The Myth of Plan First and Write Later

plan first write later
Photo credit: Sebastian Niedlich (Grabthar) on / CC BY-NC-SA

Today’s guest post is by writer and creative writing tutor Louise Tondeur (@louisetondeur), author of The Small Steps Guides.

I hadn’t heard of plotting versus pantsing when I wrote my first two novels—and I didn’t know much about planning at all.

For those who haven’t heard of plotting versus pantsing, it refers to one group of writers who prefer to plan first then write, as opposed to a second group who prefer to write by the seat of their pants. (As a Brit, I had to learn that this meant trousers and not knickers.) The polite term—and my preferred one—for pantsing is intuitive writing. Intuitive writers, according to the common story, simply write, however the mood takes them, and plan later on.

Plotting versus pantsing is one popular version of the plan first/write later myth. This myth basically would have you believe that generating ideas, planning, writing, redrafting, submitting and publishing happen sequentially, in that order, in a linear fashion.

The myth also has its mirror image, the idea that there are some writers out there (for some reason I’m picturing them with flowing scarves) who simply cannot plan first and must write a draft then turn it into a novel. To me, this mirror image (although it’s the opposite) is simply part of the same story.

How did the myth of plan first/write later arise?

I don’t know for sure, but after twenty-five years of teaching (and therefore sometimes having to read dodgy writing advice) I have a feeling that the idea that you have to plan first/write later (or that you simply can’t) came about because of these four things:

  • The idea that, to be truly creative, you must be an intuitive writer, who writes with their soul, who doesn’t need to plan first.
  • The idea that a creative person is synonymous with a messy person. Therefore, so the story goes, a truly creative person couldn’t possibly plan first—they wouldn’t be able to find their plan under all those piles of creative outpourings for a start.
  • The opposite idea: that an efficient, productive person is someone who plans, with business-like rigor, but that their business-like efficiency prohibits them from being “truly creative.”
  • Bestselling writers, for whom the planning process was probably pretty hazy by the time they did the interview, claiming either to “plan first” or “simply write.”

I seem to remember that Jeffrey Archer was one of those hailed as a planner. Back in the day, I gasped at the idea of doing nothing but planning for three months and nothing but writing for six months—it seemed like such an unreachable goal.

Why the plan first/write later myth (or its mirror image) is damaging

Any time I’m presented with an either/or, one thing versus another, I get suspicious. That’s because there it’s almost always an oversimplification, or there’s more context than the either/or choice suggests. There’s a game gets played on kids’ TV over here where they interview a pop star by asking them to choose between either/ors. Cat or dog. Pizza or salad. Tea or coffee. Which begs the question: why on earth can’t I like cats and dogs, pizza and salad, tea and coffee? Or feel indifferent about all of them? What if I run a pet-friendly café?

Of course, if you have successfully used a linear method of plan, write, publish, or indeed, write, reshape, publish, then I raise my glass to you. I’m not telling you to stop! However, the myth can be damaging to people who are starting out because:

  • An inflexible, fixed plan feels restrictive, and in some cases can lead to “fear of the blank page” so bad that you don’t write a thing.
  • It leads people to (mistakenly) think that they plan once, then get on with it.
  • It could mean that intuitive writers (those who like a bit of meandering and pondering) never get going with their story and lack narrative drive.

Here’s what to consider instead

  1. Plan all the time. Plan at scene level, too. Use any planning tool you like – but do not do it once. You don’t plan, then forget about the plan. Redo your plan at least once a month. Tweak your plan weekly.
  2. Consider using scene cards (write the scenes from your novel on separate index cards). This is because it makes your plan portable, and you can see all of it if you lay it out on a table or stick it up on the wall.
  3. Write intuitively all the way through the process. Write to your plan, but in addition have writing sessions where you go out and observe the world and freewrite about it. Observing the world like this will add depth to your characters and the locations in your stories.

Just as you do not have to choose between cats and dogs or tea and coffee, you don’t have to choose between planning and “simply writing.” Do both, at different times, all the way through the novel writing process.

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