Why outliners can’t tell pantsers how to write

I’ve gotten a lot pickier in buying writing craft books in the last two years. Now, when I buy one, I look through the table of contents, and even some of the pages. If the writer promises he or she will teach techniques for both outlining and pantsing (writing without an outline), it’s an automatic rejection.

I found that a lot of them don’t have any clue as to how pantsers write.

This post was inspired by a different topic entirely, omniscient viewpoint. Several weeks back, a writer posted a blog on omni, and it was clear that she didn’t understand the viewpoint—but spent time explaining how to do it, incorrectly.

There are a lot of posts like that. The writer sees omni, tries to understand by framing it from their knowledge of third person. Third person is from the character’s viewpoint, so therefore, omni head hops, or is multiple viewpoints.

But omni is ONE viewpoint, that of all seeing narrator. Think storyteller or film director, who is controlling what the reader knows and doesn’t know.

That’s the same problem with pantsing a book.

Outlining starts out with figuring out the parts of the book—the major events in the story, how it ends, who did it, and whatever. Some are incredibly in-depth, while others are much less so, but they do contain some element of defining the road map for the story.

Pantsing is the discovery of what happens in the book as we write. Some writers may figure out what the ending is or do a character background, or anything in between. Some, like me, may not know what’s going to happen in the next scene until they get there.

That’s a pretty big difference!

Outliners look at how we write from the perspective of outlining, scratch their heads, and then apply what they know to it. Like omniscient viewpoint, they draw the wrong conclusion because of how they’re framing their approach to understanding pantsing and conclude that techniques like plot points and three act structure would really make sense for us to use.

I had to start thinking a lot about that because I went through a lot of those writing workshops that were going for $20-$30. If I started asking questions framed from the pantser perspective, the instructor didn’t know what to do with it. She’d start tap dancing—talk around it with lots of words, trying to sound authoritative, and never actually answer the question.

Yet, when I’ve run into pantsers who knew what they were doing, the answers were pretty straightforward—and better still, didn’t leave me scratching me head, wondering how I was going to apply it.

The problem is that pantser writer has to be on guard for this kind of stuff because everyone assumes you’re outlining when you’re not.  In looking at all that I’ve seen over the years, I’m amazed at how little is out there for the way we write.

Coming in August, just in time for Nano:

Cover for Panters Guide to Writing You are Not Broken



11 thoughts on “Why outliners can’t tell pantsers how to write

  1. Considering how methodical I tend to be when approaching most tasks, it seems like I’d be more of an outliner than a pantser. But in actuality, so far the opposite seems to be true. When I sit down to write something, I’m almost always seeing what happens in answer to “What would it look like if this thing happened?” Then somehow a first draft sort of organically emerges.

    I’m still puzzling out my revision process, however, but currently that seems to be when my methodical side comes into play. I end up throwing out stuff from my draft, but that’s okay. I think the act of writing shakes loose better ideas that I’d come up with if I were trying to construct an outline before doing anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You might want to look at Dean Wesley’s Smith’s Writing into the Dark book. He talks about doing an outline AFTER you write the scene. Then, as you go along, you might see that something that seemed like a great idea evolved out, so you can just take the scene out.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pearl R. Meaker

    Linda, I’m so proud of you for writing this book! 🙂 (although I still hate the term “pantser”) The world does need self-help/instructional books for how so many of us work in the creative process. If nothing else, having such books gives us validation to the “planners.” If there are books, workshops and the like out there for intuitive plotters, taught by successful intuitive plotters, we all gain from it.

    Well Done! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I doubt if anything will ever give us validation to the planners. The thing I don’t get is why there is a constant focus on telling us we’re doing it wrong, that it’s ill-advised, that it will lead to doom, etc. I ran searches for the term to see what popped up, and it’s a stream of ‘Don’t do it!” from the outliners. Pantsers, where are you? Start talking about how you write and don’t apologize!

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  3. Peggy

    I think part of the problem is that you can TEACH writing by outline. You can’t TEACH writing into the dark (and yes, love that phrase from DWS). You can talk about it, and you can guide someone into developing their own style of writing into the dark, but you can’t TEACH it. And a lot of people like to TEACH.


    1. Pearl R. Meaker

      I think you’ve said it well, Peggy. Our way of writing is so individually geared that it would be hard to teach. Guiding is a better idea.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m not sure people can teach outliners either–they can explain their process for outlining, but it doesn’t mean it will work for the person they’re teaching. But it is something that can be broken down into steps, unlike pantsing.


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