To outline, or not to outline? For a lot of beginning novelists, this is a stressful question.
There’s a ton of writing advice out there that can get confusing even to seasoned novelists—for example. Some people argue that the word “said,” when used as a dialogue tag, is perfectly valid and, in fact, the best dialogue tag to use. Other people argue that dialogue tags in general are outdated and unnecessary. Still others will say that “said” is dead, and writers should find more interesting dialogue tags.
If you’re a new writer, this is overwhelming, especially when so much of this advice is paired with the implication that unless you follow it, you’re not a “real” writer.
And when it comes to outlining a book… oh, boy.
There’s approximately sixteen billion different equally heated opinions about whether writers should outline, what outlining looks like, and how beginners should go about it. Broadly speaking, this debate breaks down into two groups of people: pansters and plotters. In this article, we’re going to focus on pansters. We’ll talk about what pansters are, what pantsing is in a writing context, and whether it’s useful.
This guide to writing as a pantser covers:
- What is a pantser?
- What is pantsing in writing?
- What is a pantser vs plotter?
- Which authors are pantsers?
- How do you pants a story?
- Is it OK to write without an outline?
What is a pantser?
“Pantser” is a term for someone who writes their story without an outline. That’s it.
This doesn’t mean that a panster won’t have an idea of where their story is going. They might even have some bullet notes on the plot—there’s not any hard criteria to being a pantser. It just means that in general, they prefer to go into the first draft of their book without a clear map.
What is pantsing in writing?
So: if a “pantser” is someone who writes without an outline, “pantsing” is just the verb form of the word. It means drafting with no outline.
You might see someone use “pantsing” to refer to specific projects without applying to their writing method on the whole. Someone might, for example, choose to try pantsing short stories, when generally they prefer to outline longer pieces like novellas or novels.
But, same as before, it’s really simple: it just means there’s not an outline involved. It’s important to note that this almost always refers to the first draft of a novel, though—it’s kind of impossible to “pants” a second draft when the first draft already exists and serves as a detailed guideline moving forward. Plus, it’s pretty commonly regarded as good practice to make notes on your first draft to guide your second draft. Otherwise, you waste a lot of time.
What is a pantser vs plotter?
While a panster doesn’t work with an outline, a plotter does.
Plotters tend to want things laid out before they start their first draft. They might spend more time on things like character creation, worldbuilding, and they might use outline templates to get their plot straightened out. These are the sorts of writers who need to see what’s going to happen before they can write it out.
Plotting a novel can be super detailed and intense, with every action laid out in full, or it can be a quick breakdown of vital plot points and character beats. A plotter wants these pieces before they start drafting, whereas a panster might not spend as much time plotting before they start their first draft.
We’ll talk more about this later, but again: most pansters do have some idea of what their characters are going to do and why. They might know how the book is going to end, or start with the climax in mind. But this doesn’t make them plotters, necessarily, because having an idea of where your story is going is not the same thing as requiring an outline to start drafting.
Which authors are pantsers?
If you’re a long-time plotter, it might sound ludicrous or like a waste of time to start your first draft without an outline to guide you. But, lo and behold, there are plenty of successful writers who don’t outline. Here are just a few:
Stephen King talks about his disdain for outlining in his book On Writing, where he writes: “Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers.”
In her blog post “Why I Don’t Outline,” Meg Cabot explains that outlining a book before you draft can stifle the writing process. She, like many writers, finds that it takes a lot of the fun out of exploring your characters and their world, and it can make the writing process feel mechanical. You don’t feel like writing your book because, technically, you’ve already written it.
George R. R. Martin is maybe one of the most famous pantsers out there. Some people will claim that he hasn’t written the next A Song of Ice and Fire book because he didn’t have a clear outline—this isn’t entirely fair, since he does have a broad-strokes idea of where he wants some characters to end up.
According to Insider, he had a list of the characters who would be left by the end of the series and an idea of how they got there. Other than this, though, he doesn’t outline, and his spontaneity definitely carries through to the finished product.
Not only does Neil Gaiman prefer to write a story without an outline so he can keep the intrigue of a new story going all the way through his first draft, but he also prefers to write his first drafts longhand. Combined, this allows him to enjoy the “discontinuity” of a first draft.
Diana Galbadon has said she prefers working without an outline, although she does have a general idea of where each book is going. She also keeps tabs on which characters she might need and what’s going on, generally, to keep things sorted.
How do you “pants” a story?
Pantsing a story can make your first draft fun and exciting, but if you’re a brand new writer, it might also be super intimidating. You might imagine going from a blank page to a finished novel and want to throw up a little bit, and this is completely fair.
Here’s how to write without an outline and not freak out:
- Have an idea in mind for your story
Before you start drafting, have some kind of idea of where the story is going to go. You should probably have a main character, at least, and an idea of their setting. It’s also good to know what sorts of conflicts are inherent in the main character and their setting.
If you’re writing a romance, you want to set up what the character needs in a partner, for example, and you can go from there. If you’re writing a fantasy novel, consider who that character is in the context of their world. If they’re a peasant destined to be king, they’re going to have a much harder go at getting the throne than the prince might.
It can also be helpful to know where your story’s going to end. You don’t have to know for sure, but having some kind of idea in mind for the climax or the end of the story can help you steer toward it as you draft.
- Draft as quickly as you can
Perhaps the biggest roadblock any writer will face during a first draft is the urge to drop a project and come back later when things make more sense.
If this works for you and has always worked for you, cool! But as a general rule of thumb, do not do this!
Keeping your momentum through a first draft is vital for a few reasons, especially if you’re pantsing. For one, it will keep you engaged with the story and characters, so you’ll be able to think of more possible routes for them to take. For another, writing the first draft as quickly as you reasonably can dramatically increases your chances of actually finishing that first draft.
You can work with a rough first draft, even if it’s full of plot holes and missing character beats. You can’t work with an introduction, a first chapter, and then nothing else.
- Stick to a writing routine
How are you going to write your first draft as quickly as possible? You’re going to stick to a writing routine!
If possible, set aside a dedicated space and time to write. Create some ritual before you get started—I, personally, like to make tea—to let your brain know that you’re transitioning into writing time. Stick to this schedule as often as possible.
Carving out time in your schedule is often half the battle with any practicable skill, and writing is no exception. Sticking to a routine will help you practice more, which will improve your writing, and it’ll help your brain flip that creative switch to ‘on’ all by itself. If you find yourself often waiting around for inspiration to strike, this might be a game-changer for you.
- Lower your first draft expectations
You might hate the idea of drafting without an outline because, like I mentioned earlier, you picture the blank Word document before you transforming into a complete manuscript.
Ditch this idea.
First drafts are inherently messy. They’re destined to be almost completely rewritten. The point of a first draft isn’t to create the book your friends and family will read—it’s to figure out what your story is, who your characters are, and how you’re going to write the second draft.
The first draft of your story doesn’t need to be good, and it probably won’t be. It just needs to exist. If you’re stuck on a scene, write a note to yourself and move on. If you need to change something about your character in the middle of the story because you forgot about something, just do it and write the change down for revisions.
Some people even consider a detailed outline to be a first draft all on its own. All you’re doing is getting the story out of your head and onto paper—don’t worry about the rest until it’s time to revise.
Is it OK to write without an outline?
I have heard, a million times over, that writing without an outline is a bad idea. An outline can only help, after all, and wouldn’t you rather have that safety net when you’re stranded in the middle of the second act with almost no idea where your characters are supposed to go?
Here’s the thing, though: every writer is different. Writers who need outlines can have their outlines, and writers who don’t like them don’t have to use them. There’s no one-size-fits-all advice for writing a book.
Try outlining, if you haven’t! It might help you. But it might not, and that’s okay, too.