in the beginning… I was always a pantser.

My mother used to be a teacher. (She still is, actually; she teaches ESL as private tutoring now.) Like many teachers, she viewed long papers as a good way to train students to organize their thoughts with an outline, and then put them down and flesh them out with the paper. As she reminded me while visiting for Thanksgiving, one of the incredibly frustrating moments in her life was watching me come up with a paper the morning it was due, while on a thirty-mile car trip to school.

After days of procrastination (from her point of view; she didn’t see any progress when I told her “I’m thinking about it!”), I slouched in my seat in the car, and wrote the rough draft of the paper, then looked at it and wrote the outline from that, and then used the outline to write the note cards with the ideas and facts… the very ideas and facts that should have been written first, then used to create an outline, and from thence the draft.

She was even more upset when two days later, the paper came back with an A+. That’s not how that’s supposed to work!

I’d forgotten about this incident, but she hadn’t. Last night, when she walked into my office and noticed I was frowning at a WIP, I told her writing a first draft is often like reaching into a blackberry tangle to find and pluck the right words out.

And she laughed. A lot. And then told me about that report I’d written when I was a teen, and she’s unsurprised that my process hasn’t changed.

Love you too, mom.

…by the way, it’s been decades, but I found I could easily get in touch with my feelings of awkward teenage embarrassment. All it took was trying to write a scene with some innuendo, and right as I’m getting a paragraph down, my mother pops into the office to want to talk about my brother. Um. Let me just, uh, awkwardly save and close this, um, no, it’s fine, mom, I’m not going to be getting back into the writing headspace anyway, and you’re here visiting, so let’s chat!

Does that happen to anyone else?

24 thoughts on “in the beginning… I was always a pantser.

  1. “…wrote the rough draft of the paper, then looked at it and wrote the outline from that, and then used the outline to write the note cards with the ideas and facts…”

    This is how I write fiction. What do you mean, “Show your work” ??!

    1. Works for software too. To the point that software was available to draw the flowcharts you were supposed to produce before you started based on the source code. 😎

  2. i’ve both pantsed and outlined papers
    and yeah, i have made outlines from a paper i pantsed when the teacher required an outline turned in

    and yes sometimes thigns can bump me out of writing headspa… squirrel!

  3. Not parent, but work supervisor. I’d finished what I needed to do, finished the next two things I would need to do, and so I was working on some technical scenes for [book]. This was during my break period, also. The partly-open door opened the rest of the way, and in strolled boss. Minimize screen, set aside laptop, leap to feet, “Good afternoon, sir. What can I do for you?”

    At least I had left the materials from the work projects on the table beside me, so it didn’t look like I’d just been goofing off.

  4. Honestly, that’s exactly how I wrote essays and it frustrated the heck out of all my teachers! And yes, having them pop in right as you start *that* scene is a surefire way to get back to being a teenager.

    1. Ah, no, that was starting to alpha read a novel for someone and discovering that it had very clear depictions of things my students did NOT need to accidentally read. Vital to the plot and series arc, yes, but not appropriate for young readers. Lesson learned – skim all alpha and beta reads before taking them to Day Job to edit.

  5. Actually, come to think if it, the Intro to Comp class I was forced to take as a Senior wanted 3 drafts and an outline. So, I’d write the paper, make 2 worse “drafts”, the outline and the proposal. Took me maybe an hour for the whole thing so I could get back to the reading I was doing for my senior thesis.

  6. I was never that bad, but I used to do my algebra homework at my locker in the morning when I got to school. The only thing keeping me from the top score in that class that year was my lack of notes. Sometimes things just make sense. And sometimes I need a roadmap to get from one word to the next.

  7. Ah, but ours needed footnotes. . . .

    Then, I did knock off a homework assignment once in the minute before class.

  8. In my senior year high school World Literature class, we had to write a paper on the theme of justice and the law in “Les Miserables” – the book, as the musical wouldn’t exist for a long time.

    Two nights before the paper was due, I was just about to fall asleep when I had a bit of an epiphany on the paper. I bounced out of bed, turned on the typewriter, and banged out an opening paragraph. The next afternoon after school, I finished up – 5 double-spaced pages.

    I was one of two people in the class of 30-odd to get a perfect grade.

    Naturally, when I started writing fiction, I bought into all the “Outline!” hoopla for a long time. I’m only recently getting back to writing into the dark/discovery writing, and it’s brought all the fun back.

  9. If I’m going to write several thousand words of outline, why don’t I just start writing the book?
    My outlines are very rough, giving me a 25,000 foot overview.

    I know where I’m going. I do not know what the journey will be like.

    1. I got through the story like a hiker through a misty woods, blazing the trail I intend to pave. Then I go back and pave it. And sometimes discover that parts are not so paveable as I thought.

    2. Sometimes having an outline is the single best way— in my experience— to stall the story out entirely. Even when I know exactly where it needs to go and what elements need to happen in each episode. Pantsing is so much more logical: I know whereabouts I’m going, so, we’re here and need to get there. What’s liable to happen here to get us there?

      Holy crap! They’re rioting! Run!


      Well that’s about to turn awkward. What’ll happen to prevent the book derailing over there? Ah-hah! Here comes her mate and we can duck into the crowd.


      What physics are involved when they grab me by that while somebody hits me so?

  10. This sounds like some writers I follow. They outline after a section/chapter as they go. Just something to keep them grounded in the overall story.

  11. Back when I was in school nobody made us write outlines and notecards. If it was taught I wasn’t paying attention.

    I did always write longer papers at the last minute, and as a rule I got A’s on all of my papers. I remember typing a paper from a rough draft but little more in terms of revising.

  12. I pants, but when the story starts flopping around with no direction, I’ll step back, map what I’ve written against the Heros Journey, double check that the back brain under stands what sort of story this (primarily) is (boy meet girl/sin and redemption/betrayal and revenge/impersonation/quest/overcoming high odds)

    Then I scramble all these fun-to-write scenes into a better order, and (Ahem, introduce a story problem) possibly with a few notes-to-self. (Look you idiot! You introduced the prefect villain in chapter one. Where’d he disappear to, eh?)

    Sometimes I’ll even do half a page of bullet points.

  13. It honestly never occured to me before that I pantsed essays. I totally did.

    Being one of two whole students who owned computers (the other was my room mate) and thus being able to browse references and stare at a blank screen without interruption, and having the sort of college professors who did not care if I outlined or if I turned in a rough draft, it worked out pretty well.

  14. I pants blog comments, in a sense. My intuition presents a ‘feeling’ which is something like a stripped down outline, and I work out how it goes from there.

    But anything that my intuition does not entirely grok needs an outline. Sometimes I pants a business letter, sometimes I need to outline. And there are documents I can not do without stepping back and outlining.

    Story seems to be in this category right now.

  15. I never have any idea where anything is going. People appear, they do things, have conversations, then wander off. Other people arrive, do things, have conversations, etc.

    But after a while, the thing seems to come together into some kind of story, and that thing that Character did back in Chapter 1 starts to make sense around Chapter 7 or something, and New Character who shows up late in the story was foreshadowed early on.

    I wish I could take credit for being really clever about this, but it does it on its own. Like the pants know the story already, but I have to write it down because pants can’t type.

  16. I have discovered I’m a pantser for fiction and a sorta one for non-fiction. When I was writing research papers, I would pull an outline out after a draft more so that I could make sure everything was in the proper order. For fiction, I feel like I’m along for the ride with my characters. I do have to step back and ask myself what exactly led up to that situation, but then it all seems to work out.

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