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.
Since the day Rolena discovered that the best place to let her imagination explode is from the tip of a pen, she’s barely put one down. She serves on the Story Embers Board and hosts a writing group in her local community. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her teaching music, directing dramas, and chasing sunshine. Laughter, superheroes, and squirrels are a few of her favorite things. She loves to devour books, go book shopping, and take pictures of books. Her passion is to share faith, hope, and truth through fiction and to flood fellow writers with the inspiration and bravery to create vivid worlds and extraordinary stories. You can connect with her over at The Author’s Attic.