The Joy of “Pantsing” It

Writing by “the seat of your pants” is out of fashion. But what if, for me, that’s where the magic happens?

By “pantsing,” of course, I don’t mean the juvenile prank of pulling down an unsuspecting victim’s pants. I’m talking about the drafting style known more accurately as “discovery writing” or “intuitive writing,” which is the process of writing a first draft without an outline and without significant pre-planning work.

It’s often maligned in the common writing wisdom as an inferior method of creating a draft. There’s even a book based on this premise, called Take Off Your Pants, by indie author Libbie Hawker. Hawker’s introduction states outright that plotting is “the superior method for writing a book” for full-time writers, and pantsing is only for the “contented hobby writer.” According to her, outlining allows for faster drafting, and faster production leads to better income. She describes pantsing as fun and creatively stimulating, but not feasible for a serious writer who wants a real career.

I disagree strongly, but then, I’m not a full-time writer. Yet.

The middle road: plantsing

A dark haired, goateed man in shades, suit, and tie (Tony Stark) stands in a desert and asks, "Is it too much to ask for both?"

I am naturally a pantser, but I have been working hard on improving my planning skills, so these days I’m more of a “plantser,” i.e. a hybrid between pantsing and planning. I have been using massive spreadsheets for the last year to wrangle my second and third drafts. The process of reverse outlining (outlining after writing the first draft) was a revelation to me. I actually have come to love my spreadsheets. It’s extremely satisfying to slot in my scenes, compare them against a beat sheet like Save the Cat, and use this framework to improve my pacing and arcs.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working hard on a draft of the sequel to CAMBION’S LAW, starting from a partially completed draft of around 50k words and building it out to 80k using a detailed outline. I produced a (nearly) complete draft, but it has also taught me that my personal creative style still chafes against plan-focused drafting methods.

Does planning stop writer’s block?

For me, the answer is no, it does not. I can have a beautiful, complete scene-by-scene outline and still get blocked for days because something in the draft as it exists or in the outline itself worked in theory, but does not gel in practice.

I also found, as I worked to finish an incomplete draft with a full outline, that for me, planning prior to drafting does not actually result in a more coherent plot. I have a lot of revisions to do and inconsistencies to reconcile in my completed draft. I don’t think I have any less to do than I would if I had pantsed the entire thing.

Maybe planning should fix this, but in my experience, it just leads to an incorrect outline. The little unknowns that pop up during the drafting process can and do blow up my best laid plans. And my best laid plan is rarely as good as the solutions I can come up with on the fly, built out of an organic and intuitive knowledge of my characters, my imaginary worlds, their interactions and their history on the page. I live for those moments.

A himbo with exquisite cheekbones gesticulates and says "Anytime I had a problem and I threw a Molotov cocktail, boom! Right away, I had a different problem."
I call it the Jason Mendoza method of storytelling.

I was recently introduced to the idea of the zero draft, which is the “messy first draft” that comes before the actual first draft. The zero draft becomes a pantser’s equivalent of an outline. It’s a discovery of words, an intuitive process, a journey into the unknown. It’s the raw material laid out on the sculptor’s table, waiting to be shaped into coherence.

Or, if you’re more of a musician than me, no wrong notes, only notes in the wrong places. I’m linking Mia Tsai’s blog here because it was her thoughts on pantsing as a form of improvisation that got me thinking about this topic. I’ve never thought of myself as an improviser—I have terrible performance anxiety when put on the spot—but as a writer, I definitely connect the idea of riffing on a theme, discovering variations, having fun with it.

Pantsing: method or madness?

One thing that struck me while writing this post was how hard it is to articulate my own pantsing process. Some writers report the experience of receiving “downloads” i.e. getting a bolt of inspiration or a line etc seemingly out of the blue, which resonates strongly for me. These are the moments late at night in which I grope for my phone and type furiously in my Notes app, sometimes for paragraphs. It feels like transcribing, not creating, a connection with a subconscious, intuitive, ineffable process. There’s only one problem with this “method”: I have no way of summoning notes from the Muse. If I only wrote when I got a “download” I would not have any finished books.

It’s true that I can sometimes summon the muse on purpose by tuning in to my viewpoint character and ask them to speak for themselves, to tell their story in their own words. This type of discovery writing helps me deepen my character development and voice. It’s especially useful when delving into backstory and emotional wounds. When a character seems to speak “through” me, I’m usually onto something good.

But letting characters have free rein doesn’t always move the story forward. Sometimes, pantsing comes down to asking, “what’s the next thing that happens? Ok write that down. Now what?” This can be described as the “flashlight” or “headlights” method of storytelling—you only see a certain distance ahead of yourself, but you can travel far that way. I sometimes think of this method of story discovery as akin to a decision tree in an RPG or a choose your own adventure game. I try to choose the option that leads to the most interesting or dramatic outcome while staying true to the characters.

In the end, though, I still find the actual creative process of pantsing hard to define. All my metaphors seem to suggest a form of divine (or otherwise) madness, in which story and characters exist separate from the writer, waiting to be uncovered.

Four girls sit in a circle with warm light shining up into their faces. One of them says, "Okay, pants equal love. Love your sisters and love yourself."
You know I had to go here, right?

My goal for this month: rediscovering ease

I started an at-home yoga practice in quarantine and one of the concepts it has taught me is the concept of ease as an aspect of learning. Ease means not always pushing and straining. It means finding space in which you can breathe, even in challenge. It means listening within and knowing when to release rather than struggle.

I am, predictably, bad at this. I’m the kind of person who, halfway through a massage, gets exhorted to “just relax.”

“But I’m trying,” I cry, missing the point. “I thought I was relaxed!”

I’ve been working my butt off the last few months, but it’s felt like a slog at times. Recently, I pulled up an old document from the first NaNoWriMo I ever “won” to try to find a passage I could make fun of. I found a lot to cringe at in that manuscript, but more than the cringey bits, what struck me was that the writer who wrote those words was having a blast. It made me feel nostalgic for that beginner’s mind, when I wasn’t thinking about what to do and what not to do, but just tuning in to my inner voice. It made me want to do that again.

There is no one true way!

Didn’t I just say this?

This is a different context, but the same theory. I’m against dogmatic, prescriptive methods that promise results and assume everyone’s brain works the same. Just like there’s no magical pair of pants out there that fits everyone, I don’t think there’s any such thing as a one-size-fits-all method of writing. Not plotting, not pantsing, not even plantsing.

Three girls stand around a dressing room. A fourth girl opens the curtain and makes a shrugging gesture with a resigned expression, because the magical pants actually fit.
Unless you’re one of these gals.

Ironically enough, it doesn’t always feel easy to find joy and ease in writing. We hear a lot about the work of craft, the dos and don’ts, the rules. Craft books tend to focus on one particular method and sell it as a solution that will work for everyone, because that’s how one sells advice, I suppose. It’s much harder to articulate the craft of pantsing. But for me, while I love to exist in an always-be-learning mindset, working to improve and polish my technique, it’s important to remember why I started writing to begin with: because I love it.

It can all be fixed in post, and revisions are inevitable. So have fun where you can. There’s joy in discovery, in the moment a character reveals their deeper feelings, or a history you didn’t know they had. There’s a thrill in turning a corner in the world you invented and finding something you didn’t know was there, waiting for you all along.

So far, this month of pantsing has felt like a breath of fresh air and a different kind of learning. I’m looking forward to discovering where it leads me.

Tell me about what brings you creative joy in the comments!

7 thoughts on “The Joy of “Pantsing” It

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