The Single Biggest Secret to Pantsing: Trusting Your Own Writing Process

I just started writing a new novel a few weeks ago and I feel like a teenager again.

Yes, there is the euphoria and the excitement of magical new lands to discover, and the thrill of new horizons coming into view.

But when I say I feel like a teenager again, that’s not what I mean. Because, in addition to the euphoria, excitement, and thrill, I am also being clobbered by tidal waves of confusion, self-doubt, intense emotion, and fear, fear, fear.

I’ve been thinking about writing this novel for almost three years. Way back in 2015 was when this character first showed up in my head. I started seeing an image of a man in handcuffs and that image wouldn’t go away. At this point in my life I am now well aware that the images that fall into the “won’t-go-away” category always signal the beginning of a new story for me.

I couldn’t wait to begin…but I also put it off. Then I started the story and was ecstatic…but I also felt weird and scared about pursuing the ideas that were showing up in my mind. I had no idea where they would lead me, and I still don’t. So, for now, I’m just taking it day by day.

This is how I write all my novels, and the process hasn’t ever gotten any easier for me.

In online writing culture, my process is known as “pantsing.” It’s when you don’t have any idea how the story is going to unfold before you write it. I didn’t know there was such a term until I started following NaNoWriMo a few years ago, and when I learned the definition, I felt a great sense of relief. Up until then, I had assumed that I was just kind of a bad writer who couldn’t even stick to an outline.

If I had never pantsed my way through a few different novels, I would probably assume that writers who are pantsers are wildly creative and able to come up with brilliant plot twists on the fly and out of thin air. I might compare them to improvisational actors or freestyle rappers. However, as a writer who uses pantsing as her main mode of creation, I can tell you that I am none of those things.

Pantsing, for me, means that I write slowly. Very slowly. Like, it takes me two years or more to finish a first draft. It also means I do a lot of waiting for the next piece to show up in my mind. Because my process needs a lot of time to unfold, I also do a lot of checking in to see if I’m still legitimately waiting, or actually just procrastinating. Pantsing means that I write in fragments and I also write first drafts with a ton of loose space built in so that things can shift around later if need be.

But perhaps most importantly, pantsing means that I have to trust my process.

And having that trust is definitely the hardest part.

We live in a culture where everyone has a to-do list and everyone is busy. The belief that science and rationality and order always offer the best approach is so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice this is a belief system. We take it for granted that it’s reality. So, my irrational, unpredictable, more feminine-centered process of pantsing my way through a novel doesn’t get a whole lot of cultural support. You will find a hundred articles online on how to outline a novel and push yourself through writing it, and very few on how to carry the seed of a novel within you and nurture it into life.

However, with or without support, I now know that pantsing is the very best approach for me.

Growing as a writer is like this. We tend to assume that “becoming a better writer” means we will learn more about craft and how to execute the perfect sentence, or that we will understand more about story structure and how it works. Those things are true, but becoming a better writer — growing as a writer — means that we learn how to listen to ourselves first. We learn how to put faith into our ideas, our stories, our process, and our potential as creative beings.

It means we learn how to trust.

And THAT is maybe the scariest thing of all.

If you’ve heard the call to write in your heart and you’ve taken even the tiniest of steps towards it, then you are beginning to learn how to have that trust. If you’re halfway through a novel and you’re terrified it isn’t good enough, you’ve already gotten a good way through the crash course of having faith.

Trust isn’t about being 100% sure that you will win, or finish, or impress anyone. It’s about not knowing and being okay with that.

As a writer it is the simplest, and hardest, of things to do.

Whatever writing project you’re working on at this moment, resolve to look at it with new eyes. Instead of a list of items that need to “get done,” choose instead to think of it as a flower slowing unfolding into bloom. Trust that it knows what it’s doing. Trust that instead of running the show, you’re only here to help it along.

Trust that you were meant to be a writer, and that your story will take care of itself.

Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as a raging alcoholic in her 20s. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.