Help! I’m Think I’m Becoming A Pantser

Most of us in the reading and writing community know the terms plotters, writers who plot everything out in detail before they begin writing; and pantsers, writers who begin and usually finish a draft without any outline at all. They “fly by the seat of their pants.” To understand the difference, think of someone planning a car trip between Boston and San Diego. The total driving time at average speeds is just over 44 hours or six days.


A true plotter would plan out every day’s route in detail, booking hotel rooms for every night in advance. They might even locate gas stations and restaurants along the way. All this would be programmed into their GPS, of course, for mile-by-mile guidance, complete with speed traps and traffic congestion.


A true pantser would just get in the car and head west. The trip might take a few days longer. Some roads might turn out to be dead-ends, and there would probably be quite a few necessary course corrections. But think of the surprising adventures the pantser might have along the way. 


I’ve always considered these two methods of writing to be more of a spectrum than two distinct camps. Even the most meticulous plotter will encounter detours and roadblocks. Plot points that looked good on paper will fall flat. Brilliant ideas will come in the middle of the night. And even pantser purists have to do a little planning in advance, even if it’s simply deciding on the setting, time of year, and main characters.  Page One: your main character walks out of her apartment…no, her small house, in…wait, where are we? Does she put on a down jacket because it’s January in Minneapolis, or does she grab her sunscreen because it’s July in Key West?


Plantsers fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. In the cross-country-car-trip analogy, I would consult a map and decide to stop for the night at, say, Rochester, NY; Detroit, MI; Des Moines, IA; Greeley, CO; Cedar City, UT; and Las Vegas, NV. But how will I get from Boston to Rochester or Des Moines to Greeley? I have no idea. That’s where the pantsing comes in.


I’m currently finishing up A Collection of Lies, Book 5 in the Kate Hamilton Mysteries, and for the first time in my writing career, I don’t know who committed the crimes. Yikes! It could be any one of five possible suspects, all of whom had motive and opportunity. This isn’t like me. Am I becoming a pantser? Since the manuscript is due to my editor on August 1, my job now is to decide on my final stop before San Diego.


  1. Planstar – love it. I’m a plotter, 80% when I write cozies. 100% when I write thrillers, ok, maybe 95% because characters always surprise me.

  2. I’m a panster by nature but crime needs a little more planning than romance I’ve discovered. However in my most recently completed book I was almost at the point of drawing a name out of a hat. Fortunately it all fell into place before I got that desperate.

  3. I’m a plantser, too, start with the end and work my way there, allowing for pantser moments but following that plotted clothesline to reach my end.
    Good luck figuring out who’s your bad guy. Guess that means you’ve given your suspects all good motives!

  4. Connie, as I noted recently my writing process seems to be evolving, too. But I’ve found that if I follow the lead of my characters, and the story that’s unfolded, the killer eventually turns up.

    1. Catherine, your comments are what got my attention–and got me thinking about how my own process is changing. Or is it just this one book? Time will tell.

  5. I think I’m a plotter who gets lost all the time and has to replot. I have occasional moments of pantsing, but those usually end up being relegated to ‘character exploration’ and ‘background music’, so to speak. frankly, I even get lost when I go for walks in my town, and need to replot via Gps…. So, yes. Plotting.

  6. I like to think of myself as an organized pantser. I’m know I’m going to California and I have a sort of idea that I’m heading west (though given my sense of direction that’s no sure thing), but I just can’t foresee what’s going to happen along the way. I think that’s why I write so many drafts. The first one is me wandering around. Then I get more and more organized.

  7. I’m a premeditated pantser. That means to me that after I write a scene or a chapter, I chew on it in my mind, often in the middle of the night. This is what I call the gift of insomnia. So if Sally has surprised me during the day by suddenly diverting her route and is heading to Pensacola, I’ll keep asking why the hell did Sally do that until an answer comes. That starts what comes next in the book. Great metaphor, Connie.

    1. I love the term “premeditated pantser!” All this goes to show that there’s no right way to write a book. I don’t really have trouble sleeping, but if I do wake up in the middle of the night–or sometimes if I wake up really early–I’ll think about my plot. Some good ideas come in that liminal zone. The problem is remembering them in the morning. : )

  8. I always know the first scene and the last scene, but I start out just writing. After several chapters, I develop my road map by adding 3 or so pivotal scenes and then some scenes for how to get there. But my “outline” is usually just a bunch of yellow stickies which I never look at after I’ve created them.

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