Home » Writing Advice » Writing 101 – Outliners vs. Pantsers

Writing 101 – Outliners vs. Pantsers

Outliners vs Pantsers

(c) Robyn LaRue 2014

It’s nearly that time again. You know what I mean. A time of darker nights, of ghosts and ghouls, of languished, tormented cries, of horrific punishments, and even the sweetest rewards. What do you mean Halloween? I was talking about NaNoWriMo….pffft Halloween. Try sharing an office with Amanda and then you’d understand Halloween. Anyway, it got me to thinking. Mostly about how unprepared I am for November but also about the two main writers’ camps: 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 (I do that too, but not today…maybe later…schwiffle (verb) to schnork), I’ll explain the difference.

Outliners

These are the kind of writers who lock themselves away for weeks, even months, at a time, plotting every scene. They know almost every path of every character who will appear in their books before they even 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 dictate the course of the narrative. They write by the ‘seat of their pants’ – hence, pantsers.

I’ve occupied both of these camps over the years, with a brief stint in a third, highly secretive camp but I’m not allowed to talk about that. When I first started writing, 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, is written 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 still not strictly one or the other but a combination of the two. You have to find what works for you but I urge you to try both. 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 writing.

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? Why do you prefer your method? (I want a good response on this one. If I get enough, we’ll have a real life grudge match).

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21 thoughts on “Writing 101 – Outliners vs. Pantsers

    • Yep, me too, more or less. I have my “milestone scenes” (the scenes I know will happen), but everything in between is usually a surprise.

      • Having the waypoints down really helps to keep your story on track. That being said, flexibility is still the name of the game when writing and sometimes you just have to go where the story takes you.

        Running count: Outliners 3, Pantsers 0

  1. As most of my writing is flash fiction or short story mode, i am more of a pantser. Some of my short stories get too long, however, and then i have to go back and plan out a little bit to at least shine a torch down the murky path of evil i have wandered onto. If i had to choose to go completely one way or another though, i would go with being a pantser. It just seems more daring (foolish?) and exciting.

    • Should I count you as a Pantser or an Outliner? I need to mull this one over…

      Both pantsing and outlining have their uses and even strong supporters of one often find themselves struggling to finish their latest piece because they are bogged down with details, or have no real direction to their story.

      The key is to be flexible. Don’t let your outline dictate your story if it is progressing logically (or even illogically) down another path, but also don’t let your characters run riot without the occasional nudge in the right direction. What you’ll find might surprise you.

      Running count: Outliners 3.5, Pantsers 1.5

  2. I used to be a ‘panster’, but found I was at a loss of depth in my story. Now I am a ‘plotter’ to the extreme. I guess that is the INTJ in me where I have to analyze and define every aspect. I can’t start writing before I know 90% of the details. However, I do leave room for some pleasant surprises to happen.

    And… as for Halloween, all I can say is “be prepared” and that I hope you are still my officemate after the holiday.

    • Welcome aboard the plotter train….oh wait! You mean outliner, don’t you? I was about to conscript you into another heinous scheme…but I’ve said too much.

      Nothing to see here…

      As for Halloween, you better bring another pair of pants to work. Just saying 😀

      Running count: Outliners 4.5, Pantsers 1.5

  3. For something like NaNoWriMo, I like to outline – or do a BIT of planning. I tend toward pantsing though. Once I have made an outline and actually stuck to it during the actual writing process, I will say that I prefer outlining.
    Are you doing NaNo?!

    • You’re making it awkward by sitting on the fence. Come the revolution and all that…

      I am hoping to get my act together in time to participate in NaNo but ich weiß nicht. I’ll keep you posted.

      Running count: Outliners 4.5, Pantsers 1.5, H.M Brooks 1

  4. I’m more of a hybrid these days and do a lot of pre-writing, which seems to work for my particular brain. Though I am naturally a pantser, there are benefits to both, so I use the bits that work for me.

  5. I’m definitely more a pantster, my literary agent (sniff, before she quit publishing) and I decided that my novel needed a MASSIVE OVERHAUL. So much so, I was going to rewrite the ENTIRE book, she had me breakdown the book chapter-by chapter.

    I definitely saw value of outlining, but I feel I was able to do that because I 100% KNEW my characters by then. I’d love to be an outliner, but am not sure I could do that with a brand, new novel.

    • Marcy, Marcy, Marcy. I’m crushed to learn that you’re of the opposing camp. It’s a good job that you’re so talented, because come the revolution…

      Running count: Outliners 4.5, Pantsers 2.5, H.M Brooks 1

      Non-outliners surviving the revolution: Marcy Mason McKay

  6. Pingback: My Nano Prep | The Writing Desk

  7. Pingback: Writing 101 – Outlining | The Sarcastic Muse

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