The Craft of #Writing: #Pantsing versus #Outlining
Posted On May 17, 2023
The following is from my post on Quora responding to this question:
Do writers and authors write out an outline of their novel first? How detailed is the outline?
Whether to outline or “pants” (meaning to write by the seat of their pants) is individual to each writer. Some people, (like me,) “pre-write” their books with extreme outlining. Others start and thrash through each scene without preparation.
There are advantages and disadvantages to each system. Outlining gives you the shape of the book before you put the first word on the page. Depending on the level of outlining, you can have the details nailed down so that writing a description of a location, or a person is effortless. And you have fewer mistakes in your text that need rewriting. For instance, in a current WIP, one character is a female from the West Coast. In researching what she would wear, I found current fashion is much looser and more casual than what we see on the tube (often one to two years behind regional fashion.) So if someone from the West Coast read it, and the style doesn’t fit what she’s wearing, she’d think, “wow, this is dated.” The disadvantage to outlining is that it takes a good chunk of time to prepare these materials. Plus, you might end up with more material than you’ll use. For me, it takes up to a week to outline. Plus, as you work, you’ll change things as a new idea pops up, so to keep a consistent narrative, you’ll have to go back and change the outline. The biggest advantage to me in outlining is that my first draft is tight and, most times requires only a copy edit before it goes to publication.
Pantsing affords you the freedom to explore the story concept as you write. Nothing is decided, and you depend on your sense of drama to carry off the story. But pantsing is often time-consuming, and you’ll probably make substantial revisions, two or three at the least, before it is ready for submission.
Because I ghostwrite and must produce finished books on tight schedules, I outline to a degree most writers don’t.
Let me show you how I do that.
1.) Taking the proposed or decided word count of the work, I decide the number of chapters and words per chapter. This is from a work in progress, a 35K romance, in sixteen chapters. Since it is a shorter work, the chapters must work heavy-duty to advance the plot. (Yes, I’m almost done. Yeah!) Edit: This book is finished and available on Scribd here: Steph’s Christmas Star
2.) I write a short synopsis of the story. Here I put together the bones of it. Ultimately, as I refine it, it becomes the story pitch you often see in the publisher’s descriptions of the books. I’ll toss in a logline too.
3.) I rough out the story in my Story Map Worksheet. Here I assign POV characters (because I often write in multiple POVs), the location, and the events in the chapter.
4.) Next, I’ll write character descriptions for each primary and secondary character.
5.) And location descriptions:
6.) I put together research notes depending on the story’s complexity level. For a military sci-fi client, the research notes have reached 30 pages. For this story, I have none.
And that’s how an extreme outliner does it. 🙂
EDIT: To answer this commenter’s question: As you’ve shown, you break things down by chapters. Do you also do so by scene? And for chapters and scenes, how do you know how many there will be?
Yes, I know exactly how many scenes there will be. I’ve found, to keep the action rolling and readers turning the pages, each chapter is the scene, meaning, I do not break up chapters into several scenes. The characters may move from place to place, but I focus on the characters inside the scene.
Additionally, I break up the chapter into three parts so that at each third, I escalate the stakes of the chapter. I assign an escalating emotion for the main character for each third, and I’ll note power words reflecting the situation and the emotion that I may use. I tie the bottom third of my chapter outline in a concatenate formula that populates the last column on the sheet. I copy and paste this cell into the notes section of Google Docs to have the notes at hand.
Please note the middle of the sheet contains my plot hole tracker. It’s easy for little details to get away from you, like the name of a walk-on character. Put these here, and you have them for reference.
The chapter outline looks like this:
When I put it together to work on the page (stacking my page tabs), it looks like this:
Because I hate repeating steps to get work done, I have a Synopsis page that links to each piece to form a complete synopsis I can submit to clients. Here is the first page:
It looks funky in Google Sheets, but if you save it as a PDF, you can print a sixteen-page document that looks fine. If you have the Adobe suite as I do, you can easily convert it to a Word doc.