Outlining for the Common Pantser by Tara Sim



Photo credit: /Stef_ on Flickr

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, “pantser” refers to a writer who tends to write without much structure, aka “by the seat of their pants.” The writers who identify as pansters typically feel restricted by outlines and prefer not to write them. As with most things, there are pros and cons to this method.

Pro: You get to be surprised by the work/characters!

Con: Uh…what happens now?

From speaking with other writers/authors, it’s generally around the 30k mark that things start to go squiggly and fuzzy. I recently just experienced this in my own WIP (work in progress). My own method is a hybrid between an outliner and pantser, where I make a general, bullet pointed outline and then fill in things as I go. That way I know the main plot points, but I also have freedom to discover new and exciting things along the way.

“But outlines are so RESTRICTING,” cries the pantser, shaking their fist in the air.

Sometimes! And a lot of the time you’ll end up taking a detour from it, or go down a completely different route altogether. Which is why the more general the outline, the better. What do I mean by that? Here’s an example of the kind of general outline I use for my work when I’m just beginning:

  • Opening scene
    • Maybe this leads to this other scene?
    • Detail to add (so you don’t forget while you’re writing!
  • First obstacle
    • They get to this new location somehow
      • Ship?
  • Battle!
  • Meet new character

You get the idea. So from there, once I have the main issues locked down—how the book opens, the biggest plot points, the climax—I start drafting.

“But how can you start drafting when you have so many unanswered questions??” screams the outliner, pulling on their hair.

That’s the fun of being a panster. Once you have an idea of which direction you want to go, you start running and crafting and creating. A lot of the time, the answers will (sometimes slowly) come to you while you’re drafting, when you don’t even expect it. I can’t count the number of times I’ve solved something just by sitting down and writing, even without a clear idea formed yet.

But in order to make sure you don’t get stuck in the “what now” wasteland, having a generic outline is usually a good idea. You don’t need to make it fancy—do it in whatever way makes sense to you. And when you draft, fill in the details as you go. Maybe craft a more detailed outline before each chapter. Maybe fill in the outline after drafting so you have a better idea of what happened/you can refresh your memory.

Whatever method you choose, good luck—and keep drafting!


Tara Sim is a YA author found in the wilds of the Bay Area, California. When she’s not writing about magic, clocks, and boys, she drinks tea, wrangles cats, and sings opera.  To find out more about her and her books, check out her website: tarasim.com. Follow her on Twitter: @EachStarAWorld.

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