seemingly make their own choices, when I stumble upon information I didn’t expect to find, when things start going in a different direction than I ever would have been able to plan for.

Meg Cabot (author, and my original inspiration for writing all the things) has said that when she sits down to write a novel, she prefers knowing how it begins, a little bit about its middle, and a small fragment of its end. She never wants to know everything going in. And I loved that approach the second I heard it, and still prefer it today.

While I do think you need to have some idea of where you’re headed, I don’t think you should spend all your time planning everything out to the last detail. Because you could end up:

  • Spending all your time/energy on outlines and details and never actually writing
  • Getting bored with planning and mistaking that to mean you don’t want to write the story
  • Getting stuck when a detail you planned isn’t working or your story wants to go a different direction.

I honestly think a lot of writers unintentionally end up trapping themselves in their own outlines and never end up finishing what they start because they feel like they can’t stray from the original path they created.

But the reality is, you forged the path, and you can choose not to follow it. But it’s much easier when you know the general way you want to go but don’t have a set path for getting there. Yet.

So don’t approach writing thinking you can’t plan anything. Or that you’re a “bad” writer if you never plan anything at all. A little spontaneity is good for creativity. But every individual is different, and some people need to have at least a loose outline of what they want to accomplish or they’ll never end up doing anything.

The takeaway here is that yes, you can plan ahead if it makes you feel more secure or motivates you to write. But it’s not worth it if you spend all your time planning and none actually writing. If you notice that you do a lot of outlining, for example, but have never actually finished even a small writing project, maybe you should try planning less and writing more. At this point, you have nothing to lose.

Planners, pantsers, in-betweeners — we’re all just here to do the writing thing. However you do it really doesn’t matter in the end, as long as it actually gets done. Writing is more important than planning, but if planning is what gets you writing, keep on drafting those outlines. You got this.


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.


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7 thoughts on “Can Writers Actually Plan Ahead, or is it a Waste of Time Trying?

  1. I wish I could say I was a planner. My problem is my while I know how to get my characters from point a to b, it’s sometimes a little like herding cats. A character says something, and the next thing I know we’re off somewhere doing something, A classic example is recently I was working on a piece, and it turns out that Will’s wife is an accomplished horse rider. Suddenly she’s telling him stuff about how he’s doing his saddle blanket wrong. It was just an aside, but it was never planned. it just happened.

    1. This happens to me almost daily. I kind of just have to go with it and remember that if it doesn’t make it into the final draft, it’s not the end of the world. :P haha

  2. Registered plantser here, chiming in with a me-too. I need a setting, a direction, and a vague idea of a goal. Everything else just fills in as I learn more about my characters wants, the world they live in, and what stands in their way.

  3. While I operate as a very concrete-sequential person, I appreciate seeing where my writing will take me. This flexibility brings freshness and new ideas into my writing. For my writing purposes, I keep my notebook close by. An idea this morning may lead to a finished product quickly or in several days. The only expectation that I have is to keep writing on a regular basis. The ideas for a poem can come from so many sources, and writing a short story is like experiencing evolution first-hand.

  4. I definitely favor at least a vague outline, though I never bind myself to it. I find it useful to have something to “react to”. I start writing what I’ve outlined, and if it doesn’t work (which is more often than not), the fact that it doesn’t work gives me some guidance on where to go next. Once I start thinking in terms of “less x” and “more y”, it’s easy to keep writing, in contrast with the infinitely vague possibilities that often confront me when I approach something with no pre-existing ideas for what comes next.
    I think it’s important to always stay open to the possibility of change, that something won’t work, so that one can continue writing (and revising) until the story works. Anything is possible. Just a matter of trying something and seeing if it makes the story stronger or not.
    I do agree that it’s easy for a writer to stay in the outline phase, similar to the concept of “world builder’s disease”. Writing the actual story can be very daunting, but at some point we have to do it, or admit we never will.

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