In the writing community, there are two basic ways of writing books.
Pantsers just write, not knowing where they are going to end up.
Plotters go into it with an organized plan and chapter outline.
Neither (I believe) is inherently better.
However, I do think:
A) it’s much easier to finish a book if you plot it
B) it’s much easier to write a book that sells if you follow basic structure
The trouble begins with this:
People usually think writing is an art, that comes from inspiration and creativity, which is non-rational. Therefore, pantsing is a superior method of writing because it’s more primal and intuitive.
People usually think marketing and promotion is logical/rational (and kind of spammy). Therefore, writers should write from the heart, then edit and market from the brain.
The problem with that, is that in 95% of cases, authors who do it this way will end up with something that’s difficult to market and doesn’t satisfy readers. Of course, there are exceptions, and LOTS of bestselling, famous writers are pantsers (mostly in romance, or speculative/literary fiction that defies genre conventions).
It isn’t wrong. It can totally work. Whichever way works for you and helps you finish the book, that’s the right way to do it. IF your goal is to finish a book.
The abundance of outspoken pantsers in the writing field make it appear that it’s at least an equally valid way to write a bestselling book. And plotting won’t necessarily make a more successful book. Even if you’ve made an outline well, it doesn’t mean the writing won’t be terrible. Pantsers also usually write more, which means they get a lot more practice and develop their skills faster, even if they produce tons of content that they never use or needs to be cut later.
In my experience, the debate over plotting and pantsing is creatively damaging to the majority of would-be writers, as is the implicit romantic belief that pantsing is the emotionally mature and inspired method of writing (as in, all other writing is not art, unless it springs, as Wordsworth said, from “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”).
I think plotting is like training wheels: they’re there to protect you. Sure, you can write a book from the seat of your pants and stumble through it, but you’ll probably waste a lot of time, get some scars in the process, and cry a lot.
Or, you can read a few books on plotting, understand the tropes of your genre, and make a plan first. You’ll have less discovery and hardship (and maybe less experience) but you’ll also turn out with something that’s much more likely to become a salvageable book.
If you want to write a bestselling book that earns money, it will probably be in a popular genre, and in most popular genres, plotting is important. (The exception to this is romance, where plotting is less important and replaced with spontaneous occurances).
For me personally, I spent a decade floundering around before I finally plotted a book all the way through – and published four books this year. I’m definitely a plotter.
I could leave it at that and say, “find whatever process works for you” except for a couple things:
- I think if you’re stuck, or having trouble finishing your book, or having trouble selling your book, it’s probably a plotting problem, which means for the vast majority of writers, plotting is the solution.
- Despite being an easy, simple, practical fix to writer’s block (and making a living as an author) it continues to be denigrated by creative gurus who think writing to market, and plotting genre tropes, is a “hack”.
The situation is demonstrated by an interview with Ottessa Moshfegh I saw posted this month. Ottessa’s book Eileen was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, despite it being written as a desperate attempt at commercial fiction. In the interview, she says Eileen was deliberate exercise in playing with the format of commercial fiction to get the attention of a big publisher and earn a living. Her early fiction won awards, but didn’t pay. So she went and bought Alan Watt’s 90-Day Novel and followed the exercises.
So I thought I’m going to do something bold. Because there are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me? I’m smart and talented and motivated and disciplined and … I said: fuck it. Which was also: fuck them. I was pretty hostile. I thought: I’ll show you how easy this is. It’s ridiculous, claiming that anybody can write a great book, and quickly too. And I thought if I were to do this, what would happen, would my head explode? So … it started out as a fuck-you joke, also I’m broke, also I want to be famous. It was that kind of a gesture.
This has been controversial, because most writers think Ottessa “fooled the system.”
They lament that the Booker people “fell for it.” They assume Ottessa’s book must be terrible, because of the intention for which is was written.
Many writers assume you need to choose, to either create for love or money, and the choice determines the quality of the product. I don’t think this is true: I think Ottessa discovered that a book written quickly in order to satisfy an audience can be just as good – or maybe better – than one written slowly while battling inner demons.
Which means, the only choice you need to make is, would you like to write a book that is lauded as “great writing” even if it earns no money, or would you like to make a living as a writer and actually write books that people get excited about?
Do you want to be a struggling but righteous artist who refuses to sell out, or do you want to share your gift with the world and get some appreciation and financial renumeration for all your time and effort?
That choice is a simple one to make: you’ll still always be striving to write the best book you are capable of. The book will still be a labor of love and creativity. But if you write one for a specific purpose and audience, you’ll have direction and boundaries, which will let you map and finish the book faster, and it will resonate with readers much more powerfully.
You could do it the other way, and hope it finds success – like I said, that works too. But it’s more of a lottery. It’s gambling (at least in the beginning… if you’re an established panster and happy with sales, just keep doing what you’re doing!)
If writing or selling books has been frustrating for you, if you feel like you’d like to be the kind of writer that builds a following and makes a living, then I think learning about your audience and writing for the market and studying plotting and story architecture will be hugely beneficial to you.
In case I haven’t properly noted them in the above, a few extra points need to be made. I’m talking about self-publishing; what sells in commercial fiction as a self-publishing author is different from what “sells” in terms of getting an agent or publisher. If you want to go traditional, it is true that they are looking for something more unique (however, not too unique. They will still want tropes and a strong plot, for most commercial fiction, but may be willing to take on something more innovative. If you’re trying to write literary fiction for a publisher, maybe pantsing is good for you – it can possibly lead to the kind of fresh and innovative fiction that some agents want. However it rarely leads to the kind of fiction that will sell if you self-publish.)
The difference is, publishers need to be innovative and hope to please readers, but often they publish things that don’t do that well commercially. They take more risks. If you’re self-publishing, books that won’t sell are risky, and you’ll need to make up the losses with books that do sell.
Also: pantsing may work for you, but require months of editing. Some pantsers don’t understand how plotters can publish a book a month and bemoan what they see as inferior quality, quickly written books that are still successful. However, a plotter can write a book that’s pretty well done after the rough draft – it just needs a few passes of editing and proofreading, but not months of reworking and rewriting and cutting apart to find the story. And again, some genres may work better with pantsing, like contemporary romance – and yet, successful commercial romance will definitely fit a template and use common tropes.
Again, not saying that plotting is better.
I am, instead, refuting the claim that pantsing is more creative or will produce higher quality writing.
UPDATE: like a lot of my earlier blog posts, this one comes across as hostile. But, partially the reason it does that is because authors are very sensitive and defensive about their art and craft; and very outspoken against the idea that you can or should write books to satisfy a market or earn money. This is something I spent a lot of time trying to process in my latest book on writing, Book Craft… which *failed* for many of the same reasons (people getting upset at the introductory material and not making it to the practical value).
I’m trying, a little, to avoid using any universal condemnations of a particular style of writing, I appreciate that everyone has different writing goals. However, I still support the conclusions of this article – that my stance against pantsing is really only a defense that writing books intentionally to satisfy a market is the way to write better quality books. I have abundant evidence that this is true, in real world case studies, and yet the majority of authors cling to a detrimental ideology that the path to success and quality can only ever be pure, unscripted, Romantic creative abandon (pantsing).
It can be that: but if it is only that, then that universal mentality automatically condemns and denies any writers who do like to plan or organize as artistically inferior… and I’ve always been one to defend the minority position.
I also made a video for YouTube on this topic and got some great discussion: here’s my more recent intro and I shared some responses down below:
In the war between pantsers and plotters, there’s a thin, underlying assumption, often unvoiced, that pansters are doing it for the love (amateurs: “for the love of…”) while plotters are doing it for the business (professionals: writing to make money). Weirdly, both of these titles are negative: if you’re called an amateur despite years of experience and success you’ll feel insulted; but if you’re called a professional there’s a skepticism as well, that you’re only in it for the money and not a real, creative writer, just someone who follows scripted templates and writes to market. It’s a messy, emotional sphere, but I’m pretty strong on the idea that reader experience matters more than author experience – something not everyone will agree with, but definitely produces measurable results, much faster, with less effort.