By Katie Lewis
To outline, or not to outline, that is the question. We’ve all heard varying degrees of advice in favor of one way or the other. Some writers feel outlining is vital, while others swear they are more productive using the flow. And yet I am here to declare a third party, the middle, the betwixt, or the midmost.
Planners vs. Pansters
There are a variety of names for the two main camps on either side of the outline. In a widely read interview, George R. R. Martin characterized these styles a different way, “I think there are two types of writers, the architects, and the gardeners . . . I am a gardener.” The contrast being following blueprints versus germinating seeds.
Meanwhile, countless writers and industry people tend to stick with the terms Planners or Pansters.
Planners outline their entire story before they even start writing it. This could refer to simply mapping out the critical plot beats or outlining each chapter. The advantage of this approach is one knows exactly where their story is going. However, Planners can sometimes feel the pressure of moving slowly on a manuscript. Planning ahead means a lot of time spent before any writing is actually accomplished.
Pansters, on the other hand, jump straight in and let the words take them where they may. Flying by the seat of their pants, like the original aviators who had few navigation instruments, means moving through your plot by instinct, writing without boundaries. These writers allow stories to develop more organically. Without an outline, a story can feel more character-driven and surprising. That being said, a Panster might find themselves overwhelmed by the lack of constraint. (Let us not forget, A Song of Ice and Fire was initially supposed to be a trilogy.)
The pros and cons of each approach make up a lengthy list. Likely, you won’t know which one is right for you until you give each a try. But don’t forget that third party, that hinterland between our two camps.
I Am Sparticus. Oops, I mean, I Am Planster.
Last year when I was participating in NaNoWriMo I came across a new term in their list of badges—the Planster. I had to stop. What is a Planster? Defined as someone who had found “the sweet spot between planning and jumping in blind.” Always feeling reluctant to choose a camp, imagine my joy to discover this terra incognita. I thought, “That’s me!”
To be more exact, my own personal process looks something more like the following. I decide on the beginning and the ending. Once I have those, I usually develop a few key scenes I know I want to include. I become more familiar with my characters as I start writing. And if they start wandering from where I expected them to go, I let them meander until it feels natural to herd them back towards one of those planned scenes.
Years ago, this process came about namely because I was often too lazy to outline. I outline much more regularly now. I don’t necessarily allow the outline to confine me. If something I planned no longer makes sense, I skip it and move on.
Find What Works Best for You
I may have planted my flag proudly in this apparent wilderness, I encourage you to experiment to find a system that works best for your story.
Some people feel directionless without the roadmap of an outline. Others feel suffocated by the need to stick to bullet points. Yet others appreciate having some direction while still maintaining the freedom to stray from the path.
Different approaches might also work better for different projects. I find I can tackle short stories best operating like a true Panster. I start with an idea and just see where it takes me. A novel or even a novella often requires more than a single idea, though not always!
Planner, Panster, or Planster, any approach only represents the first step in the writing process. Moreover, no one should feel like outlining is a step that can be missed, either. You may start in one of the looser modes and realize you need a stronger sense of structure. Likewise, you may outline every detail and scrap any number of them as you go.
There’s no need to feel like you made a mistake or picked the wrong approach. Sometimes you don’t realize how many trees are in the forest until you’re entirely surrounded. Luckily, adjustments can be made. And, as with all things, we can learn from our mistakes in deciding what category we feel most comfortable.