4 Myths about Outlining I Used to Believe as a Pantser

January 6, 2020

When I began writing on a regular basis, it was more of an exploration than a process for me. I’d sit down with a vivid scene idea and let my characters lead moment by moment, without considering how events should form a chain. My imagination had no limits.

 

I dashed off eight novels in this manner. It was a blast. But my manuscripts were a mess. Editing involved gutting and heavy rewriting. And I struggled to start a new project if I felt uninspired.

 

I ranted to my critique partner about my scatterbrained first drafts. What if my next attempt produced the same results? She suggested I sketch an outline, and my first thought was ugh. I respected her and all the other plotters in the world, but I preferred the freedom that pantsing gave me. Outlining would stifle my creativity. Wouldn’t it?

 

I decided to listen to my friend’s advice, and I discovered that pantsers and outlines aren’t as incompatible as I assumed. If you, too, are discouraged and frustrated with pantsing, you don’t have to abandon that part of yourself to write a cohesive draft. You just need to squash fears about outlining that are blocking your way.

 

Myth #1: Outlining Defines You

Pantsing fits me best because 1) I’m horrible at overview, and 2) I love spontaneity. Until my critique partner nudged me, I’d avoided outlining because it contradicted my personality. If I conformed to some sort of structure, I believed that either my joy in writing or my pantser side would die.

 

Neither proved true. Instead, an outline helped me keep the story moving when I otherwise would have gotten stuck. Furthermore, I no longer worried that nothing would make sense after I typed “the end.” I had a vision for how to connect all my wild notions and character wanderings. Yet, if I kept the outline basic, I could still be the pantser I am at heart.

 

Myth #2: Outlining Is Constraining

I used to feel as restricted by a budget as I did by an outline. I needed to track where my money was going, but all my efforts at managing my finances only caused me more stress. So I shopped with a mixture of hope and apprehension that my expenses might or might not balance at the end of the month.

 

Perhaps I could have insisted that budgeting didn’t suit me—that I didn’t like dealing with numbers or want to spend less on certain items. But that wasn’t the problem. I simply hadn’t landed on the right budget for me.

 

Our church recently hosted a class by Dave Ramsey where I heard about the EveryDollar budget. Now that I’ve assigned a category to each dollar I earn, I can make purchases without feeling guilty because I’m aware of exactly where my money is heading.

 

An outline brought me a similar sense of peace. I don’t fret that chasing a rabbit trail (or two) will turn my book into a tangle of disjointed scenes. I jot down my goals and the main points I need to hit, but in the gaps between, I can experiment with various possibilities for how a scene might play out.

 

Outlining doesn’t force me to stay within hard-set boundaries as I expected it to. Adjusting to this hybrid of pantsing and plotting took time, however.

 

Myth #3: Outlining Is Inflexible

I have a confession: I failed at outlining the first time I tried it.

 

I’d scribbled scene descriptions for a sci-fi story on sticky notes and posted them on a bulletin board. As I wrote, I assembled the outline based on the direction the story went. But then pantsing reclaimed control, and I saw no reason to continue piecing together an outline I wasn’t going to follow. I never finished that story.

 

My mistake? The outline didn’t extend to the end of the story.

 

For the next two novels, I returned to pantsing and ran into the same hardships I listed in my introduction. As I started to revise one of those manuscripts, my friend (bless her heart) recommended that I color coordinate my chapters in Scrivener according to scene type (action, reaction, etc.) and rearrange them within a three-act structure until I was satisfied with the flow.

 

That sounded like a plotter’s strategy, but after she carefully showed me how to navigate Scrivener, I couldn’t refuse. I summarized the happenings of each chapter with a sentence or two, chose colors to indicate the scene types, and resorted everything until I perfected the timing. The layout wasn’t fancy or complex, and I could have accomplished the task with index cards as well. But I was having so much fun that I outlined the whole story in one afternoon!

 

In that moment, I realized that outlines are meant to guide us so we don’t stray into territory that doesn’t belong in the story we’re telling. But when we know our destination, we can take many wonderful and exciting detours along the way.

 

Myth #4: Outlining Is Required to Be a Good Writer

Several of my writing friends are plotters, while only a few are pantsers. I thought I would need to eventually convert to plotting if I hoped to be a solid writer. In my mind, it seemed as mandatory as learning the English language. But adopting outlining skills doesn’t change who we are as writers.

 

To all of you pantsers, I’m not saying you must embrace outlining like I did. If being a hardcore pantser works for you, don’t feel obligated to switch. But if you’re experiencing the same frustrations as I did and are searching for a solution, don’t be afraid to tinker with an outline. Find a rhythm that’s right for you and don’t quit after the first attempt. Some of your anxiety and struggles just might fade over time because of this handy tool. 

18 Comments

  1. Matthew Sampson

    Good post Rolena. It also works the other way. I’m an outliner and I need an overview that goes all the way to the end, but if I just stack scenes together without feeling for the succession of events then I tend to go way off track because the overview doesn’t feel right. I think of outlining as my discovery draft where I can go in whichever direction suits the story in a controllable manner. It’s as if I’m writing my story in miniature first.

    Reply
    • Rolena Hatfield

      Thank you, Matthew! Oooh I like the visual of writing your story in miniature first. 😀

  2. Rachel Scheller

    I was excited when I saw this article because I wish I had seen this earlier in the writing process. As a new writer, I was surrounded by posts online that expounded upon the joys of discovery writing and letting the imagination go free and how amazing and wonderful it was to be surprised by how the characters are deciding the story.

    Seeing that, I had figured that it was how the most imaginative writers always wrote and didn’t try to use an outline for quite some time. But now that I’ve finally started using outlines as a basic guideline, my writing consistency has gotten a lot better! It means that I’m not laying down plot points for the mere sake of having more scenes until the next thing I remember happens.

    I’m still not the strictest outliner in the world, but it’s great knowing how helpful a basic outline can be!

    Reply
    • Rolena Hatfield

      Awww, I wish I’d known this earlier too, but I’ve found it just takes time to sort through all the information we’re fed /and/ find something that will work with who we’re created to be! I’m so excited for you that you’re finding a rhythm between letting imagination run wild and having that outline. Best wishes with your writing! (you got this!)

  3. Buddy J.

    *sighs… and nods* It is true… knowing the end of the story. And I can attest to everything she said, only… I’m still working on figuring out the outline stage.

    Reply
    • Rolena Hatfield

      Thanks, Buddy! First, take heart cause you’re going to get it figured out. (Rolena believes in you!) Secondly, shoot me a message if you ever want to talk about outlines (or you know, superheros or something 😉 )

  4. Pam

    What a great read! I especially love your comparison of outlining and budgeting. Once you try either of them you realize they are liberating rather than restrictive. This was fun to read.

    Reply
    • Rolena Hatfield

      Hi Pam! Thanks so much for reading! (and yes so true that it’s liberating!)

  5. Coralie

    Excellent article, Rolena! <3 Love it! (Also, WHOOT WHOOT FOR DAVE RAMSEY!) Kay, sorry, had to nerd out there.

    I am such an organized, sticky-noting, highlighting, OCD perfectionist that I would think I would outline everything. And for school papers, I did. But for a story? I have struggled with outlines. I really have. I don't know if I just don't know how to do them yet or if I'm actually, contrary to my personality, a pantser! I feel like it would be natural for me to be a planner, but I've struggled to actually implement plans in writing in the past. *shrug* I dunno. But I've been studying outlines so I can learn to get better at them.

    Reply
    • Rolena Hatfield

      Aww thanks girl! (ISN’T HE AND HIS TEAM GREAT :D) #nerdstogether

      You know sometimes my friend’s surprise me. The ones I thought would be plotters are pantsers and vice versa. 😛 I totally would love for you to keep me updated on your outlining adventures! Like what things you’re finding work for you and what doesn’t!

    • Coralie

      @rolena-hatfield

      RIGHT?! Yes they are! Ohmygoodness! Sidenote! I caved and bought Christy Wright’s 2020 planner and am using it to help me keep on track with my writing goals this year! <3

      I'm going through tons of YWW resources and every SE article on theme this week. Kind of throwing everything on pause and trying out an outline from what I've already done and what I'm learning! It's been both really exciting and kind of irritating XD But a challenge nonetheless. <3 Lots of colored pens and–OH! So sidenote 2.0! My sister uses a sketchpad for writing cause she said lined paper makes her feel restricted. So, I've been trying it out, and MAN has it been helpful! I can make bubble charts and turn the page whichever way I want. It's helped me to get all of the outlining ideas out–tangled mess though they are–without having to be my normal nerdy, perfectionist self!

    • Rolena Hatfield

      ACK! That’s super cool! And go you! I love using planners to keep on track! <3 Also I adore the sketchpad idea. Your sister is a GENIUS! I can totally see how that would be helpful! 😀

    • Coralie

      @rolena-hatfield You should totally try it out sometime! Once I started, I couldn’t stop!! I spend hours pouring over outlining and plotting and theme exercises and it felt like no time at all.

  6. Gabrielle Pollack

    I love this article, Rolena! You have some awesome insights, and I loved hearing a little bit more about your writing journey. 🙂

    Reply
  7. Rachel Rogers

    Such a great article!!! I always wobble back and forth between plotting and pantsing, so…maybe I’m a plotser? 😂 Either way, I love hoarding people’s thoughts on both methods in the hopes that someday I will actually DECIDE which works best for me. 😆

    Reply
    • Rolena Hatfield

      I like it. A Plotser XD Someday I’m going to pick your brain on all the thoughts/methods you’ve been hoarding 😛

    • Coralie

      Same! XD

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