It’s one of the most defining questions for a writer—are you a plotter or a pantser? What happens when the answer is both? After trying and failing to write a novel for years, even with all of the hours I spent meticulously plotting, I was surprised to find that my first completed draft was conceived through pantsing. So when I started the first draft of a new project, naturally I pantsed it. And it failed spectacularly. Now, I’ve come to terms with the fact that—for me as a writer—different projects call for different approaches, and finding the appropriate one is a matter of trial and error. So, for anyone who’s still a little unsure of how to approach their first draft, here are the pros and cons of plotting and pantsing from someone who’s well acquainted with both.
Pro: More polished outcome
This isn’t a given (just like everything else on this list!) but for me, plotting a draft tends to produce a more polished outcome. As I plot, I can track the development of my characters, relationships, story arcs, etc. (which means that I don’t read through the finished product only to find that the perfect slow-burn relationship I’d imagined has actually sprung up entirely out of the blue!)
Con: Less freedom
Rigid outlines can help you avoid adding unnecessary details or subplots, but they can also hinder your opportunity to really explore all of the possibilities within your story. To think what would happen if I threw all of my characters into the worst possible scenario? Even though you might decide not to include that scenario in your book, exploring your story and finding the right way for a scene to play out can be an invaluable part of the writing process.
Pro: Easier to control length
This is a big one for me, since I’m a sucker for overwriting. And this might not apply to everyone, but as I plot, I try to estimate the length of my chapters or sections so I know approximately how long my draft is going to turn out. It also makes sure I have enough content to fill a draft—the failed first draft I mentioned earlier got up to around 60K before I realised that actually, not much had happened at all. This is just one of the many problems plotting before I write a draft can help me work out.
Con: Can grow boring
For years, I tried to write a story that I was (and am still) passionate about but ultimately ended up shelving. Despite how much I loved it, every chapter felt like a chore. Only now do I realise that was because I had outlined so rigidly that all I had to do was put my notes into words — it took all the fun out of the writing process for me!
Pro: More exciting
For me, one of the most enjoyable parts of reading is not knowing what will happen next. And I know a lot of writers might not feel the same, but I find the feeling of not knowing what will happen in your own book can be just as exciting! When you allow your characters to take the reins and make their own decisions, the writing process becomes so much more fun.
Con: More thinking required during writing
Unfortunately, if you haven’t already worked out all of the little details in your story in an outline, that leaves you to do it during the drafting process. And while plenty of writers seem to manage it, I often find that I disrupt the flow of my writing when I spend too long trying to figure out all of the specifics.
Pro: Lets you explore your characters more
This ties into the last pro—sometimes, the best way to help your characters grow is to let them make their own decisions! Throwing your characters into situations where you have no idea what’s going to happen can really give you a sense of who your character is, how they react to a situation, their relationships with other characters… sometimes I write scenes that I have no intention of using in my story just for this purpose!
Con: Harder in subsequent drafts
Similar to my point about plotted drafts often ending up more polished. If you leave those plot holes to fix when you’ve finished a draft, it only leaves more work for future you! And when it comes to editing, well, I always have my work cut out for me. It’s a difficult balance to strike—pantsing is often easier for me when writing the first draft, but harder when it comes to revising or rewriting.
So, there you have it: the pros and cons of plotting and pantsing. I’m not sure I prefer one method over the other, but I always find one of them is a much better fit for each project! Which method do you prefer? And can you think of any more pros or cons of either? As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments!