Monday, November 19, 2012

Pantser or Outliner?

In honor of National Novel Writing Month, which gets shortened to NaNWriMo or further shortened to NaNo, I'll be posting some guest blogs I wrote earlier this year. (And yes, I am doing NaNo in 2012. 30K+ words so far. Awful appalling laughable words, but words.)

Here’s a question I often hear from people interested in writing a novel: I can’t come up with an outline. What should I do?

You may have heard of “pantsers” vs. “outliners.” Let’s talk about this.

The term pantser derives from “flying by the seat of the pants.” Pantsers jump into their stories without outlining in advance, completely caught up in the characters and unconcerned (at first) about the plot. For a pantser, the experience of writing is one of immersion in a fictional world. The plot reveals itself along the way. 

For a pantser, trying to outline up front would only bring on discouragement and a sense of futility. But once the first draft is done, outlining can be helpful because an outline will identify tangents or redundancies that need to be trimmed or plotholes that require new pages.

Outliners plan ahead. They can’t imagine sitting down to write a book without having an idea of where the story begins and ends. Outliners take courage in knowing the bones of a novel before they begin to flesh it out. 

Often, outliners aren't attached to specifics, adapting well when characters change and grow and events take new turns as they write. But to an outliner, plunging in with no sense of direction would only bring on discouragement and overwhelming doubts.

So it’s helpful to know whether you’re a pantser or an outliner. When you understand your style, you’ll quit thinking you “should” be approaching things another way. All approaches are valid so long as they get you to write!

Finding what works best for you is the big golden key. This seems to be true for everything from diets to exercising to picking out shoes, so it’s no surprise that writers often need to experiment before discovering what will help them get ‘er done!

Wishing you well on your quest,


1 comment:

Unknown said...

I remember being a Pantser in the fourth grade when, assigned a report on some topic of what was then called Social Studies, I was incapable of writing an outline. (I’m sure I tried, and I know to this day the format an outline should take, down to the use of Roman numerals, but I never could hang anything on that orderly scaffolding.) I don't remember how I developed my academic strategy, but I soon had the habit of writing the report ahead of time (a feat in and of itself for this congenital Pantser), then making an outline from it, turning in the outline on the assigned date, and then, on its assigned date, the report.

Years later, my Pantser daughter was required to fill out 3x5 cards instead of outlining, but the effect and utility of that system was no different. It was both not useful to her writing process, but a grueling task that always frustrated and ate up time she could have spent devouring more material that would eventually be synthesized into a final work. It made learning aversive instead of enlivening.

I once hired a book writing coach who insisted on an outline, which I dutifully wrote, after which everything I wrote to fill it out was essentially dead to me, and eventually I abandoned the project. It would be a great service to Pantsers who write if the understanding you have, Ms. Hanley, were more widely held.

Are teachers and schools getting a clue about this, yet? I think there are probably thousands of would-be writers whose school experience soured them on writing, and that’s a tragedy too great.