The Myth of Plan First and Write Later

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.

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Guest Post.

Louise Tondeur is a writer and creative writing tutor. Her latest book is a short story collection, Unusual Places. She also publishes writing guides including How to Write a Novel and Get It Published. You can find out more at The Small Steps Guides or at her author website.

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Cathy Shouse

This is so helpful and I wish I’d seen something like this when I began. I recently finished a draft that was planned ahead, sort of, in pieces. Then I went back and made an outline of it to help in the revision process. Just yesterday, found out that’s called a reverse outline. 🙂 As someone who was always looking for the One True Way, I appreciate your teaching style. Writing really is a process and is fluid.

Dana Paxson

Very useful. Also very affirming, since I’m always weaving back and forth between generating material and organizing it. Sometimes the material being generated has no target for its organization. Sometimes the organization has no material to put in it. Most often things are a hot mess – out of which emerge, gasping for their first breaths, the completed drafts that can be advanced.

PJ Reece

Thanks, Louise… it’s liberating/refreshing/relaxing to detach from all those rules. I’ve felt guilty because I often promote ‘outlining’ and then rarely follow the advice myself. Right now, for instance, starting another story, I’m crippling myself because I refuse to proceed until I see the story’s structure. What if a heretofore unknown to me structure wants to guide this story…? Writing is scary… like heading out sea… and expecting to be shipwrecked. Or something like that.

Linda Moore Kurth

Loved this article. I’m a pantster, ah err, I mean an intuitive writer, but I’ve learned to like plotting as well. (I like coffee AND tea.) Working in backstory for my memoir up-coming was a challenge. I finally taped a plot line on the wall and used sticky notes I could move around on the line until I was satisfied.

philip mann
philip mann

For me it’s a combination. I may want to reach certain plot points in my series, or have certain things develop. That part is planning. I fill in the blanks by looking carefully at what I’ve done so far, what could be worthwhile exploring and seeing how far that goes. That part is pantsing, or intuitive writing. You can only do so much of it, though. It still has to fit in and not just be another trick you pull because you’re out of ideas.

Amy L Simon
Amy L Simon

Thank you so much for this! I’ve been experimenting and trying to figure out how I write best. If I mostly plan, I find that my writing is too cerebral and boring. I write just to fulfill my requirements in my plan. No good. If I “pants” too much, I end up with either chaos or I get stuck not knowing what to write next. Your solution makes a lot of sense.

Charlie Garratt

An interesting take on this old argument, and one I thoroughly agree with. I mainly write crime novels so find it useful to have a good idea of the plot when I start to write. Even so, I may have drafted one or two scenes before I get to the heavyweight writing, and I do amend the plan all the time when my characters do something unexpected. I think it’s also true that if the writing flows out freely to the end of the first draft without planning in advance, then you’ll still need to develop a plan at the… Read more »

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[…] you’re sitting down to work on a new project, Louise Tondeur reveals why you don’t have to choose between plotter or pantser, Stavros Halvatzis discusses perspective in stories and how to choose it, and Donald Maass analyzes […]

Donna
Donna

Thank you for the reminder that planning isn’t the only path to successful storytelling. I’ve always been a “pantser” but gotten a fair amount of comments regarding how I should plot. I’ve taken courses, read books, and studied everything I can find on planning and plotting a novel but can never seem to find a method that works for me other than to start with what I need to get on the page and then build the story as I go. It’s reassuring to know that my way is the right way for me. Thanks!

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

Oh my. I was so happy to start reading this – and then came that last section. Let down, big time. Sneak attack on those who don’t plan first. “Write to your plan” and now and then, go ahead and “freewrite”. First, that tells writers they NEED to have a plan – FALSE. Second, organic writing is NOT the same as freewriting. Most organic writers do not just write whatever and then straighten it out later. Organic writing is NOT just “simply writing”. It’s insulting to say it is. The method one uses to write is not one way or… Read more »

Richard Probst
Richard Probst

Non-fiction writers get the same advice about planning in different words: Finish the research before writing anything. Good advice, but not always realistic. I recently found a new (to me) contemporaneous source that put a whole new spin on a small piece of history I am documenting, which forced me to tear up two chapters I had just finished. Sure, it would have been better to find it earlier, but I’m glad to learn more at any time about what actually happened in the history I’m writing — except after the book is published, of course!

John Cowton

My goodness. After reading this I realise what sort of writer I am. I’m not quite a pantser, and not quite a planner, I am somewhere in between. It’s important that I identify where I am in order that I continue to write, write, write, no matter what, to get my first draft done.

Cathy Cade

Yep – common sense at last. But what will all those advice blogs blog about if not whether to plan or not to plan? I can never take the advice to ‘just write’ either: if I see an error or think of a better phrase I have to change it NOW. Of course, I still have to edit it a thousand times… (and, never exaggerate.)

Damyanti

Before I wrote my first ever novel draft, this was a big question–plan first or write first. Wise writers told me that I have to find my own way, that there are no easy answers. Over the years, I’ve understood their wisdom–novel writing is an organic process–we have to figure out what works for us–some of us are planners, and some are pantsers, and both methods are fine, as long as there are results. I now use a mixture of both, and yes, my plan is very flexible–if my writing veers off in an interesting, relevant direction, I follow that… Read more »

Suzie Wilde

Well said. I also hate false dichotomies. I use Scrivener and have the creative flow, the research inspiration and the master plan right there, on the same screen!

Erin Healy

Planning and pantsing aren’t myths, they’re models of creative process, and every artist discovers his or her own. As an editor for more than 25 years I agree that most authors’ creative processes fall somewhere along the spectrum, but there are those who fall to the extremes. Almost any model, including the one this article offers, is worth trying on. Play, experiment, figure out which processes work for you. But don’t let anyone to tell you what yours can and can’t or should and shouldn’t be.

Sue
Sue

I too get suspicious when anyone gives me an A/B alternative. I find myself somewhere in the middle of each project, and each project is different. I might plan more on one project or pants-it more on the next. Better to let your frame of mind, at the time, and the piece, dictate how you create it.

Katrina Byrd

Love this post!

AK Vernon
AK Vernon

I agree somewhat with the article and then the comment section. I think everyone is really a hybrid of the two. This also depends on to what extent, you consider “planning”. I read a while ago that an author who considers himself a dedicated “panster” – had a title and a single, short sentence as a premise. Well now technically, that IS a plan, albeit a very limited one. That in mind, we’re all “plotters”. Also, if you have ever let a character or scene develop intuitively (and I’m sure everyone has), then that would make you, at least partly,… Read more »

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[…] debate has created what Louise Tondeur calls the “plan first/write later” myth. “This myth,” she explains, “basically would have you believe that generating […]

Max
Max

Sorry, I kinda feel like this is addressing a straw man fallacy. I don’t find any credible writers/writing coaches who say it’s an either or. Even Stephen King plans when he’s daydreaming his stories. Even James Patterson intuitively creates when he’s making his outlines. It’s really just about finding what works for you… which is pretty much what every decent writing coach says.

Star Ostgard
Star Ostgard

Yeah, I find it’s typically a handful of writers who read “advice” as “MUST DO!” – and then, of course, they have to insist that everyone else do whatever it is they do or they will fail.