A Cautionary Note for Pantsers

Author Lisa Cron wrote a thoughtful piece over on Writer Unboxed on January 10, 2013, that got me thinking. If you haven’t read Lisa’s work, I highly recommend her latest book, “Wired for Story,” a guide to how writers can use storytelling techniques to trigger the brain’s natural ability to read stories.

Cron’s post on Writer Unboxed focused on the technique, advocated by Anne Lamont in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” chapter in the classic work, Bird by Bird, to “let it all pour out” when writing a first draft. Cron posits that Lamont’s point has been widely misinterpreted. Lamont was not suggesting writers dive into a first draft with no thought or regard for the story they are trying to tell. Having said that, Cron proceeded to discuss why the “let it all pour out” approach does not serve the writer well.

“Let’s face it, it’s much easier—seemingly liberating—to let ‘er rip and write without thinking, pantser-style, than it is to think about what you’re writing beforehand, and track it as you go,” Cron wrote.

Read the full post

Cron recommended nine tips to avoid the trap of flying blind and ending up with an incoherent draft. I won’t repeat them all here, but four of these tips in particular resonated with me:

#2. Know what your point is before you begin to write.

#4. Know the over-arching problem your protagonist will face.

#5. Know your ending first.

#8. Concentrate on the “why” and not the “what.”

As an unabashed pantser, I should have taken exception to what Cron wrote, but as I reflected on it, she was dead-on. It’s fine to “let ‘er rip,” but here’s a cautionary note: a writer must think his story through before putting a single word on the page. So here are the things I always work out before I sit down to write:

  • Premise: what is the story about?
  • Protagonist’s goals and obstacles. These should be made clear to the reader as early in the story as is possible.
  • Antagonist’s role and ways in which the antagonist will thwart the main character.
  • Major milestones in the story. What are the events that will drive the story forward?
  • Major conflicts. How will these be set up and developed and resolved for maximum impact?
  • Ending. Even if you change your mind about the ending (as I have done during the final stages of a first draft), a writer cannot reach a destination unless he knows where he is going.
  • Theme. Though this is sound logic, I nearly completed the first draft of my first published novel, Small Change, without having any idea what the theme was. It came to me in a quote by the main character’s mother that I wrote almost unconsciously (it must have been there all the time in my brain). It was one of those ah-ha moments a writer experiences.

I give a lot of thought to the points above before I start to write. I prepare a three to four page outline listing the major events of the story in narrative form. Then I let ‘er rip.

If you want to take a deeper dive into outlining techniques, I recommend K.M. Weiland’s book, Outlining Your Novel.

I will be reviewing both Cron’s and Weiland’s books in future posts.

If you are a pantser, how much thought do you give to outlining?


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11 responses to “A Cautionary Note for Pantsers

  1. I always read all these advice ideas with interest but a grain of salt. Surely as one method works and is touted by a well known author, another will extol the virtues and reasoning of the opposite. I would say most of us, especially the inexperienced (that would be me) probably do best with as much pre-structure as we can stand. Helpful ideas here.

    • Julie,
      Thanks for your comments. I think what it boils down to is that a writer must choose a method of pre-planning that suits his/her skills and work habits. I have great admiration for writers who can spew out a detailed outline. That’s just not me. I do agree, as Lisa points out, that the writer must work out the core story, character issues, and other critical elements in advance of writing the first draft. thanks again for your feedback.

  2. Diane W

    I find it surprising that I am more of a panster than an outliner. As a meeting planner, I thrive on organization and details. This weekend, I’m creating my work agenda for a major conference in two weeks. My schedule will be plotted out to the minute. My novel, not so much. However, I think I struggle with outlining because I know how my stories will start and end, but it’s the middle that’s perplexing. So, letting ‘er rip helps me fill the gaping hole in the middle. One of my goals is to pick and choose from all of the advice that’s out there and formulate a process that will work best for me. Thanks for the post,CG.

    • Diane,
      Thanks for sharing your feedback. I am the same way in my professional career. I have to plan in advance and I have a very deliberative style of management. This doesn’t carry over into my fiction writing, though. I’m not sure why. I am trying to be more of an outliner, but I am a pantser at heart. Thanks again.

  3. These are really good tips. The first draft is great, because (as long as you follow a real story) you can “let it all out.” That’s what editing is for- and why editing is one of the most difficult aspects of writing/publishing.

  4. None at all. I disagreed fundamentally with all her points because it does depend on the writer. I’m a pantser, and I’ve wrecked many stories following that advice. If I think about what the story is about or try to come up with story beats or turning points, I’ll write to them and lose the basic structure. It’s been much better for me to only think of the scene I’m working on and not think about the rest of the story.

    Outliners don’t get us, and they keep thinking we’re broken. Whereas, we may not just need to figure out what works best for us.

    • Linda,
      Good point. I’ve tried to be more of an outliner but I lose all of those great things I discover along the way in developing my stories. I guess it really comes down to what you are most comfortable doing as a writer. Thanks for your comment.


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