Let’s talk about New Years resolutions — sheesh, everyone else is. So, what’s the big idea here? It’s simple: the goal is to find things you’re doing that aren’t working, and swap ‘em out for things that will work.

For instance, eating fast food has made us (pleasingly, I hope, I hope) plump; watching TV every night has (let’s be honest) kinda numbed our intellect; promising to start exercising tomorrow (aka a week from never) is probably why walking up a flight of stairs has suddenly gotten so tough (no, they didn’t add more steps while we were guiltily watching Duck Dynasty and absently scarfing down Tatter Tots).

So why do we do those things day in and day out? Because they’ve become habit. And because they’re super easy – and we live in a society that has long promoted ease as a major selling point. It’s way easier to watch TV than to do, well, just about anything else. It’s easier to eat fast food than to cook a meal. It’s easier to sit than exercise.

And so watching TV, eating fast food and sitting became habit. And as we know all too well from personal experience, habits are maddeningly hard to break. Especially because it doesn’t take long for them to stop feeling like a habit at all, and instead feel like “the way things are.”

But, as Charles Duhigg says in his insightful bestselling book, The Power of Habit, “Habit isn’t destiny.” We can – and should – break habits that are not serving us well.

But first you have to recognize that what we’re doing is a habit, rather than “the way things are.”

Habits are maddeningly hard to break. Especially because it doesn’t take long for them to stop feeling like a habit at all, and instead feel like “the way things are.”

Which brings us to the real subject at hand: pantsing. Many writers embrace the notion of being a pantser – writing by the seat of their pants – as the most authentic way to write. That is, letting it all pour out as a way of “discovering” the story they’re fated to tell. Hey, as Robert Frost said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” It’s a dodgy sentiment at best, and often taken to extremes that would no doubt make Mr. Frost cringe, until it sounds a bit like Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams hokum: “Build it and they will come.” Translation: write blindly and the story will magically appear.

Instead, the surprise in both the writer and the reader is most often: “Well, I thought this would be engaging, but instead it’s a big fat mess.”

My goal here isn’t to bash pantsing per se. It’s to suggest that maybe it isn’t your inherent, hardwired process. Maybe it’s a bad habit you picked up along the way.

Pantsing is often promoted by successful writers who happen to be among the .1% of innate storytellers, or by writing teachers who have been instructing students in the pansters approach for decades because they were, in turn, taught that way.

I had a friend once, a writing coach. She ran a long running writers group, and her students often worked for upwards of a decade (and counting) on the same book.

They were pantsers. Every week she’d talk about how their writing didn’t improve, and how they kept going in the same circles, despite her gentle guidance.

So I suggested that maybe, just maybe, they might consider taking a different approach to their writing, and do a bit of focused digging into the story they were telling (including figuring out, exactly, what their point actually was) before they wrote. She was incensed, and the force of her anger surprised me. “This is their process!” she told me in no uncertain terms. “Everyone has their own process, and it’s a sacred thing. You don’t mess with it.”

Hey, if the “process” is successful, sure. Not because it’s sacred, but because it’s working.

Pantsing is often promoted by successful writers who happen to be among the .1% of innate storytellers, or by writing teachers who have been instructing students in the pansters approach for decades because they were, in turn, taught that way.

But in my experience – and hers — pantsing very rarely leads to success. Instead, it derails novels and memoirs that are otherwise well-written. In the rare case when pansting does work, it’s still not a great process: it adds years and years of rewriting, and even then yields stories that aren’t quite as compelling, as focused, as effective, as they could be if the writer knew where she was heading, and why, before she began writing. Which, to be very clear, isn’t to say that end-result of a story must be set in stone before the writer starts. A story can — and often does — shift, change and reform during the writing process. But the key word here is “story.” If you don’t know what your story is, what’s the point? Which is why writers often focus more on beautiful writing instead, but that’s another post, another, um, story.

In my experience – which includes decades of working with writers of all kinds, from eager newbies to well-published novelists — pantsing rarely works. When it does, it’s for one of two reasons:

  1. You have an innate sense of story the same way some people have perfect pitch. No matter what you write, it comes out a riveting page-turner without you ever having to pause to figure out why, or what, exactly, you’re doing to make it happen. (Even this is not always enough: sometimes a writer’s debut novel is fabulous — but since they have no idea what it really was that captivated readers, their second, third and fourth mark them as a flash in the pan. A painful and unnecessary reality.)
  1. You have some of the above writer’s innate storytelling skill, and are willing to spend many, many years working on each manuscript until you are finally happy with the result. You feel that every moment you spent on it was utterly necessary, even if it took a decade, and you’re positive there’s no way you could have gotten there sooner, and that your novel is as deep, rich and compelling as it could possibly be.

If you fall into either camp, and have the well-received novels to prove it – never mind. Carry on!

But if you’ve written several manuscripts that have never sold (to a publisher, or to readers if you self-published); if you’ve been working on your manuscript for years and you’re still not sure where it’s going, or how to fix it; or if you’ve got a folder full of half-written manuscripts, then you might want to stick around for a minute and consider this: maybe it’s not your fault. Perhaps it’s not your “process” after all. Perhaps you’ve fallen prey to a habit that is not serving you well. Perhaps there might be another way to get to where the lucky few have gotten – and much more quickly than those in the second group.

Although digging down before you begin writing in earnest takes time, effort and directed concentration, once done, writing forward is, in fact, easier, surer, and even in first-draft form, more compelling.

The reason “pantsing” is so easy to embrace might be because it’s kind of like eating Tater Tots and watching Duck Dynasty. It’s much easier to “let ‘er rip” in the hope that a story “will magically appear” than it is to dig down into what you’re trying to say, and create the clay from which the story itself will be built.

Although digging down before you begin writing in earnest takes time, effort and directed concentration, once done, writing forward is, in fact, easier, surer, and even in first-draft form, more compelling. And, as so many writers have told me: way more fun. It gives them a well-earned confidence you can hear in their voice. And, even better, read in their work.

I’ve written extensively on what that digging is all about and how to do it in other posts; right now, all I want to do is make one modest proposal that might just change your entire writing life in 2014:

Add one more resolution to this year’s batch: I will not write another word until I’ve dug down deep, and have a firm grasp on the story I’m telling. 

About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.