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[Guest Post] Fivers for Writing by the Seat of Your Pants by Todd Skaggs

imageHey, everyone, here’s a counterpoint to my Fivers on outlining. This is a guest post froom Todd Skaggs, and I think it’s going to give you something to think about. We don’t all write the same way, and Todd is here to tell you my way sucks, and his is better. You decide, of course.

He’s got an easy style about him, so if you like this post, be sure to check out his blog, Cooking for One, for more great stuff in this writing life we pursue. Oh, yeah, that ain’t a cooking blog…


It’s been about a year now since I met a dude that would invite me into the inner sanctum for writers — the elusive writers’ group.  It is in a writers’ group that you will learn to give and receive valuable feedback.  It’s a safe place where the weirdness of what we do doesn’t have to be explained or defended No, honey, I swear I was googling “environmentally friendly ways to destroy a body” as research for a story about a Greenpeacer who loses it and goes on a murderistic rampage; killing a corporate big wig for every blue whale they let die.

This particular writers’ group is where I learned about something else. Apparently there are two main camps of writers: Plotters and Pantsers.  Or Planners and Trousers.  Facts and Slacks. But I digress.  The Plotter has their outline. They set up the framework and write around that. It’s like they make the skeleton, and then assemble the body of their story around that.

The Pansters, so named for their innate tendency to fly by the seat of their pants, on the other hand, tend to view themselves as a conduit for the story, wherever it may come from. Much like the scene in The Fifth Element, where the doctors put the hand in the genetic replicator and stood by, amazed, as the body developed before them with no expectations or preconceived ideas about how divine it would be.

You may have guessed by my editorial bias that I am in the camp of the Pantsers.  I always have been, it would seem. And here’s five reasons why…

  1. You are not hampered by the structure. The hardest part of writing by outline for me (and many pantsers I’ve talked to), is the guilt of going off-book. When you are writing to an outline, you leave little room for surprises.  It can force a story structure that looks like it makes sense-and it may be a great story-but you’ve taken out some of the chance for your characters to surprise you.
  2. Your characters reveal themselves to you as the story develops.  As a pantser, my writing is less ‘coming up with a story and fleshing out the details’ and more along the lines of transcribing a movie in my head. As I’m watching the movie (and writing down what I’m seeing in my head), I see the characters as the reader might. They reveal themselves to me in the words that form on the page around them.
  3. Stories develop in a more organic sense. If you have ever read an author interview where they said they had no idea how the words got on the page, there’s a good chance that author is a pantser.  For the pantser, writing is a fluid dance. A give and take. The story seems to follow its own course, almost as those you’re reading it for the first time as you write it.
  4. It is easier to minimize distractions. Without always having to refer back to outlines and notes, there is more time for the thing we love–writing. The lack of constant reference material in tow makes it easier to steal moments for writing. A quick 20 minutes at the coffee shop or a lunch break at work become opportunity to let more of the story unfold for you as you write it out for the world.
  5. It’s much easier to use an outline if you need to.  That’s right, as a lifelong pantser, I will be the first to admit that you may need to construct an outline or at the very least map out the key arc in your story. AFTER THE FIRST DRAFT.  The beauty in letting the writing flow as it will is the fact that the writing does just that–flows.  I’m not saying it won’t flow with an outline, or that you won’t need an outline after your first draft to make things a little more cohesive, but what I am saying is this.  If you find yourself getting stuck putting that outline together for your next story, try this…  Stop. Close your eyes and wait until the movie of you story starts playing in your head. Once it’s ramped up and you have a clear vision of the story you’re watching, open your eyes. Now, write the movie you’re watching.  Welcome to the world of pantsing (at least how it works for me).

Thing is…plotter or pantser doesn’t really mean anything. The point as writers is that we write. Whether you have the route planned out with the latest city transit map, or you are by the side of the road with your thumb out, unsure of where you’re going, the journey is the key.

I choose to fly mine by the seat of my pants.  How do you get there?

Fivers for Outlining

Okay, let’s beleaguer the point a bit here. Everyone knows the two main schools of writers: pantsers and plotters. I suppose you can throw in a third type, the writer who runs the middle of those roads… let’s call that one the PLANSTSER. These are the writers who have their outline, but aren’t afraid to follow the rabbit down the hole when necessary.

It’s kind of where I fall in the grand scheme of things, but to be that writer, you still need to have your outline. Here’s five reasons why you should have that outline by your side…

  1. You spend less time thinking and more time writing once the actual writing starts. Let’s face it, writers think about their stories for a lengthy period of time. In my experience, nothing bogs down the writing process more than going, “Oh, shit. What now?”
  2. The outline helps you spot plot problems much earlier. This goes hand in hand with the first bullet there: with an outline, you’ve done you’re thinking, you know (ideally) the answer to “What now?” because you’ve worked through it.
  3. Let’s throw a third item into the whole “it keeps you writing” portion of this: the outline helps you with the structure of your story. Let’s face it, your outline is malleable. It’s not chiseled in stone, it’s not the Ten Commandments, and it’s okay to move the sections around to create balance and symmetry in the story. In fact, if that doesn’t happen, I’d be quite surprised.
  4. Not only does outlining help keep you writing, it helps you edit. I’ve found that an outline is really the key moments of your story that capture character and theme, and if you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole while writing (which, let’s face it, happens), you already know the essentials of what should stay and what can go.
  5. You’ve heard the quote by Hawthorne that goes, “Easy reading is damn hard writing” before, right? Writing is hard enough as it is (is this character growing, is my plot engaging, is my dialogue crisp, are my chapters too short, to infinity and beyond…) and some days, you just stare at either the blank page or the white screen, whatever. An outline helps with that, because, again, it removes the hard thinking from the process. You’ve done that, and you can write this chapter or that section on autopilot because any shit writing can get fixed in the rewriting and editing phases. Your outline makes writing easier, and I’m all for that.

As always, comments are welcome! Discussion is a wonderful thing.