Friday Speak Out!: From Pantser to Planner

Friday, April 16, 2021
by Stephanie Dethlefs

I love lists. I love maps. I love schedules, routines, and plans. I’m spontaneity-challenged. I want to know what’s coming, always. I know these things about myself (and, perhaps more importantly, my husband knows them about me.) I’ve always leaned into this characteristic in all areas...except writing.

I hated prewriting activities when I was in school. I just wanted my stories to emerge from the pencil like water from a faucet. I would avoid writing outlines with a pout and a touch of procrastination. I turned in first drafts and pleaded innocence.

In elementary school, this plan worked fine because I had no inner editor. As I got older, that voice got a little louder, turning the stream of words into more of a trickle or – on the worst of days – not a drip.

But still, I remained a “pantser." I wanted my characters and topics to shape themselves on the page. Scenes would arrive in my mind with no context, and I wrote stories around them. I wrote my first middle grade novel backwards, with the climactic scene being the first thing I wrote. I had no idea who these kids were or how they got there, so I had to write my way out of the predicament.

That’s what worked for me for the first half of my writing life. But last year, as I rounded the bend toward 50, I took two actions which changed everything.

First, I read Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel ((Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). It had been recommended to me and, if I must admit, it had taken me longer than three years to write a first draft of that middle grade novel. I’d gotten stuck over and over (and over and over), quitting more times that I can count.

The second thing I did was enroll in a rigorous book coach certification program. I’d been working with writers in several roles for decades, and this seemed like a perfect next step during an uncertain year. Alongside learning the curriculum, I decided to put the tools to the test with my current work-in-progress. I was shocked at what I uncovered. Not only did asking important questions help me understand what my book was about and who it was for, I was shown how to create a roadmap for the story in an intuitive and emotionally engaging way. I now know exactly where my book is going and, more importantly, why it’s going there.

Will my next book be better than the first one? I don’t know. Do I believe “pantsing” your story is wrong? Not necessarily. But I’ve discovered the power of intentional planning, and it fits beautifully with everything else I know about myself.

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I am a writer and book coach living in Pacific Northwest Washington with my family and a pandemic puppy. I enjoy writing middle grade fiction and creative nonfiction essays. My writing has been featured in numerous publications and my first book was published last year. A free course and additional offers for authors of contemporary fiction for middle grade, young adult and adult audiences can be found at
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Angela Hood said...

I bought Lisa Cron's Story Genius book after seeing several indie authors talk about it on their YouTube channels. Opened my eyes, A LOT. I started out as a plotter then gradually moved to pantsing my novels. But, because I'm preparing a 12 book series to write in 2022-????, it's most important to revert back to plotting and planning. I think there's projects that we can use or the other. My other writing process is that I write in chronological order and I can't write scenes out of order. I've tried it, it's way too confusing for me.

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