Outlining: A Pantser’s Lament

When I teach my college freshmen to write academic essays, I always tell them to start with a loose outline of what they’re going to do. Break it down paragraph by paragraph, I say, and make sure it will make sense before you start. This is, I believe, good advice. Too bad I rarely take it myself. Well, to be fair, I also don’t tend to write academic prose; I have an easier time outlining those kinds of things, as it happens, than I do outlining say, a story or a novel. But still, I’d rather eat tacks than outline sometimes. I’m winging this blog post as we speak, for instance.

It isn’t that I don’t see the utility of outlining – I very much do. I just don’t like doing it. When I started out writing novels (and, like many novelists, I have written way more novels than I’ve actually published), I started out by trying to outline the book first. Weirdly, I found it really difficult to make any headway if I did this. Something about making the outline robbed me of the motivation to actually write the book. I may have spouted some nonsense about outlining “robbing the book of its magic” or something, but what it comes down to is this: it is more fun to write a book without an outline. You get to preserve your sense of wonder at your own book. Like the readers, you are along for a ride which has an ending you can only guess at. This is called “pantsing.” As in, “by the seat of your pants.” Just sitting down at a computer with the barest sense of an idea and then writing it. Just going. You become the Lewis and Clarke of your own work; you are pathfinding the Oregon Trail to the promised land of “perfect novel.”

The problem is there are significant drawbacks.

Your plot has failed. Please try again.

For one thing, much like the Oregon Trail, there is very little guarantee that you will actually make it to the end. Your book might crash and burn halfway through and then you look back and realize “oh, crap – I’ve got to rewrite that whole thing!” So you go back and rewrite it, this time resolved to take lefts where you took rights. Except that doesn’t work, either. Next thing you know, you’ve rewritten the entire book a thousand times and have had a miserable time of it. There is no magic, there. It’s nothing but thick forests, craggy mountains, and snake bites.

Now, with an outline, you can (theoretically) circumvent many of those hazards before they crop up. You can look into the future and ask yourself “will this actually sustain a whole novel, or am I writing a novella?” You plan and you re-plan and you re-plan again. Granted, you are rewriting things just as often as the pants method, but outlines take a lot less time to rewrite.

But what about the magic? What about those glorious little surprises that can creep into your plot? Don’t outlines kill those things? How are you going to get your butt in that chair if you already know how everything is going to go? I can’t understate the obstacle that creates. As much as I know making a detailed outline is a wise activity, so much of me just wants to dive right in, you know? I want to be inspired by my own work!

These, though, strike me sometimes as the wishes and complaints of a child. I hate magical discussions of the artistic process. I don’t believe in the “muse” and I don’t accept writer’s block as anything other than fear of making mistakes. By that metric, I know that the so-called “magic” of pantsing a novel is just me being lazy. Outlines are work, whereas drafts are fun. But these days I have deadlines and very limited writing time. I can’t spend 2-3 years entirely rewriting the same novel five times. You know what kills the magic? Draft seven. That kills it dead, believe me.

Pictured: Me, pantsing yet another book.

So, for this next novel, I’m rolling my sleeves up, biting the bullet, and outlining the damned thing before I start. You know what should keep my butt in my chair? The idea that I’m a goddamned professional, that’s what. The fact that I’ve got 9 months to write a polished novel and four of those months will be taken up by my day job, and so I need to write this thing in one. It’s time to grow up, be responsible, and make a plan before I wander off in the wilderness and crash and burn yet another 100,000 word draft.

Or so I tell myself now.

As I write a blog post to procrastinate from outlining.



About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on May 8, 2017, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Martin L. Shoemaker

    In “Save the Cat”, Blake Snyder described a screenwriting outline process. After that he said (loosely paraphrased), “And then I ignore it.” The primary value of the outline was thinking through the process. Once you had done that, then pants away! Be surprised. Just because you know there’s A path to the end doesn’t mean you actually have to follow that path. Take side jaunts. Find magic. Fill in holes that you never saw from the lofty heights of the outline.

    But if you ever find yourself completely lost, THEN go back to your outline and ask, “Where did I go wrong? How do I get back on track? What does the track look like?”

    It’s like a middle ground between pantsing and outlining. It’s the difference between walking a golf course and playing the course.

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      (Wait… A sports metaphor? Where did that come from?)

    • Oh, I do have a loose outline most of the time. Given my time constraints, however, I cannot afford “side jaunts.” I’ve got to write a book in one, maybe two drafts, it needs to fit the word count, and I have about 100 days in which to do it. Therefore: big fat outline.

  2. While I’ve written far fewer novels, I have previously been of the same mindset as you describe–maybe a general outline in mind, but I would mostly ‘pants’ it. In part because yes, I love the surprises, the magic, and I’m eager to dig into the novel itself! And yet I always flounder and lose my way, and usually never finish it by a long shot.

    With my most recent idea, I decided okay let’s give outlining a shot. I’ve been listening to the “Helping writers become authors” podcast by KM Weiland for a while. She’s a huge fan of thorough outlining, to an almost absurd degree honestly, but her ebook on outlining and it’s accompanying workbook were pretty cheap, so I went and ahead and got them.

    And while I haven’t finished this novel, I have to admit that following her process has already been hugely helpful and helped me figure out getting around what would’ve been places where I had to stop, backup, replot, etc already. What’s also been nice about it is that you don’t need to do every step she does, nor do them as detailed as she does. It’s very easy to just take what parts you like and ignore the rest.

    All of which is to say, if you’re looking for an outlining process to try out, I recommend checking hers out. Her stuff is on b&n and amazon, but her website links directly to it I think–www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com.

  1. Pingback: Long Novels, Short Stories, and The Seat of My Pants – J.J. Adamson

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