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January 11, 2021
By Sassafras Lowrey
In many writing communities, there are two common approaches to writing a novel.

For many writers the hardest part of writing is, well, writing! Having ideas comes easy. What separates authors from the rest of the world is that we are the people who sit down day after day and put our fingers to the keyboard or grab a pen and a notebook and start actually writing. But how do you do that?

Many writers, both traditionally published and self-published, take part in the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) each November. In this monthlong sprint, writers from around the world set the goal of completing a 50,000-word draft of a new project within 30 days, which breaks down to about 1,667 words per day. This approach to writing doesn’t work for everyone, but it has gained popularity in recent years and led to successful books in both traditional and self-publishing markets.

Novelists tend to fall into two categories: “planners,” who develop outlines before they begin writing, and those who don’t, often referred to in self-publishing circles as “pantsers.” The term, which comes from the phrase “by the seat of your pants,” refers to novelists who work without any kind of synopsis, outline, or character development work done before they begin writing.

Although authors of all paths to publication certainly use this approach, I have found this method to be particularly popular in the indie writing community. The big benefit I have found of pantsing a novel is that it allows you as a writer to get creative, to take risks, to try new things. Each day when you sit down to write, you decide in that moment what direction the story will take, which could be completely different from what you wrote yesterday, or what you will write tomorrow.

I think that, particularly in self-publishing communities, planning has gotten a bit of a bad name with some writers who are understandably eager to get their story onto the page so that it can get into the world. For all authors, but especially those self-publishing, there is a lot of pressure in the writing community to rapidly release books, so it’s not surprising that some self-published authors might be hesitant to spend time prewriting, outlining, or otherwise planning what shape and form their future books will take.

Planning a novel can be time-consuming, but I have found that outlining and developing the novel before you start writing does save you time in the long run. I have found that, even though the pantsing approach doesn’t involve a lot of upfront work, there’s a lot of rewriting and reorganization required during the editing process.

Novel planning can take many different forms, from plotting scene by scene and creating detailed character plans to just drafting rougher sketches of the big plot points. I’m a big believer in outlining, because it means that you begin the writing process understanding your characters’ motivations, goals, and objectives. It also gives you a better initial idea of pacing, conflict, and story before you ever start writing.

What’s Best?

Everyone wants to know the best way to write a book, but, unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Whether pantsing or planning, the best approach comes down to individual comfort and writing style.

"Everyone wants to know the best way to write a book, but, unfortunately, there is no simple answer."
If you aren’t certain which approach is right for you, it can help to experiment with both planning and pantsing. For some authors, myself included, my writing approach differs depending on the book. Generally speaking, planning comes more naturally to me, but I have successfully written novels both ways.

My first novel, which I self-published, was written with a pantser approach. I had a vague story idea but otherwise no plans when I sat down to write that book. In early drafts I went wherever my imagination and the story led me. That said, it was creatively stressful for me to write this way and required a significant amount of time and effort to edit and reorganize.

My traditionally published novel came a couple years later, and I wrote it after developing a detailed chapter-by-chapter outline. A year and a half later, I self-published a novella. Before starting to write, I outlined the book’s chapters, and worked through character sketches outside of the story. When I sat down to write the first scene of the first chapter, not only did I know where the story was headed, but I knew who my characters were, what they wanted, what they were afraid of, and how they would grow over the course of the book.

Prewriting research, character development, and outlining comes most naturally to me, but it isn’t the right path for every project, or for every writer. Of my forthcoming novels, one was highly planned, and the other is fully “pantsed”—first time I’ve done that in a decade!

Even though pantsing might help me get a first draft written quickly (and sometimes that is a goal), ultimately a novel I write by pantsing takes longer, and it’s a much messier process to get from idea to published book. As a result, pantsing is not an approach I would take for a novel that I anticipate wanting to sell or release quickly.

As an author you have to figure out which approach is going to be right for you and your novel, and then follow through and get those words onto the page. Because there are readers waiting!

Sassafras Lowrey writes fiction and nonfiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Lambda Literary Award for emerging LGBTQ writers.

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