Writing Excuses 7.37: Pantsing

Pantsing! What are we even talking about?

We’re talking about discovery writing, but apparently some folks think it’s more fun to call it “seat-of-your-pants” writing. In this cast we cover this exhilarating process, and how it might best be applied.

Mary uses the “yes-but, no-and” trick. Dan starts with an end in mind, and then ignores it in order to write today’s chapter. Brandon, despite being a fairly rigid outliner, often finds himself discovery writing when under odd sorts of pressures. Howard likens discovery writing to improvisational music.

Fundamentally, seat-of-your-pants writing is like seat-of-your-pants anything else: the more practice you have within that discipline, the more of the techniques you’ve mastered, the more likely you are to succeed in the endeavor.


Cheerful ruffians, civilized louts, yes-but, no-and, ready, set, go.

Existence, by David Brin, narrated by Kevin T. Collins, Robin Miles, and L. J. Ganser.

31 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.37: Pantsing”

  1. I think the Stephen King comment was pretty unfair. I’ve read a lot of his interviews on his writing, and he’s never suggested that he sends in a first draft to his editor. Some of his books mention in the afterword or intro about how long he had to work with his editor to finish. If the remark is supposed to stem from the length of his books, yeah, they’re still too long, but they were probably even longer at the start.

  2. You mentioned that writing periods of 2 hours at a time is something you consider short. How much time do you or writers generally dedicate to writing every day – especially those who still have to keep a day job and/or a family?
    For me – 2 hours is a LOT. I’m really glad when I a) have two hours and b) still have the mental capacity to actually concentrate for 2 hours. How many words do you write per day on average to feel like you don’t loose the flow?

  3. I think the goldfish comment was pretty accurate. I used to think I needed blocks of time to write, but I can’t remember the last time I had three uninterrupted hours to myself. I just always keep the document up on my computer, and tend to write in 5-20 minute bursts. I actually have a difficult time writing a first draft any other way (though, given the chance, I love to edit in long stretches) — I’m used to putting a thousand words down, then having time to think about what should come next.

  4. I’m more like you, Laila. Two hours is a lot of time for me because I have a day job, family, church responsibilities, etc too. Novels can be written in 15-30 minute chunks. The pace is just slower. To any aspiring writers out there with barely any time to write, don’t give up or use lack of time as an excuse to avoid actually writing. Get out there and write!

    PS – I’m a discovery writer myself and fly by the seat of my pants. Just asking myself ‘what would happen next’ or ‘how would they react to this now’ can propel me forward through the unknown. Yes I do hit dead ends sometimes and backtrack but Mary was spot on. Those dead end words were still a good writing exercise and count toward that million practice words to get better at the craft.

  5. So if you discovery write for a short story is that called shortsing?

    Great podcast as always really appreciate it as a struggling discovery writer.

  6. Joe, just do what I do – download the first few seasons and listen to them again. I find that I learn a lot by relistening. You can’t develop all the good writing habits in one go, after all.

  7. Yeah, I put their entire DVD on my ipod. When I go running, I just hit the Writing Excuses playlist, select shuffle, and take off running with the fab four (and sometimes guests) in my ear. I could run a marathon or three and still not hear all of the past material.

  8. Great episode! I definitely support more on this topic. I have the hardest time finishing up pieces, since my discovery-written stories tend to derail and I lose enthusiasm about them. Writing Excuses is one way to keep myself motivated.

  9. i think i am right in the middle of the spectrum…pantsing on one end and outlining on the other. when i write i alternate between them, some pantsing here, some outlining there….tonight i think i will pants my story

  10. I wish we had a Writing Excuses cheat sheet of most useful phrases to print out and tape to computer, e.g., “Yes, but…” or “No, and…”

    Alternately, you might make a drinking game out of that sheet.

  11. Although I usually count myself on the extreme end of outliners, to the point where if I don’t have a very clear plan in mind when I sit down to type or draw, nothing comes out at all, I do find that I discovery write almost all my fight scenes. I stand up, pace around, act it out, make crappy sound effects, and usually replay the fight a couple times to keep it fresh in my mind and draw it.

    Also, we’ve got gardeners and architects, discovery writing and outlining, pantsing and… what?

    1. @Nathan M The opposite of “flying by the seat of your pants” is “flying by instruments.” I’m not sure that metaphor will take us from discovery writing to outlining.

  12. I’ve seen one description of developing an outline as “stepping stones.” They suggested taking a sheet of paper, and putting the starting scene in a bubble at the top, and the ending scene in a bubble at the bottom. Then put other scenes in bubbles in between, feeling free to connect them or rearrange them as needed, until you have a set of stepping stones leading from the beginning to the end. It actually is a nice way to get a broad brush view of the story. So perhaps we have pantsing and stoning?

  13. Thanks! Love these. I’m still learning about the craft, and found out only recently that I am mostly a discovery writer. I thought I was an outliner for years because I’m very annal/ocd, and tried loads of different methods, which never really worked. I tried discovery writing this year, and suddenly plots appear!

    Though I have never heard this before, I believe what went wrong for me with outlining, is that the sheer branching of many different possible outcomes shut me down. I wanted to write them all and pick the very best one, and I couldn’t do it. I tend to write from cause to effect, to the next cause, etc. Though, I do find I cannot start without a basic premise, some principles and an ending in mind.

  14. Yeah, plotting or pantsing, the age-old question. I do a mix of both. A very skeletal outline to begin with, then I brainstorm each chapter as I go along. Then let whatever strikes my fancy come my way.

  15. Great episode. I discovery write and go with the Graham Greene school of 500 words a day. I don’t give myself a time period, I have a word count to aim for. I find that if I have hours ahead of me, I just get distracted with “research” or start focusing on how little I’ve written, as the hours slip by.

    I prefer to put the dinner on timer, head upstairs and pound out 500 words before the oven dings.

    I’m at the 3/4 stage and I’ve written myself into a corner, so I’m facing some big cuts. I don’t care if I need to cut, as long as I get the thing written.

  16. Interesting episode. I’m a pretty hard-core outliner. I find that most of my discovery is done away from the keyboard. When I go to write a scene, and my outline paragraph doesn’t have sufficient detail in it, I usually have to go outside for a walk. That’s where I figure out all the fine details of the scene. Then I can sit back down and write it.

    I spent my entire childhood making up stories in my head so I guess I’ve trained myself to work that way. Maybe with some practice I can learn to do my discovery at the keyboard.

  17. I think I’m similar to Brandon in that, while I lean very much towards doing detailed plans in advance, writing endings first and the like, filling in the details and surprises of my work is very much an improvisational exercise.

    Also, I could probably spin Howard’s music analogy out forever, since I love bridging those two art forms. It’s very much about knowing beforehand what kind of chords and scales and arpeggios you want to put in the work, and in that regard improvisation (both musical and literary) is a much more preparation-intensive endeavour than it might seem.

  18. so I have a kind of sarcastic but fully honest question. I have heard from all writers, not just you, that the more I write the better I will get. My question is, does this mean literally? If I just sit down and write for eighteen hours a day, just sleep, shower, and write with a sandwich here and there, is that honestly all it takes to be a good writer?

    Right now I am writing for four and a half hours every day: a half hour of journaling, an hour of aimless fun writing where I test my characters and put them into whatever strange plot I want to put them in, and three hours of work on my actual story I am writing. I worry about my skill level never getting any better, I just want to know if I keep at this, will I get better?

  19. I have no doubt that getting regular feedback from a writing group will make a big difference.

  20. I love your guys’ podcasts, Brandon’s books and class lectures, Howard’s comics and both Dan & Mary’s books are currently at the top of my priority list as well as every book you guys keep making “boom of the week” so thank all of you so much. You guys have all helped me out so much with my writing. I listen to this podcast everyday as well as the lecture (I also find Sword & Laser and Rothfuss’ Storyboard on Geek & Sundry to be of help) and am ambitiously catching up on all of those things as well as reading. I also do my best to read any of Sanderson’s students’ books as well and I take notes while reading/watching/listening to all of these things while writing my own work.

    There’s one thing I have always had troubles with, and it is the whole sub-plotting/primary-plotting issue. I am having a hard time with tying all of them up, and just being able to give each one its own definition, until just very recently (as in, like two hours ago) and I doubt it will turn out nicely this first time and I know I need to practice. But I think it would be an important subject to bring up for an episode, if you guys wouldn’t mind.

    Thank you for everything you guys do. You’re all helpful, and humorous and insightful.

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