How to Be a Pantser

No, this is not a guide on how to properly pants others. Rather, this is a guide on how to survive being a pantser-type writer. You may have also heard them referred to as discovery writers or gardeners. Regardless of the name, the idea is the same: these are the writers that dive into a story without a plan.

Before anyone starts on which type of writer is better, I’m going to stop you. There is no one ‘better’ type of writer. A lot of how you find a story best comes down to how your brain is wired. Pantsers are not inherently more creative than plotters. Plotters are not automatically better organized than pantsers. It’s not a polarity, it’s a spectrum. Most writers don’t fall solidly into one group or the other, but sit somewhere in the middle, working with a mix of both approaches: A little random writing, a couple of guides to keep them straight and an end goal that sounds something like ‘the end’.

That said I, personally, tend to be more of a pantser. Given an outline and I can write, but I find the story tedious. That comes down to feeling as if the story has already been told. Part of the delight in being a pantser is finding a new story, with new twists and turns.

There’s downfalls that go with that however. For one, a lack of ideas on any story can make it tough to get through it. The other part of that is that while I might know what happens six or seven scenes down the road, I’m clueless on how to get there from where the story is currently.

Lesson one: To be a pantser, keep inspiration close by.  This doesn’t need to be clear-cut ideas either. It might be something like a mood board, or a playlist of songs. When it doubt, I love prompt generators to help kick start other ideas and help piece things together. Fashion photography also tends to have dynamic poses and unusual settings you can use to create characters and scenes. Try a quick freewrite based on the idea that the photo is a perfectly normal day for the character.

You can also collect inspiration from every-day places. Out of context conversations are great fodder for sparking ideas. When out and and about, try to come up with stories for each of the people you see on the street. What do they look like? What could be going on in their world?

Along with lesson one, there’s lesson two: Rules don’t matter. Stuck in the middle of a scene? Throw in something ridiculous, or unexpected, or completely illogical. You can make it work later when you edit. Your goal for the early drafts is to just get them down. It’s much easier to cut out parts that don’t work than it is to shoehorn in a scene that does work later.

Which, brings us to the third and final lesson: blindfold your editor. Every single writer has an inner editor, and they often get cranky about things like grammar, glaring plot inconsistencies and broken character arcs. Your job as a pantser is not to listen to that inner editor. Your job is just to write so you have something to edit later. That’s not always easy, but there are plenty of tricks you can employ.

  • Blocks of text are great for hiding errors. Your eyes are naturally inclined to skim over them, rather than try to read. Try justifying your setting and removing any indents. Don’t forget to remove any spaces between paragraphs. It’s easy enough in most word processing programs to adjust these again later when you want to edit.
  • If your processor underlines mistakes in a certain color, change your font to match that color. When everything looks the same, it’s harder to pick out individual mistakes.
  • Have a seperate list of notes for things to look at when you do the next draft. These don’t need to be detailed notes, but a quick jot will usually help satisfy your inner editor about any structural mistakes.

What are your favorite pantser techniques?


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