Does writing an outline feel like it kills your creativity? Does it seem like you spend more time outlining than writing? You might be a pantser!

What is Pantsing?

A pantser is a novelist who writes without an outline. They just start with their idea and go. Pantsing got its name because you’re writing by the seat of your pants. This method is also called discovery writing because you discover your story as you write. (A side note: lots of British people do not like the term pantser because pants means underwear in British.)

The flip side of pantsing is plotting. Exactly what it sounds like, plotters outline their story before they start writing.

Types of Discovery Writing

Discovery writing can look like a lot of different things. The best way to explain it is these three types, according to Kim Boo York’s book By the Seat of Your Pants: the Straight Shooter, the Recursivist, and the Puzzle Master.

The Straight Shooter sits down and writes from the beginning to the end of his story without stopping. Then he goes back and rewrites and revises.

The Recursivist rewrites and revises as she writes. Maybe she reads what she wrote the day before and edits it before moving to the next scene. Sometimes she goes back further to change or adjust scenes that need rewriting based on something that she just wrote. This rewriting helps focus the Recursivist on where she is in the story, helping her creativity flow.

The Puzzle Master writes out of order. Whatever scenes come into her imagination, she writes. Then she spends time writing to connect these scenes.

The Spectrum

When you talk to novelists about their process, it is clear that most people are not one or the other. They use aspects of both approaches in their writing. Writers that work from an outline admit that at some point their story goes off the rails. Their characters leave the outline behind, finding new scenes. On the other hand, discovery writers use their favorite structure and tropes, going back and adding things they feel are missing. I’ve heard lots of novelists say they structure the first act of their story and know the ending, but not how they’re going to get there.

Most importantly, everybody has their own way they write. No way is wrong or right. It is just the way that is right for you. Don’t let people tell you there is only one correct way to create a story. And don’t get caught up in trying to do it the way they think you should. Instead, trust your own creativity and intuition that your process is the best one for you.

The Outline as a Creativity Killer

For plotters, the outline feeds their creativity because it gives them a map of where they’re going. For pantsers, outlining is agonizing and doesn’t make them want to write. Jamie Albright said it best in a ​recent episode​ of I Wish I’d Known Then podcast. If she writes an outline, it scratches her creative itch to tell the story. She’s already gotten the dopamine hit from telling the story and doesn’t need to write it.

That was a big aha moment for me. I never enjoyed screenwriting because by the time I sat down to write this story, I had spent weeks breaking it and I didn’t want to write it anymore. Instead of being exciting, the story was boring.

Pantsing as a Screenwriter

The plotter versus pantser debate doesn’t exist in screenwriting because we are taught the only way to write a screenplay is to outline the whole thing with your scenes on note cards before you write anything. If you are on staff at a TV show or writing a feature assignment, you have to outline. The executives you’re working for expect it. They need to know what you’re doing and where the story is going.

But if you’re writing a spec script, you might try pantsing and see how it feels. ​Quentin Tarantino​ is a discovery writer, writing without an outline. That may be why he only makes one movie every couple of years. He spends a lot of time exploring the story and the characters. I have talked to other screenwriters who approach their spec scripts in the same way. If you find the outlining step challenging, why not try to pants your next script and see where it takes you?

More on Pantsing

Read:

By the Seat of Your Pants by Kimboo York​

The Pocket Guide to Pantsing by M. L. Ronn​

Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith​

How to Write a Novel by Joanna Penn​

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James​

Listen:

The Indy Author Podcast​Episode 234 ​The Pocket Guide to Pantsing with Michael La Ronn

Wish I’d Known Then​Episode 220​ – Discovery Writing with Kim Boo York


Want more content like this? Click here to subscribe to my newsletter.

Buy my book!