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Plotter or Pantser?: The pros and cons of outlining

Writers tend to fall into two camps: those who plan and outline before they write (plotters) and those who go with the flow and write by the seat of their pants (pantsers). I fall solidly into the plotter camp—I even outlined this blog post!—but I do think there are pros and cons to each approach. Let’s take a look at the ways outlining can benefit and hinder you to help you decide how best to approach your next project.

The Pros of Outlining

1) Can write more quickly: Outliners tend to write faster because they already know where they are going. They don’t have to stop writing to figure out what happens next because they did that before they began.

2) Less likely to get writer’s block: An outliner may still get blocked about how to say something—how to describe the scenery or what words they should put in their character’s mouth—but planning ahead means there is one less thing to get blocked about. They don’t have to worry about being stumped when it comes to plot. This makes it easier to pick up where they left off and decreases the chances of staring at the screen, desperately hoping something comes to them.

3) Less likely to write yourself into a corner: Since a plotter has already had to think through all the major plot points, there is less chance of them writing their character into a situation they can’t get them out of.

4) Less likely to wind up with unresolved plot lines or plot holes: There is nothing more frustrating for a reader than coming across an inconsistency in the plot or getting to the end of the book and thinking, “But what about that thing that happened in Chapter 10? How was that resolved?” While you can still miss something if you are a plotter, especially if you just write a broad outline, any level of outlining will make this less likely because you’ve already thought about how you are going to get from point A to point B.

5) Have confidence that your idea will work: Books take a long time to write, and it’s a terrible feeling to spend weeks or months writing only to decide your idea wasn’t strong enough to begin with. Plotting forces you to think the idea through to its conclusion before you write a single word, which should give you a better idea of whether or not your idea can sustain an entire book. If it can’t, better to know that before you commit months’ worth of your time and energy.

The Cons of Outlining

1) Less spontaneous: Obviously, plotters are less likely to let the story and characters take them where they will. They are less likely to follow potentially useful sidetracks because they already know where they want to go. Some creative and original ideas can be missed this way.

2) Can become too attached: Authors who have taken the time to outline their story may become very attached to the story as it is, even when it isn’t working. They let their outline become too restrictive and see it as a command rather than a guide. They can sometimes be tempted to “throw good money after bad” and follow through with their original idea because they have already invested so much time into it.

3) Write bland scenes: Some authors find that they write less fleshed-out scenes when they already know how they are getting from the beginning of the scene to the end. Their writing can feel more like an expanded outline than a fully developed world.

So, what should you do when you sit down to begin your next book? Personally, I think everyone can benefit from some level of outlining for the reasons given above. But that doesn’t mean you have to come up with a detailed spreadsheet of every plot point and every character before you begin. It may just mean you write one page that sketches out the major points you want to hit. How much further you go than that depends on who you are and what you’re writing. Beginning writers, who aren’t as comfortable with the process of putting together a novel, could probably benefit from a more detailed outline. If you are writing a very complex story or, say, a mystery novel (where every detail must be accounted for), you might also benefit from a more exhaustive outline. And if you’re the kind of person who just likes to plan, go ahead and write as complete an outline as you want. Just be open to going a different way if the story demands it.

For those concerned about lost spontaneity, remember that your outline is a road map, not a brick on the accelerator. If halfway through your trip you find a nice country road you’d like to take, by all means, hop off the highway and take the scenic route for a while! Knowing where you want to end up will help ensure that you get there eventually. It doesn’t have to mean there’s only one way to go.

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