There are two kinds of authors. Planners meticulously plan what they’re going to research and write before they start writing. Pantsers (think “seat-of-the-pants” writers) start writing and see where things go. While these terms come from fiction, they also apply to nonfiction writers.
It’s tempting to start writing by, well, writing. But setting out to write without a plan is also hugely wasteful. Nonfiction writers who plan first have significant advantages. Here’s are six reasons you need to be a planner, not a pantser.
1 You need to plan your whole project, especially research, not just your writing
What does it take to create a nonfiction book? You need a central idea. You need a table of contents made up of chapters. And you need research and stories to fill in those chapters and make them fascinating and believable.
Research often requires lead time. It takes time to set up interviews. And if you’re using some form of data (polls, surveys, analysis of other quantitative information), those take time to set up as well.
If you’ve planned the book, you’ll be able to launch the research project required to fill it up. If you’re writing by the seat of your pants, you may find yourself stalled waiting for an interview, case study, or data set that you don’t have yet, and won’t arrive in time. It’s much better to start the long-lead-time research elements first, using the plan you create to tell you exactly what to prepare.
2 You need to deal with gaps and duplicated material
Pantsers often end up with masses of prose that don’t cohere. That’s not surprising. If you started building a house by just hammering boards together, you might find that you’ve got twice as many bedrooms as you need and the bathroom is in the wrong place.
Two big problems with nonfiction prose are gaps and duplication.
If you’ve planned out the material ahead of time, you’re more likely to see where there’s something missing. For example, where’s the part about the impact of the trend you’re writing about on management, or what are you going to say about the budget required? It’s a lot easier to see those gaps in a detailed outline of the book than in a collection of lumps of text.
Duplication is also easier to spot if you’re planning. You’ve got a case study about a moving company that seems to fit in three different chapters — where does it belong? Or you notice that you’ve repeated a truism about measuring progress in five different places. If you resolve the structural issue before you start writing, you won’t waste effort. Meanwhile, the pantser may find herself writing the same passage three different times in three different places because her mind keeps coming back to it — creating a duplication problem that requires extensive rewrites on existing material.
3 Plans are easier to change than text is
Stuff goes wrong when you’re writing. You change your mind about the idea when you’re partway through. Or you realize the chapters are in the wrong order.
When a planner needs to fix things partway through the project, he can go back to the original plan and make adjustments there. The plan has the advantage that you can see it all at once, and therefore rearrange it without a lot of difficulty. Then go back and rearrange and revise the prose you already wrote based on the new plan.
That’s a lot easier than taking a partially written manuscript and just moving hunks of it around in hopes that you’ll fix the issue you’ve identified.
4 Plans fuel book proposals for traditional publishers
A book proposal includes an idea, a detailed outline/table of contents, and a sample chapter.
All of those are easier and faster to create from a plan. The table of contents will fall right out of the planning work you did.
Only a fool writes a whole book before pitching it. If it doesn’t sell, or if a publisher requires significant changes, you’ve wasted lots of work. From a content perspective, most of what you need to pitch it is in the plan you created.
5 Plans can withstand pauses
Has this happened to you? You start a big writing project, then have to stop for a period of months or even years. Maybe a family member gets sick, or your other work becomes overwhelming. But the book is worth doing, so you come back to it.
If you’ve got a plan, you can go back to it to get a clear idea of what’s done, what isn’t, and what to work on to resume your efforts. You may even decide to make revisions to that plan based on what you learned during the pause in your book work.
If you’re a pantser, on the other hand, you’ve got tens of thousands of words of text. You may have forgotten what you wrote, where it belongs, and what problems you were solving. You can’t even restart until you reread what you wrote and think about it.
The planner can get started again in a day or two. The pantser won’t be able to get their head around the project again without weeks of effort. As a result, half-done pantser projects often never resume.
6 Plans make promotion easier
Real writers don’t just write. They promote what they write to help their ideas spread and their books to sell.
What’s worth promoting?
If you’re working from a plan, you can see the hooks for promotion right in there: stories worth sharing, data worth highlighting, blog posts or podcasts or videos worth creating. Knowing that ahead of time might even help you write those sections in a way that’s easier to promote.
The pantser’s complete manuscript is a lot harder to mine for promotional goodies. You create extra work for yourself — the work of carefully perusing the manuscript for bits worth promoting.
How to plan when you really want to write
Am I saying that you can’t write anything until you have a plan? No! Writing is an important way of developing ideas.
Write a treatment for your book. Write the flap copy. These bits help develop ideas.
Write up stories about people. They’re fun to write and will motivate you. And once you’ve written them, you can slot them into the plan you’re working on.
Write a sample chapter. This helps you create a template for the rest of the chapters.
All of those activities will exercise your writing muscles and help you stay excited about the project.
But don’t just write. You’ll write yourself into a corner. You’ll get frustrated. You’ll feel blocked.
And those are all problems you could solve by being a planner, not a pantser.