Outlining for pantsers and plotters

Outlining a 3 act story (wiki)There are (supposedly) two broad camps of writers – plotters and pantsers. The pantsers think they are immune to such techniques as outlining; in this article I explain the terms outlining, plotter and pantser, and put that misconception straight.

Plotters and Pantsers

First a list of both types of writer, thanks to GoodreadsPlotters vs. Pantsers: Can You Guess Which Side Stephen King and J.K. Rowling Are On? It’s a short list and makes the point well. There is a strong psychology angle (and indeed good old Myers-Briggs MBTI comes into play) and it is as simple as this:

  • Plotters: like to plan out their stories in detail
  • Pantsers: like to get on and write

I don’t like the word pantser (as in seat of pants) even though I am one. I suspect there is more of a spectrum here then the labels permit. I know some would be writers spend forever in exhaustive detail laying out scenes, characters, locations, motives, backstory and much else beside. Once done it makes the writing a bit more mechanical, a bit constrained but much simpler. I suppose some others just writer to a blank page and see where the story goes (Robert Howard was meant to have had the Conan stories come to him without effort I read once).

In my case I am around 80% pantser:

  • I like a title, even if it changes
  • I like to know names of a couple of major characters and some sense of the high-level plot
  • I can do a basic scene by scene breakdown but it gets very bitty
  • When writing short stories I like to just write the idea in my head and revise for the second draft where needed.


As to outlining, this is a step between a basic concept and a story. It’s a summary of what is going to happen, probably walking through scene by scene and setting out the direction of travel for the story. Once done it does make the story writing easier. My challenge is I find it gets in the way of getting down to write and for a short story I (in my arrogance) believe I can write well enough from a scrap of an idea.

[pullquote]Does it matter?[/pullquote]

Does it matter? Well once the book / story is written perhaps not. It does beforehand, particularly if you are working for an editor / publisher.

Editors, publishers and the business of writing

Where it does matter is when you deal with the business end of writing. Now, you may be JK Rowling or Stephen King (in which case thanks for dropping by) but most of us need to do what publishers need, and fit in with their process. A typical process (in my experience is)

  • Earn the right to pitch (networking, call for submissions…)
  • Pitch
  • Get pitch accepted
  • Write outline
  • Get outline accepted
  • Write story
  • Get story accepted
  • Repeat

If you can write you ought to be able to pitch (there are skills I may post about later); if you can’t write then you aren’t ready for the write story step. It’s the outlining step that throws the pantsers. From the perspective of a commissioning editor, they need proof your story is going to be what they need (in many cases, though not all). The outline is meant to be the short step to doing that, faster to produce than the story but enough to look in the details sufficient for the editor or publisher to give the green light for the story.

I’ve recently completed a commission and am redrafting the outline for a second one. I know, from experience, once the outline is firm the story will follow. It isn’t the way I want to work but my goal is to be a published professional writer, this means compromise.

What’s your experience?


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