If you’re a writer who creates outlines for your stories before you write them, or does any kind of pre-writing prep work like character sketches, you’re generally considered a planner. And if you’re someone who gets an idea, sits down and starts to write — sometimes without jotting down even a single note before you start — you’re a pantser.
There are pros and cons to both of these approaches to writing — and the good news is, neither one is necessarily “better” than the other. Each individual is different, and prefers to go about their writing in different ways.
But if you’re traditionally a planner who is interested in loosening up a little, there’s more good news: You can learn to be less of a planner, less of a worrier, and a more productive writer overall.
Here’s why writing a little more “loosely” can be a good thing — and how to train yourself to embrace more spontaneity.
Is it bad to be a planner? Absolutely not! If you’ve come across this blog before, you hopefully know I’m not here to judge your writing preferences. Rights and wrongs are too absolute to be inclusive. You have to do what works for you. If it’s not working for you, I can suggest different strategies, but ultimately it’s up to you to change your ways.
If you’re a planner, at the very least you’re aware of this fact and you have accepted it as your truth. Whether or not you make the switch from planning to pantsing is entirely dependent on your goals and what sorts of things in your life you want to change.
It’s also okay to be both a pantser and a planner depending on the circumstances — e.g., you’re a planner when it comes to short stories, articles, and other small projects, but a pantser when working on a project over 30,000 words in length.
The answer to this question also depends on what part of the writing process you are talking about. You can — and probably should — for the most part plan when, where, and how often you are going to write or productivity reasons. But you probably shouldn’t necessarily spend time outlining every single detail of the story you’re working on.
I used to be a hardcore planner when it came to creative writing — to the point where I wouldn’t start writing a book until I had outlined every detail of every scene of every chapter. I had to start writing from the beginning and write chronologically all the way to the end. There was no room for making changes, no room for letting my mind wander. I just sat down and added details to the exact plan I had put into place.
I was in high school when I tried writing like this, and I remember even now how boring it was. I had pretty much closed off any and all opportunities to make new discoveries as I wrote. I was convinced that everything in my outline was set in stone because, technically, I had already written it.
Planning certain things here and there is okay, especially if it helps you stay focused and motivates you to actually get your work done. Planning too much can stifle your creativity and — at least in my personal experience — make storytelling a little less fun and exciting.
I personally like the thrill of listening to my characters reveal how they want the story to go as I’m writing it. If you’re mostly a planner, and have never experienced this phenomenon before, I highly recommend you allow yourself some experimentation with learning more about a story as you go.
There are people who loathe the unexpected, and I totally get that … in the real world. But while I don’t think you have to necessarily erase your preference for planning as a writer, it might seriously benefit you to learn how to welcome a little more spontaneity into your creative process.
At the very least, outline knowing things will change. While making outlines and other types of plans for your story can help you decide where you’re going and give you a track to stay on as you’re going there, if you’re going to do this, you have to be willing to figuratively (or literally — I don’t know you) make all your plans in pencil.
Don’t do what I did and not allow yourself to deviate from your own plan. Stories change as we write them. Only by actively writing do we learn more about our characters and come to a better understanding of the best directions to take our stories — even if “best” ends up being different than we originally planned.
I’m not saying you’re never allowed to outline again — if it helps you to a certain extent, why ditch it?
Continue outlining your story, but go minimal on the details. Maybe jot down a few notes for how you want the story to start, how you want it to progress, where you want it to end, and then go from there. Give yourself a general framework to start with, but don’t lock yourself into everything having to go a certain way.
Just once, try planning nothing at all. I don’t remember when I made the switch from planning to pantsing. It was probably during my first or second National Novel Writing Month when I realized there wasn’t enough time to outline a story I only had 30 days to write. But I do remember the relief I felt the first time I started writing a novel and realized I could just … go.
No rules. No strings. No walls. I could write whatever I wanted. I could start at the end and work backward. I could randomly decide to kill off a character and not have to restructure the entire rest of the plot. I was free.
I highly recommend even the most dedicated planners try writing without outlining at least once. Just try it. If you don’t like it, you are absolutely welcome to go back to your preferred way of telling a story. But you just never know. You might feel as free as I did when I stopped chaining myself to a preset list of events and details.
There is nothing wrong with being a planner. Planning helps aspiring and accomplished writers alike figure out their stories and take the necessary steps to get their work done. But if you’re feeling a little stuck, or like you somehow aren’t being “creative” enough (even as you’re writing creatively), give pantsing a try. It might not be for you. But you just might decide this lifestyle is the one you’ve been craving all along.
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.