“Pantsing” vs. Outlining

by: bradashlock

Jun 12


In writing circles–apparently–there has been a large debate on the best way to write a novel. Amazon abounds with books on the art of writing that take up this debate: should an author outline, or wing it by the seat of his or her pants?

My favourite writers tend to wing it (“pantsing” is such a stupid term). Their books are organic and just read more “true” than heavily plotted works. The only issues come up in the endings, where there is often a less than satisfying conclusion because the set up is less contrived. You can’t have everything!

For me, I switched to outlining in my last two books. I was tired of going down dead ends that led nowhere, or staring at a blank page without a clue as to what comes next.

I’d finish the novel in three months. Very fast for 80K words for me.

But then I noticed something. In the following drafts, I would make major changes to push the novel beyond the tight little box I had trapped it in with my outline. The writing was screaming to grow, to be pushed beyond my preconceived ideas.

So, in the end, I’d have to make major revisions anyway.

The best part of my books–the big twists, the unexpected character arcs–never came from outlining. Instead, they came from discarding the outline and listening to what the story wanted to say, despite my plans.

So I began a new novel without any outline, just a few ideas of setting and a character I had in mind. What if I forgot about what was supposedly sellable (as if anyone has a clue), and let my imagination run amok? How far could I push things without any outline, any restraints, while still telling the best story I could–full of conflict, twists, and turns?

The process is slower. Much slower. There have been times–like the past week–where I’ve been scared to face the empty white space. What if it goes nowhere? What if the end is a mess because there are too many loose ends? What if, what if, what if?

Here’s what I think: In order to grow, a writer should not be restrained by an ultimately contrived outline.

Does this risk ending up in a dead end? Yep. So backtrack and work your way out of it. You’re supposed to be creative, right? Are you giving an organised PowerPoint presentation or are you supposed to be more than some glorified organiser Did you color in the lines, or let loose?

Outlining is the equivalent of an explorer traveling only where he already knows the terrain. What can be learned from this? Instead, risk falling off the face of the world.

I love David Morrell’s book on writing, “The Successful Novelist”. He doesn’t outline because the stories become stale for him. What he does suggest is talking to your novel. When he gets into a rough spot, instead of being paralysed, he writes. He writes to his novel. “Hi, novel, looks like I’m not sure where to take this character. He started out one way, but now he’s become flat. I’m not sure how to make him grow? Conflict. Needs more conflict. From where?…”

Now when I get stuck, or am unsure where to go, I simply keep writing, asking the novel where it wants to go. It’s a funny little trick, but I’ve found it very helpful as I ditch the map and head my ship out to sea.