Busting Writing Rules: You Must Outline


When I first started writing, I just put a pencil to a sheet of notebook paper and wrote.  Didn’t think anything about it other than having fun figuring out what was going to happen next as I wrote.

People around me noticed how I was writing.  Family and friends informed I needed to outline.

Beginning and intermediate writers scratched their heads and told me that I’d learn soon enough that I was supposed to outline.

In writing circles, this divides the writers up into outliners or plotters versus pantsers (the term coming from “writing by the seat of the pants.”).

What it Actually Means

Unlike other rules, this isn’t one that was misinterpreted by time or repetition.  I think there are two reasons it exists:

  1. Outlining is easy to teach.

    The instructor provides a system, forms, and off the writer goes to write the story,  It tells the writer what’s going to happen next, so when you get a free moment, you consult the outline and can figure out where to start.  You can also use it to figure out if you any plot holes.

    Pantsing….pretty much just start writing.  You discover the story as you write and get surprised a lot (sometimes for the better, and sometimes not).  You’re Christopher Columbus with his three ships, sailing across the ocean.  You don’t know what’s at the end of the journey until you get there.  That’s writing that has to be experienced, rather than taught.

    Some people want—or even need—more than “just start writing and figure it out.”  It’s just hard to figure out how to get started on a big project like a novel.  Because it is so big, it can also be overwhelming.

  2. Outlining is what we know.

    In school, teachers give writing assignments that include an outline.  I think that’s why so many adults kept trying to push me into outlining short stories.  In college, they had to outline term papers as part of the assignment.  It seemed like a logical thing to do, even for a short story.

Yet, everyone also says that it doesn’t matter how you get to the story.  Then why does pantsing get such a bad rap?

Busting the Rule

The problem is three separate issues.

  1. Pantsing is a messy process, especially for new writers.

    You start writing the story and somewhere along the line you go off track and run aground.  Then it’s hard troubleshooting what happened.  It can be extremely frustrating, especially with the amount of revision that you might end up having to do to fix the story.  It then easy to think you’ll never learn how to finish a story unless you outline.

  2. How craft is taught.

    For an outliner, learning the craft is wrapped up in doing an outline.  So if you’re learning about structure, it’s built into the outline by doing tasks like identifying where plot points go.

    Craft is taught as process-to-craft.  That is, the outliner uses the outlining process to learn the craft skill.

    But there’s no outlining for a pantser…now what?

    This is how pantsers get told over and over again they have to outline.  An instructor who outlines can’t figure out how to teach writers to get from Point A to Point B without using an outline as an explanation.

    Teaching craft for a pantser is craft-to-process.  That is, the pantsers learns the craft skill and incorporates it into their process.

So you can see this rule’s conflict.

What you can do

First, it doesn’t matter what process is used to create the story. If you give the reader a good story, they’re not going to care.

  1. Never put down another writer’s writing process, even if you don’t understand or don’t agree with it. It’s theirs. Let them own it. 

    Also, if you’ve never tried that writing process and finished a book successfully using it, don’t explain how to do it. All you need to do is search for Pantsers vs. Plotters on the internet and you’ll find a lot of writers explaining something they’ve never done. It just adds to this rule’s clutter of misinformation.

  2. Own your process.

    Too often, we allow the group-think to steer us wrong. “So many people are saying this, so they must be right” instead of asking, “What’s right for me?”

    There are a lot of writers who have adopted an authoritative tone as to what everyone should do—and haven’t even finished their first book. Remember Point #1 above—there are writers stating “This is a fact” and they’ve never tried the process.

    Always be the skeptic. I learned pretty fast that if I asked “Is this workshop pantser-friendly?” and got “Sure. We work with pantsers and outliners,” it was code for, “We expect you to outline.” I was very shocked when I asked one writer that same question about his class and he said, “Sure. That’s how I write.”

  3. Have fun!

    Everyone tends to focus on following the rules instead of just having fun. Fun is never going to steer you wrong, and it’ll show up in the story.

References for Pantsers

  • Story Trumps Structure by Steven James
  • Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith
  • Pantser’s Guide to Writing by Linda Maye Adams
  • Storytelling for Pantsers by Annalisa Parent

There aren’t any actual instructions on how to write novels for pantsers. Read all of the books. Take what you need from them.

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