To Outline, Wing It, or Both?

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut /

It’s said there are two types of writers: those who work methodically off an outline and those who write by the seat of their pants, guiding their characters into the unknown with pen, paper, and intuition their only provisions. Another type that is commonly overlooked is the hybrid. In a world of logical classification, they are the platypuses.  They clutch notes about their story arc and confess in whispers how they don’t know what the next scene will be.

All three methods have merit. And difficulties. Let’s take a look at some of them.

The Outliner

Pros: Once the outliner sits down to finally write, his course is set from word one; there’s no way he’s going to get lost or sidetracked. And he’ll likely get to his destination quickly because once the outliner has the writer’s hat on, he keeps it on. In that creating groove, he can burn holes through the screen with his single-focus intensity.

Because he is not fueled by inspiration, he can always pick up where he left off.

Rewrites are streamlined. An outliner likely won’t have to delete complete scenes or chapters.

Outlines, in a single glance, reveal a weak or solid plot. And as a bonus, when an editor or agent requests an outline before considering the manuscript, it’s already there, tried and true.

Cons: Unfortunately, an outliner’s stories can sometimes feel contrived. Or too rigid. That also means there’s a higher risk for predictability.

By not leaving enough room for flexibility, outlines can repress a story’s greater potential.

It is also a great temptation for an outliner to get lost in the outline and never jump in and write.

The Seat-of-the-Pants Writer

Pros: For the seat-of-the-pants writer (pantser), writing is an adventure. Who knows what’ll be on the next page, or who will kill whom tomorrow!

A pantser’s stories can be very unpredictable. After all, if the writer doesn’t know where the book’s going, the reader won’t either.

Seat-of-the-pants writing generates its own creativity. A “what if” can turn into a series faster than the pantser can type.

Cons: Due to the plotting process taking place during the writing, a pantser faces lots of edits. Nothing quite as agonizing as cutting a triple-digit chunk of pages. Or discovering a plot hole the size of Texas on page 385. Or realizing halfway that the secondary character is the protagonist.

Momentum can be hard to keep. Writer’s block can be just a page away. When a pantser doesn’t know where his story is going, it can become hard to take it where it needs to go. Complicate that with research–whether expected or otherwise–and the constant need to juggle the word-weaver’s, plotter’s, and editor’s hats, and it can halt the entire project, sometimes permanently.

The Hybrid Writer

Pros: All outliner and pantser pros.

Cons: All outliner and pantser cons.

(Sorry, but it’s true.)

Of course, there are other pros and cons besides the ones I’ve mentioned. Some writers may find no cons to their method, while some may find no pros, but that’s the only way they can write effectively.

I’ll confess: I’m the in-between, neither-nor, hybrid writer. I need an outline but I also need spontaneity. My last outline was twenty-two pages, but that didn’t mean I had every scene planned. I need to understand motive, goal, research, structure, etc. before I start writing, but I don’t need to know every detail. My process is like a sieve, only backwards: I need to get the boulders sifted out and then I will have fun picking through the pebbles.

I believe the best method is whichever draws the writer back to the keyboard day after day. If it’s the security of a staunch outline, great. If it’s the excitement of the unknown, wonderful. If it’s a weird combination of scripted improv, fine. Just do it!

What about you? How do you take a story from idea to final page? Have you ever been one type of writer and switched to another? 

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut

Published by Meagan Briggs

My passion is storytelling and helping writers bring their voice to a world that needs their words.

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