Outlining vs “Pantsing”

Alexandra Needham raised a good point on her blog about the way NaNoWriMo novels are written. This got me to thinking. Mostly about my own failed efforts at NaNo (thanks for that Alexandra) but also about two main writers camps. The way that we tend to think of ourselves as either Outliners or Pantsers.

Over the course of our writing careers, each and every one of us will belong to one camp or the other, often without realising. For those who are new to all this, or think I just enjoy making up stupid words (which I do), I’ll explain the difference.

Outliners

These are the types of writers who lock themselves away for weeks, even months, at a time, plotting every scene. They know almost every path of every character that will appear in their books before they begin to write the first paragraph. In short, they work from outlines.

Pantsers

These writers have a story idea and they have some characters and that’s usually all they need, so they sit down and just write. They have no clear plan as to where they will go. Instead, the characters and situations they encounter are allowed to dictate the course of the narrative. They write by the ‘seat of their pants’ – hence, pantsers.

I have belonged to both of these camps over the years. When I first started, I was definitely a pantser. I thought that outlines added nothing and stifled my creativity. Even now most of my short stories, especially my flash fiction, are still written when I’m in pantser mode because this is when I feel I’m at my most creative.

For longer projects (e.g. novels, novellas), I can become easily distracted without an outline and wander off at a tangent that is more detriment than discovery. I never start a long project until I know where it will end. I don’t always know HOW it will end or which route it will take to get there, but I do need to know how far to shoot and an outline helps to keep me focus.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not strictly an outliner or a pantser but combine the two in a way that works for me. I use my outline as a rough road map showing me where to start, to end, and the odd detour to take along the way. The actual meat of the story is all discovered through pantsing.

With the title of this post hinting at a grudge match, I suppose I should include a few pros and cons of each method:

Outlining

Pros

  1. A solid outline will keep your project on the desired path
  2. Outlines give you a skeleton on which you can hang the meat of your story
  3. Allows you to plot out the most intricate twists and turns of a story prior to drafting
  4. Allows easier management of multiple plot lines

Cons

  1. Some find it too rigid and stifling of their creativity
  2. A lot of up-front work is needed before you can start drafting
  3. You already know how your story will end
  4. Needs to be used correctly for it to be beneficial

Pantsing

Pros

  1. You can write with little preparation (besides research, fully realised characters etc…)
  2. It’s probably the most creative thing we can do as writers
  3. Allows you to discover the plot at the same time as your characters
  4. Readily adaptable – scenes can be changed instantly if you don’t like where they’re going

Cons

  1. Some writers find it difficult to leap into the void without, at least, some form of a safety net
  2. It’s difficult to manage plot twists and multiple plot lines
  3. It’s easy to write yourself into a corner or go off track
  4. Mistakes can’t always be easily rectified with extensive editing

So over to you, are you an outliner or a “pantser”? Let me know in the comments below

Coming soon: Outlining for beginners.

16 thoughts on “Outlining vs “Pantsing”

  1. I tend to be a pantser, but I also seldom see a story to its end. I like your idea of mixing the strategy up and doing both. Thanks for this entry. It was quite entertaining, much more so than the football game, though the Patriots are finally putting a good drive together. Forgive me if you are not a football fan, but I tend to ramble. Didn’t I see that before?

    1. Thanks. No, I’m not a football fan. Over here across the pond, we go more for rugby. I do know that the Patriots are a New England team though so I’m not a total write-off (unless I’m wrong, in which case I offer my most humble of apologies).

      1. I am from Boston and am a die-hard New England Patriots fan. Bravo in knowing this bit of trivia. I played a lot of sports, soccer being the only sport that those from the other side of the pond can relate to. Ice hockey and lacrosse were my other favorites. Would I be able to find published work from you? You need to come up with a term that reflects an outliner and off the seat of your pants.

      2. Rugby is kind of like football but without all the padding. I’ll have to give some thought to a hybrid outliner/pantser term – maybe I should have come up with something before writing the post.

        As for published work, the majority resides in now out of print anthologies. I am hoping to release collections of my backlist once the print rights revert back to me. I’ll keep you posted if you’re still interested.

  2. I’m a Pantser, pretty much all the time. I love that there’s a word for it now, so kudos. I’ve definitely felt the headaches caused by pantsing it–it’s why some stories aren’t finished, and others had year long breaks or more in the writing process. Part of me wants to try the outlining world but…that’s strange territory (for me). I feel like I’d run the problem of trying to fit a round character in a square hole to pull off a plot point. Admittedly, the switch from Fan Fiction to an actual novel showed me where my weaknesses were that were caused by the way I’d always done things–i.e. switching to writing a proper novel and NOT having strong characters to rely on for direction. Anyway, I look forward to reading more of what you write.

    1. The trick is to keep the outline flexible. Rather than putting a square peg in a round hole, you have to make the hole a more universal shape. I’m putting up some outlining tips in due course if you want to see how the other half lives.

      1. I’ll most definitely be reading it. I’m learning a lot about myself and writing at the moment. I successfully completed NaNoWriMo this year for the first time and I’m about to embark on my first real attempt to edit a decent sized story, so I’m always ready for advice–editing is a pretty new world to me. Normally I write it, give it a once over, and post whatever I’ve got so far.

      2. Editing is a whole other animal. I’d need another blog if I were to cover that topic in more detail.

  3. I am rather a pantser, despite having milestones. Depending on the story, there are certain milestones, how I reach them – classifies me as a pantser.

  4. I’d say a little of both but lately more of a pantser. I have one novel start that I actually planned out 3 books for…completely outlined…but alas, I don’t think I got more than 3 chapters in the first one. I typically lose steam and can’t bring myself to word vomit (is that the right terminology?) I go back, re-read chapters, fix grammar and re-write sections I don’t like then promptly get bored and the files sit on my hard drive neglected. The last 2 I started are total pantsers and I lost steam on one (now it’s neglected) but the other one I leave on my desktop so it stares at me whenever I’m on my computer. It taunts me and says, “instead of Facebook, you should really be working on me…” So I try to get a bit in a couple times a week. But alas, out of steam…

    1. I know the feeling. I have a folder on my hard drive entitled “Lost Plots”; it serves as a repository for unfinished stories. I’ll revisit them one day (at least, that’s what I keep telling myself).

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