Outlining vs. Planning

This article was originally published in The Writer’s Everything, Issue #011.

While authors are, for the most part, fairly reasonable and level-headed (you have to be if you’re going to get in the headspace of each of your characters), there is one question that divides even the best of us. It’s an elemental debate that stems from the very core of how we function. 

That conflict is between planners, those who outline their novels ahead of time, creating a step-by-step guide to carry them through the writing process, and pantsers, those who fly by the seat of their pants, allowing nothing, not even their own notes, to stifle their creative process. 

As with other elemental debates, Coke vs. Pepsi, Samsung vs. iPhone, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, the question of whether an author should outline or pants is highly divisive, and has lead to uncountable heated debates. All of them, however, are unnecessary in my opinion. 

Now, I’m not trying to say that we should all just ignore our differences and get along, although that is generally the best course of action. I’m also not trying to say that I don’t have a strong opinion on the topic. I lean heavily towards outlining for various reasons that I will mention later on in this article. 

What I am trying to say is something so out of the norm for most writers that they will immediately reject it. It’s hogwash suggested by a quack. Well, here it goes anyway. In my opinion, for all intents and purposes, outlining and pantsing are, in fact, the same thing, completely indistinguishable from each other save one key difference. 

I know, I know. How could I be so flagrantly unabashed as to propose such a contentious concept? I ask that you hear me out on this, though. 

Pantsers believe that outlining your novel limits your creative freedom. It locks you into a course of action that you must take whether it makes sense or not. The outline informs your characters’ decisions, rather than the other way around. 

Outliners believe that pantsing your novel lowers its quality and coherency. It causes you to meander meaninglessly from one scene to another, with your story suffering all the while. 

But what is the process of these two methodologies? 

Pantsers start out with an idea. They usually take a little bit of time to establish a few key details, such as who the main character is and what the setting is. There may be a pantser or two who takes exception to this, but in my opinion, you need to know whether your story takes place on a 24th century starship or a medieval castle before you begin. 

Outliners start out their process in the exact same way. They have an idea, and then they develop the key details around that idea. 

It’s the next step that is the greatest matter of contention between these two groups, yet in all honesty, it’s also one of the greatest similarities between these two processes. For outliners, they shape their story by imagining situations that their characters will face, how their characters will confront those situations, and then writing down what they come up with. For pantsers, they begin writing down the situations that the characters are facing and their efforts to confront them. 

See the similarities? Both camps think about their story and what’s going to happen in it, and then write down what they discover, often in order. So the truth is that the first draft of a pantser is their outline. 

Honestly, there is only one significant difference between these two methods. Outliners keep their stories in their heads, only writing down the most vital parts in order to shape their story. Pantsers write everything down as they think of it. 

Outliners have straightforward lists of events. Pantsers have cluttered and meandering first drafts. Outliners have to write their entire first draft after the outlining process. Pantsers have something that, if it’s of high enough quality, they can begin to shape rather than start from scratch. 

Here’s another controversial idea: If you choose to plot, it does not mean that you are hampering your creativity. 

For one thing, writing down your outline is, in fact, writing, just as writing a first draft is. The only difference is how much detail you put in the story. 

Imagine telling a story to a friend. 

Outliners: “So get this. I was in line at the grocery store, and this family just cut right in front of me.” 

Pantsers: “Man, I went to the grocery store to get some drinks for the party last weekend, and I’m just standing in line to check out, minding my own business, and this family with three kids walks up next to me with a cart full of junk food. They stand there for a second, then out of nowhere, they slip in front of me and act like they were there the entire time. I was so furious, I started muttering under my breath, but they acted like they didn’t hear me.” 

Does either of these methods confine your creativity? Of course not. They’re different ways to convey the same events. You could easily take the outline and turn it immediately into the story, and vice versa. 

Also, writing an outline isn’t a guarantee that you’re going to hamper your creativity. If you have an outline and the story is taking you somewhere else, you don’t have to force it back into submission. You can still follow it and see where it goes. 

And whether you’re an outliner or a pantser, if you decide half way through your first draft that Joe Schmo is a mechanic rather than a computer engineer, it’s going to take just as much effort to go through what you have written and make those changes throughout. 

The truth is that there is only one valid reason to pick one method of creating your story over the other. You do whatever works for your brain. A pantser may not be capable of seeing their story from a bird’s-eye view, altering events in chunks. They may need to watch things unfold before their eyes to be able to discover the events of their story organically. An outliner may not be capable of writing without direction. They may find that the lack of structure means that their story does not have the purpose and meaning that it would if they had outlined it first. 

Now that I’ve gotten all of the “just get along”-ness out, let me end this article by listing four reasons why I would suggest outlining rather than pantsing. 

  1. Outlining gives you a bird’s-eye view right off the bat. This is absolutely necessary for well-structured stories. An artist wouldn’t start drawing a portrait by fully forming the forehead wrinkles of the subject and then building out from there. Rather, he figures out where the shape of the entire head is going to be. Once that’s established, he’s able to begin adding the details.
  2. Outlining allows you to intricately weave theme into your story. Your role as an author and a wordsmith is to create meaningful and resonating stories. That means there has to be a point to your novel. The best way to establish that point is with theme. The best way to add theme to a work-in-progress is by plotting it, making sure that every scene is essential and important to the development of said theme.
  3. Outlining allows you to discover plot holes and inconsistencies long before you’ve wasted months writing your first draft. You don’t want to be 100,000 words into your murder mystery before realizing that the murderer couldn’t have committed the crime because you referenced him appearing on live television that night in the first chapter. Outlining, simply put, helps you to keep your ducks in a row.
  4. Outlining allows you to economize your writing time more fully. Writing out whole conversations and descriptions of events, only to realize that you aren’t happy with 90% of it and promptly do a Select All>Delete is just a waste of your time. The problem is that you wrote those words before you knew whether you even needed that scene or not. 

Ok, it’s time for me to get back to my neutrality. I would certainly never want to downplay the method that works best for you. If you can make your novels happen by pantsing, then by all means you should stick with it. I’m simply concerned with the numerous writers who could benefit greatly from the outlining process, but who reject it outright because of misconceptions about what it means and what it requires. If we all just take a moment to look at it objectively, we’ll find that outlining achieves the same steps as pantsing, it allows you the same creative freedom, and it comes with added benefits to boot. 

Either way, what really matters is this: that you commit to your method of choice fully. If you want to be a successful author, this is, above all else, a necessity. It’s the only way that you can be absolutely sure to succeed in your efforts to write a novel. And really, that’s what we all want to do. 


The Writer’s Everything

This article, as well as many others, have been featured in previous issues of my writing journal, The Writer’s Everything, in which I, along with occasional guest contributors, provide essays, guides, encouragement, motivation, writing prompts, character bio development kits, and anything else that can help you turn your dream of becoming a writer into a reality.


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