The Sneaky Independent – Issue #6: Planning vs. Pantsing – Part 1

Let’s face it – chances are, you’re a writer. You likely love writing, or at least enjoy it enough that you’ve decided to go into the self-publishing business.

(I assume that’s true, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. And perhaps you aren’t a writer, but instead you outsource the writing, that’s fine – we’re going to talk more about “grand scale planning” in the next issue that will definitely be applicable to you.)

While I’ve not conducted a lot of surveys about whether people pants vs. plan, from the small anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered, there seems to be a large segment of writers who don’t plan at all – they simply pants all the writing.

Let me stop for a moment and explain “pantsing”, for those who don’t know what that means.

Pantsing is “writing by the seat of your pants” – you don’t plan anything. No research, no formulating a plan for the book, no following any sort of plot or outline; it is simply the act of freewriting (albeit with a purpose – a book to sell). And from what I’m hearing, a lot of authors do it, and they do it way more than they should.

Why Pantsing is Bad For Any Paid Product

I’m not going to beat around the bush here – pantsing is generally a bad idea for any writing that you are doing for which you expect to be paid. For example, a book you are selling or freelanced writing for other people.

There are several particular reasons for why it’s bad:

  1. It slows down your writing time, thus making you less productive. I’m going to hammer on this in a minute.
  2. It (generally) produces a poorer quality product.
  3. It’s harder to keep track of what you are writing. (Especially for fiction – did Bob break his left knee or right, what was the name of the one character, etc. etc.)
  4. It’s a hell of a lot more daunting to write up a large project (novel or otherwise) from literally nothing. A blank page produces writers block. We then tend to just give up.

Sadly, though, a lot of authors will persist at trying to pants it.

Don’t get me wrong, some authors are able to – and depending on the size of the project, pantsing might be acceptable or even better than planning. (I’ll get to that in a minute)

There are specific reasons why that can work for some authors – one such reason is they are a prodigy and I know a few who possess that much raw talent.

But for us lowly mortals, which is 99 percent of the rest of us, we have to plan out these larger projects, otherwise it’s mostly just a bust.

Why Authors Insist on Pantsing

I’ve talked to a number of authors who persist in trying to pants and the reason all seem to be the same:

“Planning stifles creativity and ‘art’”.

I think a lot of authors really fear “structure”, like it somehow prevents the creation of something awesome. Infinite choices seems like it allows art to “flow”.

In fact, that is how many people in the “arts” seem to think that’s how it works. That “art” needs complete freedom in order to produce something worth attention.

Problem is – that’s complete bullshit.

The Best Art Has Structure

The best example I have comes from classical music – being a student of music myself, I spent a lot of time in college studying music theory and structure.

There is a reason why art pieces of music, classical music, follow specific forms and functions. Because it allows the artist – in this case, the composer, to work within the structure provided to them. This makes it infinitely easier to write something that explores themes and movement rather than random thought after thought.

In fact, the more choices you remove from the possible equation, the better the remaining choices become – and the easier it is to choose where your story needs to flow to.

In classical music – there is a form called double variation form. It’s where you have a theme that simply repeats…but each repetition varies something.

An example of this is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Second Movement. You can listen to it here.

If you listen carefully you will hear two themes, alternating. But each time the theme plays, there is a variation of some sort – harmonically, a rhythm will change, orchestration or even the key.

And yet, the theme is the same, in essence. It’s stating the same thing, yet different. It’s interesting, expressive and beautiful, yet it’s the same damn two themes just alternating!

Beethoven chose this form on purpose. For artistic expression. He wanted to explore two melodies for the second movement of the 5th symphony – and that’s it. It’s classical music – no one can argue that it’s not art!

The simplicity of the second movement highlights something most beginning authors seem to miss about their own artistic expression – that artistic expression isn’t about complete freedom – it’s about being able to interplay something very basic, a basic theme and allow that single theme to flow and adapt. It’s about following a structure that allows the theme to be explained to the audience in a way that allows people to understand it.

When a master composer writes music, when a master painter paints a new picture, when a master author writes a new story, they all place restrictions on their work. They form a palette of colors, audible or visual or verbal and work from that palette.

For novelist, that palette is your plot and form. It’s how you tell a story based on a theme. You plan this story based on a plot theme or template – and then you go from there.

How Planning Can Actually Be Faster

When you properly plan out your larger work, it actually takes less physical time to write…and it might take less time overall to complete your book.

Let’s look at the numbers.

If you pants your project, you are likely to achieve 500 to 800 words an hour. Maybe less, maybe more. But let’s say you’re decently good at pantsing and you can write pretty quick.

So for a 50,000 word novel…that’s about 100 hours of writing.

However, if you plan properly, you can jump your word count rate to over 2000 words an hour. Four times faster…meaning you can get a 50k word novel finished in…

25 hours of writing.

Even if you take 10 to 20 hours of planning, you are still ahead by almost 50 hours!

Now that’s in a perfect world. There is also editing work that needs finished (but you need to edit your pantsed work anyway), and possibly more.

Regardless, you are likely going to take less time working on your novel or project if you properly plan instead of pants.

Where Pantsing Might Work

Don’t get me wrong – there is a time and place for pantsing.

In fact, I do plenty of “freewriting” in my spare time. It allows for creative brainstorming of ideas, practicing new ways of describing scenarios, and more. In short, it’s great exercise for the brain.

The other scenario is when you are extremely knowledgeable in a subject and you know exactly what you want to talk about. This tends to work with shorter projects, such as this blog post. (And just for the sake of openness, I totally “pantsed” this post. But I’ve been writing in this niche for years and years, I knew exactly what I wanted to talk about and I didn’t need much planning.)

For short work that doesn’t require pay, sometimes pantsing works well.

I hope you enjoyed this issue and I’ll see you next time!

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Owner at Sneaky Fox Publishing
Rob has been self publishing books, videos, software and courses for over 8 years. His expertise includes sales, marketing, coding and music.
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