When it comes to writing a book, there are essentially two types of authors.
The first is the plotter—the person who starts with a bullet list or a story treatment or story beats, and follows that plan from beginning to end. These authors can be meticulous and exacting, or they can use a more "loosely outlined" approach.
The second type, and the category I most often fall into, is the pantser. Yeah ... irony.
Pantsers are also known as discovery writers. We tend to shy away from planning and plotting in and advance, and instead favor a "fly by the seat of your pants" approach. Hence the name.
Pantsers get an idea and just start writing, whereas plotters get an idea and start outlining. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, of course.
Plotters have the advantage of knowing the full scope of their story or what they want to say on a topic (in the case of non-fiction) before they ever put their fingers on the home row. They've worked out the skeleton of what they want or need to say in advance, which means they will often avoid some of the angst and writer's block and other pitfalls that befall the pantser. Having an outline of your book at the ready means you can always peek to see where you're going, or do a quick review of where you've been. You tend to track plot threads more closely, and you have a lot more control over things like subplots or story complexity.
Pantsers, on the other hand, have a lot more free-range grace. They're discovering their story as they go, following the trail wherever it leads, having whatever adventures they encounter along the way. There's often the excitement of "stumbling upon" something kind of cool and unexpected. They aren't locked into any one path, but can meander a bit, wander off the trail to find something they might like, and they can always come back to point if that new path didn't work out. For flexibility in storytelling, it's hard to beat the discovery method. For non-fiction writers who really know their stuff, pantsing a book can often lead to finishing a first draft much quicker than would have happened with outlining and plotting.
As detailed and organized as plotters can be, sometimes they end up drowning in their own ocean of bullet points. The dangers of plotting include over-plotting—you have so many ideas and so many things to discuss, you start cramming them in at an unhealthy rate. Your outline for what would have been a 20-chapter book becomes something that could rival the Encyclopedia Britannica in volume (that's what we used to call Wikipedia when it came in book form).
In addition to over-plotting, there's also the danger of your work being too stiff and formulaic. Knowing everything that happens in advance could take some of the excitement and spontaneity out of the writing process. Of course, that isn't unavoidable. You can keep some of that spontaneous feel by sticking to just the bones of your story and allowing yourself to wander a bit while fleshing it out.
For pantsers, one of the biggest disadvantages is having no map of the trails ahead. Which means you could get lost deep in the woods of your book, finding yourself stuck at a sheer drop into chaos, with no choice but to backtrack and start again from an earlier point.
Pantsers sometimes have a tendency to work in ideas that may have nothing to do with the story itself. They can often break the cardinal rule of storytelling: "If it doesn't move the story forward, it doesn't belong." So in all your discovery, you may ultimately discover that you've found a trail leading nowhere.
And that means that in editing, after you've completed your draft, you may spend all that time you saved doing a lot of extra work, tracking down threads that don't belong and removing them without unraveling the entire fabric of your book. It can make the editing process more tedious than it needs to be, and more painful than you'd like.
A Hybrid Solution
The good news is, you don't actually have to choose one path or another. You can choose both.
When I started co-writing The Lucid with Nick Thacker, I had some adjusting to do. Nick is a plotter, and likes to know where the story is going before he starts. This is even more important when you're writing alongside someone, because if one co-writer is just running into the wild wile the other is trying to stick to the map, you're bound to have a disjointed piece of garbage when you're finished writing.
So despite my nature, I had to suck it up and start thinking in terms of plotting and planning. The method I chose was story beats.
There are a lot of ways to do story beats. Some writers start with a sketchy, bullet-list type of outline and fill it in with a brief one- or two-line synopsis of each scene. Some start by writing a synopsis of the entire story, usually in a single paragraph, and then a synopsis of each chapter, and then a synopsis of each scene.
Those feel like a lot of work for me, and I honestly respect people who can do them without getting stabby.
My method, however, is a holdover from my days working in documentary film and television.
In the "old days" (geez, lately I'm taking a lot of hits on my age, man—I'm only 42!), I was taught to take a complex story and break it out by sound bites on index cards. I could then take those index cards and arrange them any way I like, so that the story would unfold quote by quote.
These days, I can do something similar using Scrivener. Built into this, the ultimate writing tool, is a virtual cork board with virtual index cards. I use these to create story beats by writing out the skeleton of the story scene by scene. I type the synopsis, usually just a few lines, on each card, and then label that card with a one-line description of the scene. When I'm done, I can rearrange the scenes any way I like.
I hate to admit it (I really, really do), but this method ... it's actually good. By writing the story out in these little blips, Nick and I can work quickly through a manuscript's first draft. We know what's going to happen, so we don't surprise each other in any negative way. Instead, we surprise each other in all the cool, good ways that come with each of us inserting our own ideas and twists within the framework of the outline. And if something we come up with calls for a dramatic change to the beats, we can update those cards easily.
Still a Pantser at Heart
All that said, I confess that when I'm writing solo I still pants it. It's just my nature. But I've definitely had books that were better off for the pre-plotting, and there are some in the queue that are going to be complex enough that plotting will be a must. Using this index card method, I can do all that planning and feel comfortable about it, at least.
Whatever method you prefer, I'd suggest trying both at some point. There are psychological advantages to each as well as the advantages I listed above. Plotters who try pantsing will get the thrill of not knowing what comes next, which can make the writing more exciting. Pantsers who try plotting can assuage any lingering anxiety they have over what to do when they come to a crucial plot point, which can make writing more relaxing. And you may find that this hybrid method is the right kind of middle-ground for what you're doing.
If you're planning to write a book for the first time, and not sure which method is for you, I can help you figure things out. I offer author coaching, but I also answer one-off questions on air, via my Wordslinger Podcast. You can email questions to me from the site, or you can leave me a voicemail by calling 281-809-WORD (9673). Or use the Speakpipe tab on the right-hand side of Wordslignerpodcast.com to leave a voicemail from your computer. I may read and answer your question on air!
For coaching, visit me at kevintumlinson.com and contact me directly. I'll give you a link to set up a session, and we'll go from there.
And if you want to see some of my work, to judge whether pantsing or plotting is really working out, check out my library at kevintumlinson.com/books.
See you between the pages.
Kevin Tumlinson is the Wordslinger—Author, Blogger, and Host of the Wordslinger Podcast. He has over 20 books available in print and digital, and he was completely pantsless while writing all of them. Visit him at kevintumlinson.com.