From Pantser to Planner: Why I Learned to Love Outlining

Next week, my first blog post in the month of June, I will be starting a “How to” series, during which, each Monday, I will share my strategies for completing each step of the writing process as I work on my debut. In preparation for that, this is a mini-biography about my experience the first time I tried to write a book.

From what I’ve found, there are two basic categories of writers: Pantsers and Planners. There are varying degrees and exceptions on both sides of the spectrum, but the simplest way to explain it is this: Pantsers are those who “fly by the seat of their pants,” hence the nickname.  Typically, they do little to no outlining and/or research for a story prior to putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard.) Instead, they prefer to do the “grunt work” in the midsts of writing, because they enjoy the thrill of seeing where the characters will take them. Planners, on the other hand, do most of the preliminary work before starting to write. They like to work in methodical manners, so that most of the kinks in the story are ironed out, before really diving in.

Both are perfectly reputable styles of writing, and if done correctly, can produce wonderful works. In this post, however, I want to discuss just a few of the reasons why planning has helped my writing to evolve thus far, and perhaps encourage someone else to try it as well.

I used to be a hard-core Pantser. I hated outlines. Up until I was a sophomore in high school, nothing I’d written had been longer than five to ten pages, so putting in a lot of extra work for something that I could easily type out in just a couple of hours, and then correct later, seemed ridiculous. The only time I ever outlined was when it was required as part of an assignment, and even then, it never helped. The outline was the paper, as I tend to be very long winded, or it was the complete opposite of the final product. In short, it felt like a waste of time.

Until I tried writing my first novel at the age of 16.

It was a collaborative project with a friend of mine, inspired by one of my all-time favorite subject matters: mythical creatures. The story focused on fairies, as well as another creature we made up. In retrospect, our creature was kind of a catch-all species who didn’t really have any set powers or rules that bound them and made them real; which turned out to be the first of many, many mistakes.

Of course, every great story starts as only a tiny spark of an idea, but our problem lay in the fact that we didn’t put in enough of the “grunt work” ahead of time. Just because our story had a plot and characters didn’t make it ready to be written. Without world-building, backstory, and research, our tale could only go so far. All we had was a few names and the most skeletal, vague version of a plot possible. We just started writing, and thought we had a book.

It’s still hilarious to me that I thought it would be that simple.

I actually managed to get 200 pages done before I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. An amazing feat in and of itself, I think. But whenever I sat down to write, I would get three or four pages in and find myself asking, ‘Now what?” Nothing about the fictional world was real to me, so as a result, I was always stumped.

My partner and I had drifted apart by then, but she encouraged me to keep going, but by then, I was so attached to what I’d already written, that I kept shoving all the old, dried up elements into what was supposed to be a brand-new, start. It was, to be cliche, like fitting a square into a circular hole: never going to happen.

That manuscript is now gathering dust somewhere on my hard drive, but I will never, for one second, regret writing it. That was the first time I understood what it took to be an author. It‘s a lot of work- much more than just typing out words. I learned from that experience that, while I am good at coming up with ideas, I’m horrible at sticking to them without some kind of road map. While it is possible for me to be a Panster on papers and short stories (I never outline my flash fictions, for example,) it is not advisable if I ever want to complete a large project. But I never would’ve learned that, if I hadn’t tried.

So, no matter what type of writer you are, I encourage all of you, just once, to experiment on the other side. Yes, the product may suck. It might just sit and gather dust, like mine. In the long run, though, it will make you better. It will reinforce what you think are your strengths, and open your eyes to your weaknesses. And once you know your weaknesses, it’s much easier to find ways around them, or turn them into strengths.

Challenge of the Week: Try the opposite of what you usually do, for one 500 word story. You don’t have to share the results, but feel free to tweet me, comment on my FB, or comment here; tell me how it turned out 🙂



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