How Writers Write · Musings

Outlining Your Book VS. “By the Seat of Your Pants”, AKA “Pantser-ing” It

Today I read a great guest blog post over on Writer Unboxed about outlining your novel before writing it, versus writing straight-off from your mind with no outline, “by the seat of your pants,” as the saying goes. I like what the writer had to say there, and it got me thinking…am I a pantser, or an outliner?

Outlining From

I have one novel which I outlined for – BUT, I did not keep the outline. How ridiculous, right? Well, it was the first novel I wrote which I could actually show to other people and to the light of day, so…when I was initially doing the outline, I would delete the outline I’d made for that chapter once I finished it. This was so that I could feel proud and accomplished for having finished that chapter.

In the second half of writing and outlining the novel, I started to keep my outline.

Now that I am in the second draft of the novel, I really, really wish I had kept my outline! Sure, it might have been laughable and ugly, that old, early outline, but…it would make me feel good now, at least, to be revising the novel into a better state. And, of course, it might make the job easier, if I had that outline now. I would see more clearly and easily the underlying themes that I wanted to go into the novel. I would be able to decide, do I want to keep those old themes? Do I see a particular way that this character has developed that I want to maintain as I do the second draft? Etcetera.

My other novel is definitely a pantser one. I started writing it in college after my first viewing of Hayao Miyazaki‘s Howl’s Moving Castle film. I named one of the important characters in the novel Sophie, but she ended up very, very different from that protagonist in Miyazaki’s film (first of all, she’s dead! But her death before the novel’s story begins is very important to the characters and their development and actions).

Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle

For this second novel, I just wrote whatever I wanted. Scenes would come up upon me like dreams, and I scribbled them down in notebooks, sometimes frantically, sometimes with a grin upon my face. My inner editor somehow shut up or died throughout the process of writing this novel, and I just wrote whatever. Sometimes I went back in and changed something that I had decided early on in the novel. Sometimes I introduced a random character out of nowhere (*cringe). But darn it was fun!

Going back over that pantser novel recently, I realized – this is going to take a LOT of work if I ever want to publish this! And I mean a LOT. But even as I made a list of questions about stupid things in the draft and came up with ideas for my grand fixer-upper, I realized a few things about the pantser novel:

  • The characters had really distinctive voices. They felt like really people to me, with intricate pasts and even futures beyond the novel. I grew to love them so much, I even wrote little snippet pieces that have nothing to do with the novel and won’t ever be in it, but feature the characters doing ordinary day things, having separate little adventures and romances, etc.
  • The writing is stupid sometimes, but never do I get the feeling, reading the pantser draft, that I struggled a lot in writing it. It doesn’t FEEL like “oh this is writing, see what the writer was trying to do here?” Instead, it just feels like a flowing story, albeit with a lot of holes, cuts, and scrapes that need healing in revision work.

In contrast, my outliner-novel is a lot more fleshed-out. It is more of a child than a baby, and it certainly does not have as many cuts and holes that need mending. It DOES have sections that feel stiff though, and the ending is terrible. The pantser-novel has some stupid elements in its ending, but ultimately…that last line? I love it. It’s perfect. The last scene has just enough, and not too much….loose ends are tied, but not too tightly.

The outliner has more of a message. Its characters also have distinctive voices. It has bad plot holes, sometimes, too, and cliches that need to be mopped up and are embarrassing. It will DEFINITELY be easier to revise, for which I’m happy.

But…but…there is something to be said for heart, when you write a pantser novel. Somehow they’re just so fresh and lively and laughing, when you wrote them without that awful Inner Editor lifting a shotgun to every sentence.

Ultimately though, like I commented on John Vorhaus‘ post at Writer Unboxed…I vote for outlining. It just helps me keep my sanity!

Anyway, back to the main topic…I wanted to say more, aside from my personal story about outlining vs. pantsering.

If doing nothing, staring into space, daydreaming, and wandering aimlessly through fields of wheat and such helps us write…and pantsering novels into creation has more heart and voice but ultimately more work in it for us writers…should we stop outlining, forgetting about deadlines, in the name of writing “better” novels which “speak more”?

But…will they speak more to us, or to readers? Perhaps an outlined novel will have more structure and more efficient plotting etc., making it a more enjoyable read? Even if it meant more work for us…it would be worth it, to work more, to outline, because what we produce will reach more people, touch more lives, and be ultimately more satisfying for us, too, since we’ll be connected with a product that people enjoy.

Of course, this is just me throwing ideas out to you all…thoughts to munch on. After all, we know that each writer has his or her individual process. The pantsers will pantser on, and the outliners will outline. That is that. They may switch, or stick to their chosen method, whichever they choose.

I think I choose both. I think I choose whatever strikes my fancy.

I also think that one of the commenters on Writer Unboxed makes a good point. His opinion was that Pantser writers are simply writing an outline, in the form of a higgledy-piggledy, super-rough first draft. Yeah. I tend to agree with that.

Here are some fun statistics on outlining vs. pantser-ing, from the lives of well-known authors:

  1. J.K. Rowling knew the end of the 7th book in the Harry Potter series rather early on in her writing. She does outline!
  2. Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries series and other series for YA, does not outline. More on her view here.
  3. Faulkner wrote his outline for A Fable on his office walls.
  4. The outlines are as varied, organized, disorganized, and interesting as the writers who wrote them!

So, you see? Perhaps outliners and pantsers aren’t so different after all. Even the outliners have differing styles. Some of their outlines just look like tons of squiggles. Some make miniature books showing their outlines, bit by bit. Some do charts and rows of boxes…it’s all very diverse.

I love that. No matter whether we fall into the outliner or pantser field of writing, or whether we run from one group to the other depending on our format, novel, or mood…writing remains a very free thing, very individual, and each story has its own unique flavor.

Yet another reason to keep on chugging on!

I hope this gives some confidence, or at least a few laughs and munchies, for fellow writers who are outlining or revising out there today.

Hip Hip Hurrah for writing!

– Chaitanya


2 thoughts on “Outlining Your Book VS. “By the Seat of Your Pants”, AKA “Pantser-ing” It

  1. -Make an outline first.
    -When I was a career counselor, we told the students this, the subject was making your career, or, even just “finding a job”, but the advice applies really to any kind of project:
    1. Make a plan,
    2. Write it down.
    3. Carry out your plan.
    4. Stick to it.


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