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Outlining For Pantsers

Disclaimer: The post you are about to read may seem bossy, but that is not my intention. My intention is to offer a few options to help Pantsers who struggle as a result of not outlining. I am not trying to change anyone. You should be who you are, and be proud of that. 

A couple definitions:

Pantser is a writer who likes to write “by the seat of their pants.” They don’t like to plan out their story too much before starting in. They’d rather just get to writing and go where the story takes them.

Plotter is a writer who plans things out. Some plotters go so far as to write 10 pages or more just planning out what they’ll write… when they finally do write.

Neither way is better than the other, and some people feel they’re a combination of the two.

For the hardcore Pantsers (like myself) the mere mention of “outline” can make us cringe. It seems not only confusing and confining, but time consuming and a waste of effort to boot. But then we set to writing in our willy-nilly, where the wind takes us style, and we run into plot holes, dead ends, and the dreaded writer’s block. Don’t get me wrong, even plotters have these issues, but they have outlines to help guide them through. Being a pantser without an outline is like finding your way through the jungle, without a map, with your eyes closed, and no machete. It sucks.

I understand the resistance of Pantsers to outlining, I resisted too. But what I came to realize is that if you cling to the title of Pantser you miss out on an important tool that can save your story, and your sanity. So let’s look at some of the problems Pantsers have with outlining, and some possible solutions.

Problem: Outlines are too technical. I can’t stick to the format.

Solution: Don’t do a traditional outline.

An outline can follow the standard format of

1. Main idea

a. Sub idea

i. Detail

But it doesn’t have to. The only necessary component of an outline the Pantser needs, is the organization part, and that can come in many forms. There are probably as many ways to outline as there are authors. One example I’ve seen mentioned, that actually helped me a lot, is Sticky Notes.

Let’s say you’re having trouble keeping your timeline straight, or maybe you foresee that may happen. Simply put one event per sticky note and label it with the day, time of day, or whatever. Lay them out on your desk or wall in the order you think they go in. I’ll be posting a picture of mine here, after I get home, but I think you get the point for now.

As you’re writing you can refer to this to keep you straight. A bonus feature is that you can easily rearrange them if you realize something isn’t working.

Problem: I’m a visual person.

Solution: Take your notebook digital

Digital notebooks are fantastic at letting you keep tons of information, of different types, organized and easily accessible. OneNote and EverNote are just two examples, I’m sure there are others out there. With them you can have notes that are typed, hand written, or drawn. You can attach pictures, screen shots, web pages or even audio files. Make your outline your way and use what works for you.

Problem: Outlining ruins my creative process

Solution: Try a different mindset

That may sound like a cop-out but I’m serious. Once we have an opinion on something it’s hard to think of it in any other way. I hated outlines in school and when I first heard writers talk about their “pages long” outlines I thought, “No way. Too hard. I’m a Pantser.” It took struggling with keeping my novel straight for me to admit that maybe I should take another look at outlining.

Jenna Moreci made an excellent point in her video “How to outline your novel – Part 1”. She was asked a question about outlining ruining the creative process. She replied, “How would it ruin the creative process? You’re literally creating a story. That’s what outlining is.” After all, it’s not like someone else wrote the outline and handed it to you. You still had to do the work to think up all the things in the outline to start with. That’s a creative process. If you keep that in mind while you’re outlining it won’t feel like such a clinical chore.

Problem: Outlining is too restricting. I want to write whatever comes to mind.

Solution: Start Small

Whatever method you choose, use as few details as possible. Sometimes all you need is a sentence or phrase to remind you what you want to happen. This way you won’t feel like it’s all planned out for you. For example:

Jade and Charlie search for the keys.

They use them to find the BOS.

Short and to the point. There’s so much room for creativity you almost didn’t write anything, except you did. You reminded yourself what comes next. Not enough detail? Unsure which key you wanted first? You could always add a bit more. Try this:

Jade and Charlie look for the Fire, Water, Earth, and Air Keys.

By combining them the BOS reveals itself.

I only added a few words, but now I can remember what order I wanted them in and a hint about how they’re used to find the BOS. The point is, if you feel like outlining is too strict make your outline as freeing as possible. It will still keep you from getting lost.

Basically your outline can be as skimpy or detailed as you want. It can be on paper, or in the cloud. You are in control of the form your outline takes, and you can always change it if it’s not working for you. By embracing just a little bit of structure and planning before you start, you can free your creativity during the writing phase. Do whatever works for you.

So what do you think? Did I miss a method that worked for you? Is there a problem you have with outlines I didn’t mention? Tell me all about it in the comments. Happy writing

Let's chat! :) Let me know what you think.