If you’ve ever participated in NaNo, you’ve probably heard of the term “pantsing” in a different context than pulling someone’s pants down.
“Pantsing” is a short hand for “writing by the seat of your pants” in opposition to outlining and planning ahead. You therefore get dialog about your writing style – are you a Pantser or an Outliner?
I’d like to propose we think about it a little differently – for one thing, I’d like to say neither are your “writing style”, that instead being the unique way you write, like a watermark or signature throughout all the words you write. My writing style is going to be similar or the same regardless of whether I outlined or pantsed a story. For another thing, there’s no rule you have to be just one, and pantsing is often not a good method for writing. It certainly has its place, but you’re probably going to have a bad time if you try to just pants all the time.
Let me be clear – on my first time hearing of this dichotomy, I thought, “Oh, I’m totally a pantser!” and that worked fine for the time. But if I ever want to write my saga in the way I’d like to, across time and story arcs, as the big, big story I mean it to be, I cannot possibly pants it. I’ll get an infinite amount of plot holes that will reach critical mass and explode in my face. The severity of this was made clear to me when around sixteen or so I realized that I had the gaping hole where my evil overlord, who had started a holocaust against the elves and forced my half elf MC’s parents to hide her as an infant in a village where he’d never find her, also went to high school with said MC. Er, whoops! But I only realized what a stupid mistake I’d made when I tried to actually write down a timeline – when I tried to outline at all. My change in style where I matured and fixed some garish designs for my overlord and decided to use my own race inventions rather than Tolkenian elves had nothing to do with pantsing or outlining.
Pantsing has also been a useful technique for me. The first time I ever completed a NaNo novel was when I just wrote without concern for just about anything, including sense. So much of that first book made basically no sense whatsoever. (“What is this, a pineapple? We don’t keep pineapples in here!” /throws pineapple out window where it hits the protag in the face/ “We are cheesemongers, not spike mongers or fruit mongers! Pineapples! Ugh!” yeah I have and had no idea.) When I encounter a plothole, pantsing is often just as good as if not the best strategy for making up crap to patch it up. My overlord problem certainly required careful thought and an increase in outlining, however.
When I draft, I like to pants, in part because using “pants” as a verb is hilarious, but in part because we all know how thinking and overthinking things can easily put the kibosh on flow and writing and pantsing easily transitions into frenzy writing which doesn’t give you time for any of that thinking crap.
But there’s still a difference between drafting book one of the saga, and writing the saga. Pantsing helps me get through the small scale issues, the “I know from outlining she needs to go from A to B but HOW?” problems, the slog of “I no longer want to write” that’s often called Week Two in NaNo – since week two is when it hits on that 30 day scale. This means I can still pants even when I’ve outlined.
Outlining is hard, but taking the time to find a style of outlining that works for you is worth it, since then you get out of danger of living in Retcon City (you may still encounter retcon problems, however) and bigger projects become more feasible for you. So don’t dismiss it like that younger me did just because it sounds hard and you aren’t normally the kind of guy who plans anything. You can do it.
I’ve found that using both is the best strategy.