The Outline of Your Pants

The Outline of Your Pants

Are you an outliner or a “pantser?”

That’s not a question about pants-wearing preferences. (After all, who doesn’t love going without pants?) It’s a question about preparing to write something.

For years, I was a pantser. That is, I wrote by the seat of my pants. Each day I sat at the keyboard, I had an idea in mind, and I wrote to it. I also had an overall idea for where the story was going, so I moved things in that direction. The key is, I did so without any real planning; I just sat down and wrote. I churned out a few book drafts this way, so it was hard to argue against it.

However, before I started another book, I wanted to try an outline. It was nothing fancy: just some notes about the story followed by a breakdown of the chapters. For each chapter, I wrote 2-4 sentences about what I expected to happen. The pantser in me rebelled. I was forcing the story. I was stifling my creativity. Rather than listen to my inner pantser, I used the outline and started writing.

My big takeaway: using the outline was more flexible than I thought. Stories are organic: they’re going to evolve as you write them. When that happened, I would go with the flow of the story and amend the outline. A new character would pop up, or I would have a character do Y instead of X. No big deal. Write it and change the outline to reflect it.

I recently went to the 2017 Maryland Writers Association conference. The keynote speaker was bestselling thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver. He told us that he is an outliner, and that his outlines can be over 100 pages. That works for him; he’s sold about a quadrillion books that way. It wouldn’t work for me. It may not work for you. But that’s the beauty of the writing process: you find what works for you and you run with it.

I’ve come to prefer my rather brief outlines (they’re usually about three single-spaced pages). They force me to think about the whole story from the beginning. At the same time, I can still go with the flow and change things as appropriate. For me, it’s a win-win. But maybe you’re a dedicated pantser. Maybe you, like Jeffrey Deaver, work best with a long and detailed outline.

Here’s a challenge: try it the other way. It doesn’t have to be with a novel, or even something you’re going to publish. If you’ve had a short story idea kicking around in your head, write it, but write it with the other method. Experiment. Broaden your horizons. If you find you hate it, no harm done. But if you find you liked it and you think it works for you, keep running with it.

Are you an outliner or a pantser? Have you tried working the other way? Share your stories via email.

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