Examining Wretched Words: Plotting & Pantsing

If you’ve been part of the writing community for long, you’ve probably at some point been asked: Are you a plotter or a pantser? If you’re a plotter, you write by plotting—that is, you outline or otherwise work out the details of your story before actually writing it. If you’re a pantser, you engage in pantsing—flying by the seat of your pants, writing to find out what the story is.

As a description for what we do as writers, I think these terms are ugly, detestable, and reductionist. Almost no one claims to be purely one thing or the other; they’ll answer, “I’m mostly this, but with a little bit of that.” The idea behind using these terms seems to be to pigeonhole writers into types, although reality fights against such narrow definitions.

As far as what these terms define, the two writing methods (and shades in between) that they describe, both types are perfectly valid. Depending on what I’m working on, I might find myself working at either end of the spectrum—different types of stories call for different approaches to the writing process. At least for me. 

It’s not the writing methods themselves I object to: It’s the words themselves. Plotting. Pantsing. Ugh.

First, plotting. Sounds like plodding. Sounds dull. Sounds like work instead of part of an exciting creative process. Sounds like plopping. Like your dog is plopping crap all over the yard, and you’re plopping crap all over the page. No, I don’t think I want to do any plotting.

Second, pantsing. How often do we use “flying by the seat of your pants” when it’s not meant at least in part as a detraction? You’re flying off the handle, all willy-nilly: In other words, you’re not in control, you don’t know what you’re doing. Also, the word pantsing does have another meaning, also known as debagging, which is a type of bullying: the unexpected and unwanted pulling down of someone’s pants. No, I don’t think I want to engage in pantsing.

I hated these words in this context (“What type of writer are you?”) from the first time I heard them. There is no good or acceptable answer. And although I’m sure it won’t happen, I wish people would just stop using them. When I hear this question, I typically just don’t answer. However, if I must give an answer, the only thing appropriate to say would be, “Hey, I’m a writer. Don’t bother me with your trivia.”

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

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5 thoughts on “Examining Wretched Words: Plotting & Pantsing

  1. c2london

    They are better. I’d think any competent explorer would have a map as a starting point while most mappers are exploring. It seems to me that I’m an explorer but I have my eye on my final destination even though when I get there it might not look like what I was expecting.

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