Pantsing vs. Plotting, or… Do I Need a Damn Outline?

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With National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) coming up in November, there’s lots of talk about how best to execute a novel: by pantsing, also known as writing by the seat of your pants; or plotting – that is, mapping out (usually with an outline) your narrative journey. I realize I say this a lot, but – there is no right answer to this dilemma. Here are a few thoughts about each.

1. Outlines: I work with a popular author who writes a detailed outline for every book. This is what works for this person. The outlines are so detailed that I can read them and talk with the author about places to add, bolster, trim, or cut altogether. I had to get used to working this way – that is, I had to let go of my fear that what I was suggesting might compromise the book. As an editor I’m more of a pantser, and I had to stop second-guessing myself and start trusting the outline. And I did. Because it’s a process that works for this author. And because outlines aren’t written in stone – if something isn’t working in the manuscript, you’ll know as you’re writing – or your editor will tell you.

2. Writing without an outline: Let me say that if I were to start writing a novel for NaNoWriMo, I’d pants it all the way. Not that I’m going to write a novel – I’m very happy with my role in the process, thank you very much! I’ll leave that heavy lifting to all of you. If you’ve got an idea or paragraph or sentence that can’t wait, then write it down and keep going. But keep in mind that if you start to feel distracted, confused, or bored by your writing then it’s probably time to re-read everything (even if it’s one paragraph, one page, one chapter) and think about where you’re going next.

3. Writing with and without an outline: Because, why not? What if you start with an outline and decide it’s too constricting? Toss it! What if you start as a pantser and find yourself lost? Then write the damn outline! You’ll hear chatter among writers that one is better than the other. But nothing is better than what works for you. Period.

A note about outlines: Despite what you learned in middle school, there’s no “right” way to write an outline. An outline is another name for A Way to Organize Your Thoughts. I wish I had a vacation day for every time I’ve heard authors say, “I wish I knew how to write an outline” –if I did, I’d see you next spring!

The bottom line is to start your book. Write your book. Once you start writing, you’ll know soon enough what you need to keep going. Happy NaNoWriMo!

Author spotlight

Liz S.

Hi, I'm the Editor-in-Chief at Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan. I've worked in the book biz for over 30 years (let's just …

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