Keep, bend, break and nonsense
Running with Wolf Hall

Pantsing forward, planning backward.

One of the writers in the Taming Your Novel workshop I gave at York has - to my delight - picked up in her blog on something that I've recently come to believe: that the division that we often talk about, between Planners and Pantsers, is not necessarily a helpful distinction. And yet it comes up time and again, in everything from writers' forums to festival panel sessions: are you a planner or a pantser?

As I described it here, which you are is driven by your fears as much as your understanding. "Pantser" describes

... "flying by the seat of your pants": the kind of writer who dives straight into the first draft, and sees what happens. And the opposite seem to be the planners: the ones who don't start until they know a good deal about where they're going. The planners are afraid of getting lost or stalling or going wrong if they don't have at least some kind of map in their hand; the pansters are afraid of being shackled or bored or going wrong if they do. And yes, both can go wrong, and I've seen the results: the planned novel where everything fits together as neatly as a jigsaw, and is just about as interesting and believable an evocation of real life; the pantsed novel whose open-ended exploration of characters' lives and experience seems... well, endless.

But since I wrote that, it's become clearer to me that this distinction is unhelpfully rigid and binary. As I first realised in Dreaming the Map, you may be putting down a zero draft, or a radically different third draft, or a mind-map of how your characters feel about each other, or a family tree, or a sketch-map of the farm; you may even draw your characters' faces, if you're a much better draughtswoman than me ... but all you're ever really doing is imagining on paper.

And what that means is that it's not a given that "planning" has to come before "drafting". I do plan imagine on paper before I start actually setting down my first try at the text itself.  But I always plan in pencil, and I often revise my plans in the light of the first draft. And I often stop and grab pencil and paper to sketch notes on a bit of past or future plot, or to clarify some geography, or map the tensions between several characters in a scene.That's planning - but it's really just another way of using words to pin down my sense of this story. And especially towards the end, a scene may come out far too bony, just dialogue and basic gestures, because I know exactly where it needs to get to, and I'm not "seeing" the rest of the picture: the dialogue isn't much more than a skeleton - a plan, if you like - for the fully-realised scene.

That blogpost by Mrs T describes how she's realised it's not a sign of failure to find you need go back to a bit of planning when you're halfway through the draft. And someone else, considering herself a hard-wired panster, and having just downloaded my planning grid and applied it to her "draft F", found all sorts of things clarified, straightened, and come into order.

In fact, on the macro scale of things I suspect that lots of writers do their planning retrospectively; splurge the first draft, dream on paper, follow it wherever it goes. Only then do they have a clear enough idea of what this project is to go back to the beginning and make sense of the big architecture, and how it all fits together. Indeed, some write whichever scene they're moved to write, and trust to the future that it'll all stitch together.

The risk with this approach is a) either you get too wedded to lovely characters/scenes/plot-strands which don't actually work, and have trouble getting yourself to murder them when they turn out not to be wanted; or b) that, try as you will to believe that you've "written" the novel but nothing's set in stone, once the boundaries of the project seem to be established, it's really difficult to move imaginatively beyond them: you never stand back and question the underlying assumptions about what this project is.

There's one writer (I've a feeling it's A L Kennedy but I could easily be wrong) whose novel process is basically writing a first draft, throwing it away, writing a new first draft... Not all of us could face doing that, but it does take that same willingness to murder not just your darlings but everything else, to work this way successfully.  But if you can trust yourself to be both ruthlessly organised AND wildly open-minded about how the project needs to change, becoming what you might call a retrospective planner might just be the way for you.

Update: 9th March 2017

Since writing this, I've written a major post about Taming Your Novel, which explores all the ways that you might sort out an out-of-hand draft. And one of the things I realised is that they're the same things that you might use to plan before you start that first draft. It really is all dreaming on paper: the only difference is where your first shot at the continuous prose that looks like a novel-in-the-making comes, among all the other things we do to write our story.


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Mary Tod

Elizabeth George wrote a book called Write Away, her spin on the craft of writing. One takeaway for me - and there were many - was an outlining technique she describes and which I've adapted for my own purposes. Before sitting down to write, I plan a series of scenes. Each scene has the following headings: setting, narrator, timeline, basic outline, open questions (what the reader should wonder about at the end of that scene) and dramatic dominoes (scenes that cascade from the one you've just outlined). As you point out, planning doesn't mean that you never change your plot but I find it makes the writing more productive. As a colleague of mine used to say when we were consulting to clients, "if you don't have a plan, then any direction will do" and would follow that statement with "if you build a plan, then at least you know when and why you are deviating from it". Just a thought :)


Really good material here and in your earlier post that you referenced. Thanks! Carol Baldwin


I have started doing this type of scene planning and have found it to be very helpful. Carol Baldwin

Sandra Davies

I whole-heartedly echo Cbaldwin6. Much of what you say here I have (after five novels, none other than self-published) worked out for myself, which is obviously essential but it is so reassuring and affirming to read it here.
Time is a great healer too - for enabling one to see that those perfectly expressed phrases DO have to go, that the first idea for a plot is a disaster.
As ever Emma, you talk a great deal of sense. Thank you.


I downloaded your planning grid too and found it a great tool for structuring my second novel. I put a lot of thought upfront into plot and character development, much more than I have done before; now I'm writing the first draft and diverging more and more from what I planned. Plot points just seem to jump out of characters and situations, and before I know it I'm writing a different story. I love that spontaneous feeling, the story taking turns that I didn't see coming even as my fingers were on the keyboard, so I guess I am no planner. But without having sat down first to write a plan I don't think I would ever have got started. It was a seed, giving me lots of material to start writing a draft, and it's made me more creative and more productive.

Now, about 25000 words in, I'm rewriting the plan around what I've drafted so far - I'm planning the new story. And I'm sure I won't follow it any more than I did the last one - I love being surprised too much. But having a plan still gives purpose and structure to what I'm doing.

Directed spontaneity, planned with hindsight, really seems to work. I think you're right: making a distinction between the two approaches isn't necessarily all that helpful, while using them to drive each other can be.


With my WIP I partially planned it, wrote fast up till about 60,000 words at which point I was beginning to lose my way because there were elements in the parts I'd written that I wanted to change. Then the Olympics and long holidays meant I stopped writing altogether. I've now edited what I've done, replanned, and am getting going again. So I agree - it's not an either/or between planning and pantsing; it's a pick the best tool for where you currently are.

Emma Darwin

That's fascinating, Mary. I'm not sure I could be that clear-headed, but then I'm not trying to write a crime novel. I certainly think that having a clear idea of what you're writing towards - where you and the reader (and the characters) need to be by the end of the scene - makes an enormous difference to how well and strongly you write.

Emma Darwin

Carol, you're welcome!

Emma Darwin

You're welcome, Sandra!

I do agree that often it's just a matter of leaving it for a while, and then suddenly it's easy to wield the knife. Indeed, I know that if I have to do thorough cutting, I need to do it in several passes. Each time I think I've cut everything cuttable - each time I go back I see more that could go...

Emma Darwin

I think "directed spontaneity" is a great concept. So often the planning/pantsing debate takes for granted the idea that either you constrain yourself at the start, or you don't... But, as you say, having a few basic outlines can actually make things more creative and go places you couldn't have expected.

Emma Darwin

Exactly. The real question is perhaps, "So what kind of imagining-on-paper is right for the work I need to do today?"

Jari Lindholm

I think the most terrifying thought of all is that you've created believable, sympathetic characters and an interesting setting and then got yourself stuck in what is basically the wrong plot but cannot dismantle it because, as Emma said, "once the boundaries of the project seem to be established, it's really difficult to move imaginatively beyond them: you never stand back and question the underlying assumptions about what this project is".

Emma Darwin

True, and I don't know what the answer is, because, equally, how do you know if the plot is the right plot, until you've seen if and how these character will actually inhabit it and move it forward.

John Hursan

I really appreciate this post. I’ve been looking all over for this! Thank goodness I found it on Bing. You have made my day! Thanks again!

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