Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pantsing, Plotting, and Heinlein's Writing Rules

By now, you're probably already familiar with the pantsing vs. plotting debate in the world of fiction writing. But for those of you who'd benefit from a CliffNotes-style refresher, I present the following:

  • Pantsers are those who write by the seats of their pants. No plan, no outline, nothing is set in stone. The story emerges with a life all its own, often taking unexpected twists and turns along the way.
  • Plotters are those who use some kind of story map (such as the Snowflake Method) or serious outlining to keep their work on track from start to finish. They know almost every detail about the story before they even get started.

When I started writing as a zit-faced twelve-year-old, I was pure pantser. I had no idea what my stories were about or where they would take me. Often, I just had a few characters and an exciting situation to work with, and I went from there. It was exhilarating.

This method worked well for about twenty years. But then I started trying to get published, and I found that some of my work needed major revisions to keep it focused on central themes. My pantsing ways had created more than a few tangents in need of pruning.

Now with the Write1Sub1 Weekly deadline looming before me every Saturday, I find that I must rein in my pantsing tendencies or else my submissions will never be finished on time.

But I'm addicted to the adrenaline rush of discovering where my story is going; it's like riding a runaway train at times, and my pen can hardly keep up. But there are lows, too. When I write myself into a corner and have no clue where to go next, I wish I had some idea how the tale as a whole should play out.

All this to say, as a recovering pantser, I can find value in some of the ways of the plotter, and lately I've been doing a bit of informal outlining to make sure my weekly stories have a beginning, middle, and end well before the end of the week.

So what are you? A pantser, a plotter,
or some kind of unique hybrid in between?


Heinlein's Rules for Writing*, which shall heretofore be adopted -- except for the 3rd one, probably -- as our Write1Sub1 Credo:

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
So say we all?

*These rules originally appeared in Robert Heinlein's 1947 essay "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction."


  1. I started as pure pantser too, but have since learned the benefits of doing some plotting. I like to call my outlines, flexible. They give me direction, but I allow myself to go with the story if it has other ideas.

    Good rules! I agree with all but 3. I know that rewriting has improved my stories immensely. And I enjoy seeing the writing get better. :)

  2. I agree with the don't rewrite rule. I don't mean send off my first nonsensical draft, by the way. I rework until the story's cooked. But after that, I don't rewrite except by editorial request.

    Dean Wesley Smith changed by mind about rewriting, here's the link, if you're interested:

    I know that a lot of people do rewrite -- that's cool. Every writer is different.

    It's rule number two that gives me problems.

  3. I think these are wonderful rules - #3 is debatable, sure but I suspect he means don't rewrite once it's properly finished as Deborah says. I think it's all to easy to put off submitting because you need to make one more tweak, one more set of revisions. And then, the danger is, you never submit anything ...

  4. Ha! I wandered in here while procrastinating before planning my 'Bridie 5' novel - already at 18K+ words and becoming unwieldy. I am a panster, letting my characters tell me what's happening next, but ...
    and yes indeed Simon, I also have the makings of a serial revisionist.
    Rule 2 is true except that some work needs to sit for a bit, Rule 5 I haven't got to yet.

  5. I think I've grown into a hybrid - I used to be all pantser, then all plotter but neither of them worked for me. Now, I'm somewhere in the middle, maybe leaning toward one or the other, depending on what I'm writing.

    I don't know about Rule 2. Some of my stories aren't meant to be finished, maybe at all or maybe just not then. Maybe I'm not "ready" - don't have the distance, skills, etc. - to finish them.

  6. I've used the Snowflake method. I've tried pantsing it. I've done full outlines with synopses and scene-by-scene lists. It took some time to figure out what works for me, and now my method is... well it's sort of madness, but definitely NOT pantsing. I don't advise anyone to pants it.

    It would take too long to explain, but it works for me. :)

  7. Madeline,

    I worry about my unfinished stories, I really do. I don't know if to let them go or not. My unfinished file is getting bigger. Perhaps I should just consider them practice stories, but there's always the hope that they could be finished one day.

  8. Deborah - I think it's a gut thing. I have a stack of unfinished stories hidden away in my closet. In my desk drawer I have a file labeled "Unfinished." The stories in that section still have something about them that speak to me the way the stories in the closet don't.

    That's why they're in the drawer - I pull them out and occasionally work on them. Sometimes they morph into a finished story, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they end up in the closet, sometimes they go back in the drawer. It's an odd system, but it works for me. :)

  9. Sometimes i outline, sometimes i don't. Often i know what the ending of the story will be before i start. Though, the two stories i'm working on at the moment: no idea where they're going.

  10. Usually, ideas for stories pop into my head fully formed. So, in a manner of speaking, they have an outline. How much I physically outline depends on how long I think the story will take. I only outline, that is to say, when I think I may forget how the story popped into my head (the order, etc).

    I know babies don't come from storks, but stories apparently do. Invisible ones come and drop them in my skull, probably under cover of the night.

    This year is all about seeing whether those storks are just harassing me, or providing mana from heaven.

  11. knotane,

    Wait, wait, wait ... babies don't come from storks? That did always puzzle me. I mean, we don't even have storks over here in the UK but we still get babies. It makes more sense now ...

  12. I'm both a pantser and a plotter. I must have some sort of plotted line to follow or else I end up violating rule #2; I write myself into corners and can't write myself back out again.

    But if I try to outline the whole dratted thing, it comes out sounding like all those essays I cranked out in college: dry as dust and boring as elevator music.

    So I give myself a loose plan to know where I'm going, and I bring my pants along to enjoy the ride.

  13. Charity: "flexible" outlines -- I like it! And I agree, rewriting makes my stories better with each revision.

    Deborah: That makes sense; I guess I see "reworking" as rewriting to a certain extent.

    Simon: Yes indeed; that's where the perfectionism monster can really rear its ugly head.

    Sandra: Pantsing often leads to unwieldy early drafts, but it's a whole lot of fun isn't it?

    Madeline: That system works for me, too; I also have an "unfinished" file folder. Some of the stuff in there is horrendous, but I never know when it might spring to life as something altogether different (and much better).

    Stephanie: So you're a hybrid? That's been working for me lately.

    Samuel: I'm the opposite; I never know how my stories are going to end! Halfway through is when I start outlining; weird, I know.

    Knotane: Wow. You are one lucky writer! How I wish stories would plant themselves into my brain fully formed...

    Sparklecat: I couldn't have put it better myself. That's what works for me, too!

  14. So say we all :)

    I think number two is important. I didn't used to finish stories, and then they'd somehow lose their urgency and I'd lose the mood of the writing and never be able to get it quite right. If I sit down to write flash, I make myself finish it in the same day. On longer stories, I jot down where I envision it going, and try to revisit it daily so I can keep myself in the atmosphere of the story (still finishing my Nano novel this way - one sentence at a time!).

    Number three I interpret as, don't rewrite while writing the first draft. After that, I do revise, because my first drafts are messy and any editor would reject them outright!

    I lean toward pantster, especially when writing flash. But I often have a general idea with the beginning and ending already in mind, or it forms within the first few paragraphs, so in that sense I follow a structure. And then, in revision sometimes I'll outline, but I do it more in a list format, so I can pretend it's not an outline.

  15. I'm a plotter who listens when the pants start yelling.

    Is the reverse realizing that plot is what's left after all that good pantsing?

  16. I used to be pantser all the way, but now I'm sort of a hybrid. I hate to get bogged down in too much planning - it kills my enthusiasm quick smart - but I do like to have some kind of cohesion, and the reassurance I know where the hell I'm going ;)

  17. A.S.: "I jot down where I envision it going, and try to revisit it daily" - sounds like a flexible way to do it, knowing scenes often change along the way.

    Robert: That's the way!

    Trisha: Definitely; the last thing we want is our process to dry up, but we also need to know where we're headed.

  18. I'm a plotter, always have been always will. Your adaptation to Heinlein's rules is perfect: the rewrite, that first revision, is so important. In short stories, especially in fantasy and science fiction where I'm creating worlds, I don't always have a complete picture on the first draft. I learn things through the writing, and I learn what's missing when I go back for that first revision. I think it has something to do with novels being my first love, by which the writing of the novel gives me the time and space to explore what needs exploring. Short stories are tight little creatures. They aren't easy, but I do love the challenge and what results from it. :D

  19. I'm really enjoying these glimpses into the writing process. I started out a pantser and tended to go off on these gloriously disconnected tangents, then I tried to regiment myself into becoming a plotter, but ended up more of a plodder. These days I do plot out scenes in thumbnail fashion and I do want to know where to begin and where I will end, but that middle still demands a flexible waistline.

  20. D: Have you written short stories based on the larger worlds from your novels?

    Steve: "Flexible waistline" - good analogy; like the pants I wear for Thanksgiving...

  21. Well I'm a Pantser, but I'm trying to be plotter for my novels. LOL. It's a struggle!

    So say we all!

  22. Milo: I do draw on those, yes. I'm a map maker essentially, and my stories expand from there. So if I have a map, I can build it and write it.

  23. I am a new follower to this experiment. I have been a total pantser, but am considering becoming a little bit of a plotter.

    I submitted a short flash fiction (500 words or less) to the Winter Flash contest at this month.

  24. D: Coolness. =]

    Sheila: Welcome aboard!

  25. oh dear ... I have OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Plotting Disorder) - just ask Simon. I think he would have strangled me if we hadn't been collaborating at either end of e-mails! I can't help myself - I know I need to loosen up a bit, but I just find myself micro-plotting every step. Can you get treatment?

  26. Dominic: It's a twelve step program in most states; two-step in Texas. You have to give yourself over to a higher plotter and loosen your belt one notch at a time.

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