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Plotting vs. Pantsing: Weighing the Methods and Their Merits

In the world of writing, two primary approaches reign supreme: plotting and pantsing. Plotting refers to the practice of meticulously planning and outlining a story's events, characters, and arcs before diving into the actual writing. On the other hand, pantsing, derived from the phrase "flying by the seat of one's pants," involves diving straight into the narrative without a predetermined plan, allowing the story to evolve organically as it's written.

This dichotomy between plotting and pantsing has sparked a longstanding debate among writers. While some swear by the clarity and direction that plotting provides, others thrive in the spontaneous realm of pantsing, valuing the unexpected twists and turns that arise. As with many aspects of the craft, there's no one-size-fits-all answer, but understanding both methods is key to choosing the best approach for your unique storytelling style.

Plotting pros and cons

Plotting, at its core, represents the methodical and deliberate act of crafting a story. It involves a structured planning process where authors lay out the main events, character arcs, and other crucial elements of their narrative before the actual writing begins. Think of it as constructing a blueprint for a building; every room, hallway, and design element is carefully planned out in advance.

By opting for this approach, writers essentially provide themselves with a roadmap, detailing every twist, turn, and significant event. This meticulous planning ensures that the narrative remains cohesive and that every piece of the plot fits into the grander scheme of the story. Here are the steps involved:

  1. Create an Outline:
    1. Conceptualize Your Story Idea: Begin with the core concept or seed of your story. What's the main theme, message, or question you want to explore? Jot this down as your central guiding point.
    2. Develop Your Characters: Flesh out your main characters, their motivations, backgrounds, and arcs. Understanding who they are will help in crafting a narrative that feels authentic to their decisions and growth.
    3. Determine the Setting: Decide on the world or environment in which your story takes place. Whether it's a fictional realm or a real location, the setting can significantly influence the plot's progression.
    4. Craft a Basic Story Structure: Many writers refer to classical structures like the Three-Act Structure, the Hero's Journey, or other narrative frameworks. While these are helpful, ensure the one you choose fits the story you want to tell.
    5. Outline Major Plot Points: Break down your story into key events or milestones. These will act as the tent poles holding up your narrative, guiding the direction and pacing of your story.
    6. Fill in the Details: Between the major plot points, sketch out smaller events, subplots, and character interactions. This will flesh out your story and give it depth.
    7. Identify Potential Conflict and Resolution Points: Every engaging story needs conflict and resolution. Highlight moments of tension and the subsequent resolution to ensure a rhythmic ebb and flow in your narrative.
    8. Review and Adjust: After your initial outline, take a step back. Review the plot for any potential holes, inconsistencies, or areas that might benefit from further development.
    9. Gather Feedback: Share your outline with trusted writer friends or mentors. Fresh eyes can offer valuable insights and catch issues you might've overlooked.
    10. Refine and Finalize: Based on feedback and further reflection, refine your outline. It's okay to make significant changes at this stage; it's easier to adjust an outline than a fully written manuscript.
  2. Begin Writing: With a solid plot in place, start the writing process. While you have a detailed plan, remember that it's okay to deviate from it if you feel the story requires a different direction.
  3. Regularly Refer to Your Outline: As you write, regularly consult your outline to ensure you're staying on track. It will act as your roadmap, helping you navigate through the intricate process of storytelling.

Remember, while plotting provides a clear structure, it's essential to maintain flexibility. An outline is a guide, not a strict rulebook. Always prioritize what feels right for the story and its characters.


  • Easier to Maintain Consistency: When writers plot their stories in advance, they establish a clear roadmap for their narrative journey. This structured approach ensures characters remain true to their arcs and predetermined actions, settings remain unchanged unless intended, and the storyline follows the pre-envisioned path. As a result, readers experience a more cohesive and seamless flow throughout the novel, making it more engaging and immersive.
  • Reduced Risk of Plot Holes or Inconsistencies: Plot holes and inconsistencies can disrupt a reader's immersion and compromise the story's credibility. By plotting in advance, writers can visualize the entire narrative structure, making it easier to identify potential issues or contradictions. Once these gaps are spotted early in the process, they can be addressed and rectified, ensuring the final product is polished and refined.
  • Can Lead to More Complex, Interwoven Plots: A well-laid plan allows writers to craft intricate storylines that might be challenging to develop spontaneously. With plotting, it's possible to interlace multiple character arcs, foreshadow events, or introduce subplots that converge beautifully in the climax. This level of complexity, when executed well, can make a story stand out, offering readers a rich tapestry of interconnected narratives and events.


  • Can Feel Restrictive or Formulaic: Adhering strictly to a predefined plot can sometimes box writers into a corner, limiting their creative flexibility. The narrative might begin to feel too structured, lacking the organic flow that some stories benefit from. Readers might sense this rigidity, feeling as though they're moving through a predetermined mold rather than a living, breathing story.
  • May Stifle Spontaneous Creativity: The magic of writing often lies in those unexpected moments when characters or plots take on a life of their own. Rigid plotting can sometimes suppress these unplanned bursts of inspiration. Writers might feel obligated to follow their outline to the letter, missing out on serendipitous twists or character developments that could enhance the story.
  • Potential for Over-Planning, Leading to Analysis Paralysis: There's a fine line between thorough planning and over-planning. When writers delve too deeply into plotting every minute detail, they might find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information and decisions. This can lead to analysis paralysis, where the fear of deviating from or not adhering to the plan prevents the writer from making progress or even starting the actual writing process.

Pantsing pros and cons

The term "pantsing" may sound casual, but it captures the essence of a dynamic writing style. Pantsing describes a writing approach where authors embark on their narrative journey with little to no predetermined plot. Instead of having a detailed map like plotters, pantsers navigate the vast ocean of their imagination guided primarily by intuition, allowing the story to unfold organically as they write.

This approach celebrates the spontaneous and often serendipitous moments of creativity, where characters seem to develop their own voices and the plot takes unexpected, yet delightful turns. It's akin to an artist approaching a canvas with no preconceived image, letting the brush strokes lead the way. Here are the fundamental steps:

  1. Write!
    1. Start with a Spark: Whether it's a character, a scene, an image, or an emotion, begin your story with whatever ignites your passion to write. Let it lead you.
    2. Dive in Without Hesitation: Start writing immediately without worrying about where the story is heading. Let the story unfold naturally.
    3. Follow Your Characters: Often, your characters will guide the direction of your story. Allow them to make decisions, face consequences, and evolve.
    4. Embrace Uncertainty: If you're unsure about a scene or a character's decision, write it anyway. You can always revise later.
    5. Stay Open to Change: You might discover new subplots, characters, or settings as you write. Embrace these discoveries and let them enrich your narrative.
    6. Take Breaks and Reflect: Every so often, take a step back. Think about where your story is heading and if you're satisfied with its current direction.
    7. Avoid Self-Editing (For Now): Try not to edit as you go. Let the story flow freely. You'll have plenty of time to revise later.
    8. Trust Your Instincts - If something feels right, even if it's unexpected, pursue it. Your instincts often know best.
    9. Maintain Momentum: Set aside dedicated writing times and try to maintain a regular writing habit, ensuring your story keeps progressing.
    10. Review What You've Written So Far: After you've written a significant portion or reached the end, go back and read your work. This will give you a sense of the story's flow and any gaps that might need filling.
  2. Revise and Refine When the First Draft Is Complete: Unlike plotters, pantsers often do their most intensive editing after the first draft is done. Now's the time to polish, rearrange, and fill in any holes.

While pantsing is a more free-form approach, these steps provide some structure to the process. Pantsing doesn't mean writing aimlessly; it means allowing the story to emerge organically without a predetermined plan.


  • Allows for Organic Character and Plot Development: One of the hallmarks of pantsing is the natural evolution of characters and storylines. Without a stringent plot to adhere to, characters often feel more lifelike, growing and adapting in ways that even the author might not have initially predicted. This organic development can resonate with readers, offering them characters that feel genuine and relatable.
  • Can Lead to Unexpected and Original Twists: Since pantsers don't strictly map out every turn in their stories, they're more open to those sudden bursts of inspiration that lead to surprising plot developments. These unexpected twists can captivate readers, keeping them on their toes and eager to discover what happens next. It's this unpredictability that often sets pantsed stories apart, offering fresh perspectives and original plots.
  • Offers Freedom and Flexibility During the Writing Process: Pantsing is all about embracing the fluidity of the creative process. Writers who choose this approach aren't constrained by a predetermined roadmap, granting them the freedom to explore various narrative paths as they write. This flexibility can make the writing experience more enjoyable and less pressured, allowing the story to be as dynamic and evolving as the process itself.


  • Risk of Losing Direction or Focus: Without a pre-established plot to guide the narrative, pantsers can sometimes find themselves meandering through the story without a clear endpoint. This lack of direction can make it challenging to maintain a cohesive plot or ensure that character arcs come to a satisfying conclusion. Readers might sense this drift, feeling that the story lacks a defined purpose or direction.
  • May Require More Extensive Revisions Later: While the spontaneity of pantsing can lead to brilliant and unexpected plot developments, it can also result in inconsistencies or plot holes. Since the story evolves organically, certain elements introduced early on might not align with later developments. This can mean more extensive revisions during the editing phase to ensure a coherent and polished narrative.
  • Can Result in Unfinished Projects Due to Lack of Clear Direction: The open-ended nature of pantsing, while liberating, can also be its Achilles' heel. Without a clear plot to guide them, writers might struggle to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, leading to many drafts left in limbo. The absence of a roadmap can sometimes leave authors feeling lost, resulting in projects that remain perpetually unfinished.

Middle ground: the plantser approach

In the world of writing, where the plotter meticulously plans and the pantser spontaneously creates, there lies a middle ground that combines the best of both worlds: the Plantser approach. Plantsers find a balance between the structure of plotting and the creative freedom of pantsing, enabling them to craft narratives that are both organized and flexible.

As Plantsers, writers incorporate elements of planning into their process, setting up a basic framework or key milestones for their story. At the same time, they allow room for the narrative to evolve naturally within this framework, embracing unexpected developments and inspirations as they write. By adopting this hybrid approach, Plantsers enjoy the benefits of having a roadmap to guide them while retaining the ability to explore new and creative directions as the story unfolds.

In other words, if we were planning a vacation: a plotter would meticulously map out every detail, scheduling activities for each hour and ensuring all reservations are made well in advance. A pantser would throw a dart at a map, book a last-minute flight to that destination, and let the adventure unfold without any predetermined itinerary. Meanwhile, a plantser would choose a destination, secure essential bookings like flights and accommodations, but leave plenty of days open for spontaneous exploration and serendipitous discoveries. Here are the steps involved:

  1. Determine Your Story's Core Elements: Before anything else, identify the essential elements of your story. This could include the primary characters, the main conflict, and perhaps the beginning and end points. This ensures you have a clear vision while still leaving ample room for spontaneous creativity.
  2. Draft a Loose Outline: Instead of crafting a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown, jot down key milestones or major events you want your story to hit. This provides direction without boxing you in.
  3. Set Aside Flex Points: In your outline, identify areas or segments where you feel there's room for spontaneous development. These "flex points" are designated areas where you're giving yourself permission to pants your way through the narrative.
  4. Start Writing: With your basic structure in hand, begin the writing process. As you approach each flex point, let your imagination take the reins. Don't feel pressured to stick strictly to your milestones; they're guideposts, not chains.
  5. Revisit and Adjust: As your story progresses and evolves, periodically revisit your loose outline. Adjust your milestones if new, better plot points emerge. The beauty of the Plantser approach is in its adaptability.
  6. Trust Your Instincts: Trust yourself to know when to follow your outline and when to let your story flow freely. Remember, the goal is to blend the best of both plotting and pantsing.
  7. Revise with Purpose: Once your first draft is complete, use your original core elements and milestones as reference points during revision. This will ensure that while your story may have taken unexpected turns, it remains cohesive and true to your initial vision.
  8. Stay Open to Feedback: Share your work with beta readers or writing groups. Since the Plantser approach combines two writing styles, feedback can be especially valuable in ensuring the story feels both structured and organic.

By blending the structured nature of plotting with the free spirit of pantsing, the Plantser approach offers a balanced and adaptable method for writers of all kinds.


  • Balances Structure with Spontaneity: The plantser approach offers writers the best of both worlds. By having a general outline or key milestones in place, writers can ensure that their narrative has direction and coherence. At the same time, they're free to deviate, explore, and allow spontaneous ideas to flow, leading to a rich and dynamic storytelling experience.
  • Allows for Planned Milestones While Retaining Creative Freedom: Having set milestones or key events can act as guiding posts in the storytelling journey. They ensure that the story progresses and culminates in a meaningful way. However, how one gets from one milestone to another is left open, granting writers the freedom to innovate, experiment, and let their characters naturally drive the story forward.


  • Requires a Certain Level of Adaptability: Embracing the plantser method demands a flexible mindset. Writers must be willing to shift gears, re-evaluate their direction, and possibly amend their initial milestones based on how the narrative evolves. While this provides an avenue for organic growth, it might prove challenging for those used to a strict structure or complete freeform writing.
  • Risk of Being neither Here nor There: One potential pitfall of the plantser approach is that it can sometimes lead to a narrative that lacks the tight cohesion of a fully plotted story while also missing out on the raw, spontaneous energy of pure pantsing. If not balanced well, a story could feel disjointed or aimless, leading to reader disengagement or a narrative that feels stuck in limbo.

Deciding the best approach for you

When it comes to crafting a compelling narrative, the method you employ plays a pivotal role in shaping the final product. Each writer possesses a unique style, rhythm, and preference, which can greatly influence the approach they adopt. Whether you're a meticulous plotter, a free-spirited pantser, or a flexible plantser, your chosen method should resonate with your inherent writing style. This means considering not just your personal tendencies, but also the intrinsic demands of the story you wish to tell. A complex, multifaceted epic might benefit from detailed plotting, while a more character-driven or exploratory tale might thrive with the spontaneity of pantsing.

Deadlines, too, are crucial determinants. If you're working under tight time constraints, the structured roadmap of plotting can provide a clear path, ensuring every writing session is productive and goal-oriented. On the other hand, if you have the luxury of time, you might relish the opportunity to discover the story as you write, letting the narrative take you on an unforeseen journey.

You should also consider flexibility. While it's beneficial to recognize and understand your default writing approach, being adaptable is just as vital. Not every project will fit neatly into the boundaries of plotting or pantsing. Some stories may begin with a structured outline but evolve in unexpected ways, requiring a pantsing approach for certain sections. Similarly, what worked for you at the start of your writing journey might shift as you grow and evolve as a writer.

Adapting isn't just about switching methods from one project to the next; it's also about recognizing when a change is needed mid-project. If you find yourself feeling stifled by a detailed outline, it might be time to let go and see where your instincts lead you. Conversely, if you're adrift in a sea of too many possibilities, taking a step back to plot out a few key milestones might provide the direction you need.

While methods and strategies provide valuable guidance, it's essential to remember that there's no one-size-fits-all solution in writing. The best approach is the one that aligns with your current project's needs, your personal style, and the growth you undergo as a storyteller. Being self-aware and willing to adapt will ensure that your writing process remains both enjoyable and effective.

Tips and resources

Tools and techniques for effective plotting

For those inclined towards the plotting approach, or even those curious to delve into it, a wealth of tools and techniques are available to make the process more streamlined and efficient. Here are some suggestions:

  • Mind Mapping: This visual tool allows you to branch out your main ideas, subplots, and character arcs. Softwares like XMind or MindMeister can be instrumental in this.
  • Chapter Outlines: With chapter outlines, begin with a broad overview of your story, then break it down chapter by chapter. This way, you know the direction of each section, even if you leave room for spontaneity within the chapters themselves.
  • Character Templates: Use detailed templates to flesh out your characters. By knowing their backgrounds, desires, fears, and quirks, you can better predict their actions and reactions within your plot.
  • Digital Writing Software: Programs like Scrivener not only assist with writing but also come equipped with tools specifically designed for plotting, like corkboards and side-by-side viewing for comparing notes.
  • Timeline Tools: Especially useful for stories with complex timelines or multiple points of view. Tools like Aeon Timeline help keep track of events and character movements in chronological order.

By exploring and integrating these tools into your writing process, plotters can ensure a well-thought-out and cohesive storyline, ensuring that all threads weave seamlessly into the narrative tapestry.

Strategies for pantsers to stay on track

Writing without a predetermined plot is a unique and freeing approach. However, to ensure that your narrative doesn't stray too far off course, certain strategies can be invaluable.

  • Set Milestones: Even without a detailed outline, establish key events or turning points to provide a general direction for your story.
  • Regular Check-ins: Allocate specific intervals to review and assess what you've written, ensuring the story remains coherent and maintains a compelling arc.
  • Write Daily: Commit to writing a certain amount every day, ensuring regular progress and keeping the narrative fresh in your mind.
  • Seek Feedback: Share snippets or chapters with trusted peers or writing groups. Their input can highlight areas needing attention or enhancement.
  • Stay Open to Revisions: Recognize that pantsing might require more revisiting and reworking than plotting. Embrace revisions as part of refining your story.

While the journey of pantsing is full of unexpected turns and revelations, these strategies can act as guideposts. They ensure that the freedom of pantsing doesn't compromise the integrity and quality of the final narrative.

Recommendations for further reading or courses

Understanding the nuances between plotting and pantsing can transform your writing process. For those wanting to dive deeper into this topic, several dedicated books and courses offer insights. Here are some recommendations:

  • Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland: A comprehensive guide to structuring your story through effective plotting.
  • Writing Into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith: This book champions the pantsing approach, offering techniques to write without an outline.
  • MasterClass with James Patterson: Known for his meticulous plotting, Patterson delves into his techniques for building compelling stories.
  • No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty: A guide on writing a novel in a month, championing a more spontaneous approach.

Each writer's journey is unique, and understanding both plotting and pantsing can offer newfound freedom and structure. These resources cater to both approaches, helping you find the balance that suits your storytelling style best.


Whether one chooses to plot meticulously or to embrace the wild, unrestrained journey of pantsing, the essence remains the same: crafting a narrative that resonates. Both approaches have their merits, and it's essential for writers to find a method that aligns with their individuality. As with any craft, experimentation is key. By trying both methods, attending recommended courses, or diving into suggested reads, you can unearth the process that ignites your creativity the most. Ultimately, the best stories aren't confined by the method of their creation, but are celebrated for their ability to touch hearts and minds.

Header image by Pixel-Shot.

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