The word Pantsing in the writing world comes from the term ‘to fly by the seat of your pants,’ meaning to write the “stuff” that spontaneously pops up in your head and arranging the story as you go, without first planning out the details. This method differs from Outlining, in which the writer establishes sense and order before beginning the first draft in which she pre-determines every nook and cranny into which her characters will go in their story journey.
For some writers outlining is the preferred method because it prevents the writer from getting lost or backed into a corner with no way out. If that is what works for you stick with what works, especially if you have that “plan- everything- out” mentality. However, for other writers, diving headfirst into the first sentence of the first page and writing non-stop as the story unfolds, without a detailed map for guidance, frees the flow of imagination to fill the page. By allowing herself to trust her muse and to truly believe in herself, the writer unshackles her buried inherent impulse, simultaneously lending magic to her narrative. In contrast to relying on a rigid pre-constructed outline, the pantsing path- to tether the story together later when the time feels right, liberates the writer’s creative yearning from its dormancy.
To this point, Toni Morrison said in Song of Solomon: If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it. In giving yourself over to spontaneity in addition to believing in yourself and your ability, you can accomplish things (or create things) you never believed you could. Joanna Penn, award-nominated, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author says it this way: There’s a moment where the story clicks, it all suddenly makes sense, and things that I invented cross over into the real world in unexpected ways. That feeling makes the creative potential of the discovery process almost addictive. You need to have a certain amount of trust in your innate story sense, but that is also part of the enjoyment. We have all read so many books and watched so many movies and TV shows that we have a deep understanding of story as human beings. There’s a sense of ‘knowing’ how a story works, and in discovery writing, it’s about leaning into this feeling. Trust that your subconscious story brain will give you what you need along the way.
Just as individuals differ in lifestyle preferences, whether to live “off the cuff” or plan every detail out every day, authors differ in their writing styles. Where some writers advocate strongly for outlines, such as Ernest Hemmingway who said: Prose is architecture, not interior design, and J. K Rowling who graciously shares copies of her outline notes created on napkins, joined by super successful author of more than 200 books James Patterson, who writes out detailed and plotted outlines before beginning his first drafts, others feel stifled by outlining or detailed planning. In writing exploratorily, Pantsers discover their story along the way.
Preferring to pants, Science Fiction, Mystery and Fantasy Author, Dean Wesley says in: Writing into The Dark: Getting stuck is part of “writing into the dark”. It is… a natural part of the process of a creative voice building a story. Embrace the uncertainty of being stuck, trust your creative voice, give it a few moments’ rest, and then come back and write the next sentence.
As we all know, fear often becomes the wall that immobilizes us when facing uncertainty. Rather than build a staircase to climb over that wall, writers and individuals in general, might freeze in place or turn back in perceived failure. But when we write into the dark we build that staircase as we begin to trust ourselves to get over the wall. Joanna Penn reflected on this idea in The Creative Penn: To reframe the blank page as the promise of unlimited possibility, rather than the fear of the unknown.
Also lending his theories to this pantsing process, to play with the exploratory thought process further, Will Storr, in The Science of Storytelling puts it this way: Story emerges from human minds as naturally as breath emerges from between human lips. You don’t have to be a genius to master it. You’re already doing it.
Write a sentence.
Then another one.
Then another one.
Repeat until done for the writing session.
Whether in writing or in living, once we land on our feet on the other side of the wall, we discover the talent or ability we’ve had all along and we recognize how far we can take it. Pantsers write as ideas surface. They do not let fear intimidate them. Although they may have an idea about the general direction in which they want the story to go, with a vague concept of the beginning, middle and end, they do not yet know precisely where the protagonist will take them, or with whom the character will meet along the way through the chapters, or even the obstacles and antagonists the hero will come up against. Pantsers start with the seed, plant it, and then let their natural instinct take over.
Along these lines, Wall Street Journal Best-Selling Author Scott H. Young said: To live spontaneously is to be in the present, beyond the past, and free of the future. It is to respond to what arises now, without hesitation, without self-doubt, without conflict.
Instead of writing in a linear manner, with each scene in order, Pantsing allows the writer to respond to what arises now, to jump around and write what her muse suggests as new ideas present themselves, piecing everything together later like connecting the dots -when the time feels right. In Pantsing, the writer learns to trust herself that the story will emerge organically despite the daunting blank face of the wordless page glaring back at her. This does not mean the writer should not learn the craft of writing altogether. Just as individuals learn the alphabet, vocabulary, and principles of grammar to write effectively, and musicians learn the basics of song structure with its beats, melody, harmony, and bass lines before composing, writers should study the craft of writing, whether a Pantser or Outliner. The key is to have faith in your muse, then to fuse that with instinct and knowledge. In other words, learn the basics, be true to yourself and your story, and then let your imagination go wild!
The poet Ben Okri said: We are magnificent and mysterious beings capable of creating civilizations out of the wild lands of the earth and the dark places in our consciousness. In the same vein, Walt Whitman quoted: I am large, I contain multitudes. Humans, whether artists or individuals, are comprised of an endless mass of unique thoughts, ideas, memories, and dreams. We are infinite beings over-filled with an abundance of potential if we open our minds to that knowledge. If we believe in ourselves enough, we can do anything.
As a self- proclaimed Pantser, Stephen King creates stories with a variety of characters, multiple points of view, and often with complicated plot lines. In On Writing, Mr. King talks about starting with a character in a situation (the seed) and writing from that point (planting it and letting instinct take over): Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, which will be uncovered through the writing process. He writes multiple drafts and revisions to deepen and enrich the story, but his first draft is pure discovery (and likely a pure inky mess!). He says, “I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible”. He likes to experiment and explore, playing with ideas until they take the shape he sees fit, or that his characters see fit.
By the same token, TD Storm in the Storm Writing School says in: The case for Pantsing; Plotters advocate outlining and preparing before beginning the story, claiming that doing so will save a lot of time in the long run. Pantsers—so named because they write “by the seat of their pants,” advocate discovering the story as they write. E.L. Doctorow famously articulated what is more or less the attitude of Pantsing: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.
Another similar viewpoint -to grow trust in ourselves comes from Author Steven James: It’s a matter of constantly asking questions of the story as you move forward into the narrative and then letting the answers inform the direction you take as you write it. Interestingly, James further advocates to follow rabbit trails, a course from which an Outliner or Planner would run in the opposite direction: Forget all that rubbish you’ve heard about staying on track and not following rabbit trails. Yes, of course you should follow them. It’s inherent to the creative process. What you at first thought was just a rabbit trail leading nowhere in particular might take you to a breathtaking overlook that far eclipses everything you previously had in mind for your story. You’ll always brainstorm more scenes and write more words than you can use. This isn’t wasted effort; it’s part of the process. Every idea is a doorway to the next.
Any fiction writer knows that it only takes a very small thing within a scene to radically change the direction of a character’s arc and action. And this brings us to one of the more interesting concepts having to do with discovery writing: when you pants your way through a story, you have to live in uncertainty. And as David Bayles and Ted Orland point out in Art and Fear, “Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable, and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.
Having attempted to employ each method in my own writing projects I often flounder regardless of the extreme process I follow. Consequently, after many episodes of trial and error I learned to compromise, to marry both methods together into a hybrid combination writing style that works for me. Ironically, while I agree with the magical components of Pantsing, in real life I was always a full-fledged type A individual who writes a “to do” list every morning. But, when it comes to writing, as opposed to living, I find that detailed outlining is far too restrictive. Like a bad knee or a wide spread puddle blocking the path ahead of me- threatening to derail my daily run, outlining prevents me from freely moving between ideas, scenes, and chapters. But when the hybrid writer within emerges to encourage me, she can propel me to get to the other side of the wall. Although my muse does not act alone, she is my guide. And when the outliner joins forces with the pantser, they create a super power kind of partnership to build the staircase together.
This works in real life also. Learning to loosen control over my “to do” agendas without sacrificing them completely, I can achieve greater peace, sense of empowerment and story, and then when I do confront the wall, I can surrender to the wind and ride with it high above it and even the staircase to land safely on the other side.
And so, when it comes to the debate between whether to Pants (or to discovery write) verses to Outline (or to plan) we look to our own real-life choices. Do you plan your life away and feel anxious when something unexpected throws you off course (which will inevitably happen at times), or do you live on the edge, making quick decisions that have the potential to negatively alter your plan? Or are you somewhere in the middle and meld the two together into a modified pantsing process in which you are open to unexpected surprises while remaining steadfast on course. Neither choice is wrong. The correct answer lies in the one that works for you as the writer or as an individual in real life.
To outline is to check the weather several times before stepping outside, to turn the headlights up high regardless of the time of day and to clear the path of obstacles before daring to carry on, but to pants is to surrender to the wind to ride with it, to write into the dark to embrace uncertainty, and to feel comfortable going down rabbit holes with only a bare bones blue print as a guide. .But, in forging both methods into a combined hybrid super version in which you feel no or less fear, you will breathe fresh life into your story, both on paper and in life.