The Key to Discovering Your Ideal Outlining (or Not Outlining!) Style

It's really not about plotter versus pantser. It's about learning how your brain works best. Here's how I figured out mine. |

When I started writing my first novel, I found out that I had to choose a side.

There was a heated debate about the best way to dive into this thing. It crops up on every writing site sooner or later. You've heard of this, right?

It's the Outliners versus the ones who say: Nope, not gonna. The Plotters who have it all settled in advance, versus the novelists who create by the seat of their pants--a.k.a., the Pantsers.

Do you figure it all out first and then sit down to write?

Or, do you go by your gut and your feelings every day, and kind of ooze your way toward your finished draft?

Well. I didn't need to think much about this decision.

Heck, if you've been reading for a while, you can probably guess which side I picked. 

After seventeen years of schooling, I knew that I'm the kind of girl who will make a 99-item list and then know that all is right with the world.

Who likes creating schedules to cover the next four years. Who counts list-making as a favorite activity. I plan for fun.

I mean, come on. Outlines all the way, right?

So for my first three novels, I outlined. These outlines were amazing. They were massive airship carriers of ideas. No storm could touch these babies. They were solid. They were impeccably structured.

I looked at those huge documents, and I knew I could write the novels they described. 

But I ran into trouble.

One novel was so fun that I poured all my story energy into the outline, and had nothing left over for the actual draft. No curiosity, no drive, no nothing. I never wrote that book.

The next two novels I worked on had fifty-page outlines for each draft. (And together, they've gone through seven drafts, so... now you know how I spent my twenties.)

I loved the certainty. I felt so prepared. It was just like school, like planning a semester around a few syllabuses. I was so organized. The books would be wonderful.

But passages that outlined well didn't translate to prose. One antagonist never really found his feet, even though everything in the outline said he'd be perfect for this role. Huge parts of these stories felt dull, crammed with everything that should be there, full of all the tidbits the structure books told me to put in.

All right. I can (finally) take a hint.

For my next book, I set off in the wild opposite direction.

I went pure pantser. 

I knew a few details about the main character, the general direction of the book, a few supporting characters, a radically new setting, and a kind of atmosphere that made my heart skip beats.

And that's it.

I dove in. Writing that draft was like taking a bunch of polaroid pictures, and waving them around to see what developed, and then assembling them into a quilt. I had no idea what the next day's work would hold. Which, let's face it, was pretty cool.

Honestly? I love that novel. I love it so much.

But it's a Swiss cheese of a story: there are some major holes that I just haven't been able to fill, problems that don't reconcile, gaps where every bridge I try just doesn't feel right.

Also, I was so anxious when I was writing it, that I literally had to crawl into bed every day and write from under the covers.

I checked in with another writer who was a total Non-Outliner. Is it supposed to feel like I'm drowning? Like I'm going blind? I asked her. YES! she said. It's so EXHILARATING.

But I didn't think I could survive another book like that.

And then I realized something. Writing a novel isn't at all like doing homework. It isn't like school. So my hyper-planning strategies from school days: wasn't gonna work.

At the same time, writing a novel isn't at all like summer break. Floating through it with some vague ideas of where I was going: also not going to work.

I found my best writing strategy when I remembered this: writing a novel is like going on a trip.


I mean: there's a beginning, a middle, an end, each with their own kind of energy, their own shape. You get yourself out there, and then you have to figure out how to get home.

There's always an "I'M PRETTY SURE WE'RE LOST" moment. High points, low points. Action balanced with reaction. Weariness and cheerfulness, excellent views and crummy alleyways. Heroes and villains. Unexpected characters. Conflict and plot twists. Maybe even a bit of danger, a bit of romance. All that.

Every novel holds its own world, and the narrative is the journey we take through it.

So I finally asked myself: How do I best like to travel?

Outlining seems like planning a trip in detail.

And the hyper massive outlines I created: That was like knowing the names of my taxi drivers in advance. Getting my hotel room number (heck, and a key!) before leaving home. Pinning down the date I'd wear each outfit. Looking at menus for restaurants and picking what I'd order.

Get the picture?

FYI: this is not how I travel.

But then the other extreme, my pantser novel: Well, that was like saying "I'd like to see this city around these dates, and hey, I'll bring these jeans." And that's it.

Also not how I travel.

When I go somewhere, I like to have a grip on what I consider the basics: general ideas of transportation. Definitely know which hotel(s) I'm staying at. And I'm a food lover, so if there's a restaurant I can't miss, I'll make sure I know the address. And then I'll get a general idea of what museums or parks or views I really have to catch. 


I like leaving room to be struck by impulse. To have a total change of plans without worrying about throwing everything off. To explore. To yes, get a bit lost.

To say: This looks good, that sounds great, hey there's a festival over there, maybe we should step inside that place--is that fudge?!

A chance to make up a lot of the trip on the spot. But not all of it.

It's not a hyper outline. And it's not just a vague intention.

It's somewhere in between.

When I wrote this trilogy during the second half of last year, I had a loose, super-gentle outline for each book. It was not hysterical. It was not highly structured. It didn't do what the outlining books said to do. 

But it also wasn't blank.

Every day when I sat down to draft, I knew one or two points I needed to hit that day, in order for the climax to happen, or in order for the tension to build. I had a general idea of who would be carrying the action and maybe what the setting would be. 

But that's it.

Enough of an outline to keep me breathing. I knew what my job was each day. But I also had plenty of room to wander, to be struck by new ideas, to take new tracks, to explore.

And guess what. It was the happiest, calmest, and best drafting experience I've ever had.

It was a near-perfect balance of structure and imagination in the moment. Freedom + safety net. With neither side outweighing the other.

So when people ask you to take a side, outlining or not outlining, just remember that it really doesn't have to be either/or, all or nothing. It's a spectrum. 

And as you prepare your next draft, don't think about homework, and don't think about summer breaks.

Instead, think about how you travel.

What rhythm feels right when you're on the road? How much structure or lack of structure helps you have the best trip?

What keeps you engaged in the experience of traveling, without making you too anxious about what you don't know?

Try giving that same amount of structure to your next writing project.

And see how that journey feels.