Guest Post: Pantsing vs. Outlining

Hey guys, John here with a brief introduction to my first ever guest post! Do I sound excited? I am. The post I have for you today is one of the best I’ve read, and I’ve been at this for about a year now. And I get to share it with you on MY blog! Amy, or you might see her frequenting my posts as phantomwriter143, has written quite a treat for you all. It’s witty, straightforward, and super informative. But enough from me, she’ll take it from here. Hope you guys like!

Pantsing vs. Outlining: Is one better?

I read over 100 books a year in a variety of genres, I’ve been writing books and stories for as long as I can remember, I’m an avid reader of writing how-to books (although some of them stink like moldy cheese, I can tell you), I’ve tutored kids/adults of all ages in grammar, syntax, writing and such (primarily scholarly), and I was a teaching assistant during and after grad school who graded papers and lectured students.

Whew! Does that make me sound full of myself? I’m not. John can tell you that. All I’m saying is that the following post is about my own research and observations in my time as a writer and reader.

Read at your own risk.

On to the main event!

Pantsing. A pantser. Flying by the seat of your pants. Panting like a dog after a long walk. Yanking down somebody’s pants… wait… those last two aren’t right. Strike them. Outside of the literary world, pantsing means something completely different. But I won’t get into that.

The term ‘pantsing’ comes from the idea that writers who don’t want to feel constrained by a schedule or outline ‘fly by the seat of their pants’ when they write, letting their muse take them by the nostrils and drag them along behind. There are many benefits to this, as it allows our minds to be unfettered during the creative process, and the juices will flow. They may splash onto the floor a bit and make an utter mess, but then, they’re not constrained by a requirement to fill one glass without running over.

Outliners, on the other hand, prefer to be a bit more logical and prepared before they take the bull by the horns and skewer him to the page. (Is that too graphic? Sorry). They like to know beforehand what will happen in each chapter, where the piece is going, how long it will take to get there, and who will be the driving force behind the action. Outlines help to shape manuscripts, and can come in handy when we’re not sure which direction to go. Brainstorming and then outlining helps to keep us on track instead of veering off the beaten path into unknown territory that may be harmful to the sweeping arc of the story.

There are many tools to be used for outlining, as opposed to pantsing, which really can help to guide our brains and our muses in order to visualize, contemplate, and then complete our writing in an orderly fashion.

So which one is better?

I will supply you with the age-old answer that aggravates and confusticates even the most straight-laced, buttoned-up, stern-lipped thinker. During grad school, it was my least favorite answer anytime I asked one of my professors a question. And it’s the answer my patients least like to hear.

It depends.

Gah! Have I scared you off? Not to worry. I will explain.

Let’s take a couple of examples:

1. Writing a fantasy series for kids
2. Writing a standalone mystery book
3. Writing nonfiction on the benefits of exercise in the elderly

In any of the above three scenarios, outlining can be a critical tool for the success of the piece.

The first scenario deals with writing a series of books. Really, this is applicable to any genre. There is absolutely no way to be successful in series writing if there is not some form of outlining, documenting, record-keeping, foreshadowing that takes place either digitally or in a physical medium.

I happen to have experience in this, since it’s what I’m currently undertaking, and I can tell you, I’d be lost without the pages of notes and outlines I need. However, when it comes down to actually writing a chapter or a few chapters, I don’t even look at my notes. The outline is vague, and as long as I make sure to include the few key things that are essential to move the plot along and foreshadow for upcoming books, then I’m free to let my muse roam during the actual writing.

This is not necessarily required for someone who writes books in a series where each book stands alone, such as a mystery book where each one has its own climax and resolution. In that case, if the series intends to be quite lengthy, there is little need to ensconce yourself in a detailed outline that will limit your creativity.

(See how I merged into the next scenario?)

For any stand-alone book in any genre, the need for an outline diminishes as compared to a series. Pantsing is very effective at this point as long as you are able to remember everything with little prompting. That’s not to say you won’t look at your notes, but since you’re not tied to foreshadowing many books down the line, you can focus on enjoying the pace of the writing and allowing seemingly random thoughts and whims to play into the landscape of the book.

As for the third scenario, there is literally no possible way to complete a nonfiction book of that type without an incredibly detailed sketch of the book. Outlines are crucial at this point. And I speak from experience.

My doctoral dissertation was three and a half years in the making, written and edited, edited, edited, all while finishing my coursework for my degree. This is true of all doctoral students, I believe. If I had not had complete control of the details, research, resources, statistics, citations, etc, etc, etc., then I would have been lost in the mess that is scholarly writing. (The topic above was not my dissertation topic, in case you were wondering).

Now that I’ve discussed a few pros/cons to each style, you may be asking which method I prefer.

Personally, I’m a proponent of ‘outpantsing,’ to coin a phrase. Hmm… Maybe I’ll call myself an outpantser? Either way, I believe the best way to achieve truly creative writing is to combine the two styles. Especially in my series writing, my ‘outline,’ if you can really call it that, is an overall sketch with details thrown here and there.

When I sit down to write the books, however, I ‘pants’ my way all the way through, only stopping a few times to check on details. I’m blessed to have a brain for memorization, so the details, once physically written, are stored fairly well in my mind.

Most people do not have the capacity to use enough of their brains to remember every detail of their books. I know I don’t. Therefore, I don’t recommend writing without at least some idea of where it’s going.

Get down a chapter or two, sure. Then brainstorm and sketch a general concept for your novel/article/short story, etc.

Of course, some people may disagree with me entirely, and that’s okay. I know many authors who are only pantsers, and some who are only outliners. Either form is fine as long as you get to where you want to be, and you don’t feel constrained by the limits of logic. (Yes, logic DOES have its limits).

I’ll share some ideas for outlining/prepping for those who struggle with that:

1. Formal Outlines – I don’t like these, but maybe you do. Here’s a good website that can help. Just substitute chapter titles and plot points instead of what they show there.

2. Notecards. In grad school, I was a notecard fiend! When it comes to novel writing, colored notecards are brilliant! Buy a whole slew of them and make each color stand for something. White will be chapter titles. And in each chapter, color code the cards for what will happen during that time. Green = setting, purple = characters, pink = tension, yellow = foreshadowing, etc. Take that any which way you care.

3. Poster boards. This is one of my current faves. I like to have a big visual of where the story is going. It’s not very pretty, but I make a fairly complex Venn diagram to show how everything overlaps and interconnects. I’m a visual learner, so this helps a great deal.

4. Charts, or the Grid Method. This is how J.K. Rowling created her masterpieces. Take a peek at this pic and you’ll see how Ms. Rowling did it. I’ve taken to doing this myself because it includes a timeline along with it. Which brings me to my next point.

5. Timelines. This is something that I think every author should use. To the day. It’s extremely evident to readers, especially those that like to re-read books, how off a timeline can be if the author doesn’t even know it! It can be tedious, but timelining, in ANY way you choose, is beneficial. This is a good way to do it, and then break it up into chapters later.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. There are TONS more to choose from, but there’s not nearly enough space to cover them all.

A few tips before closing. Use the KISS method. (Keep it short, silly). Whether you use a formal outline or the grid method, make short notes. This is something you’ll have handy as you write so don’t make it complicated. That’s what your detailed notes are for.

Use a little trial and error. If one way doesn’t work for you, don’t get discouraged! Try something new until you find one that works.

And never, NEVER, let anyone else tell you exactly how to write your book. They can offer suggestions and cues, but only you know where the book is going and how you’re best able to get it there.

All right! You made it! If you’ve read this far, I applaud you for trudging through the long-windedness of my post. I hope you’ve found something that’s helped, or at least given you something to think about.

Thanks, John, for letting me blather on for FAR too long. It’s been an honor to be a guest blogger.

John here again, tell me that wasn’t a GREAT post. I’ve asked Amy to check back here during the course of her busy day, and it is VERY busy, to reply to any of your questions or comments. Now before you leave here, go check out her blog! If you like mine, which I hope you do, then you’ll LOVE hers. It’s seriously fantastic. And if you don’t, well I’ll just have to punch you.

I’m 100% a pantser, by the way. What about you?

Photo Credit: The Lucky 13s