Are You an Outliner or a Seat of the Pantser?

Someone asked me whether it’s better to be an outliner or a seat of the pants writer.


The answer is a resounding and unequivocal marks man leaning


Actually, it all depends.


I know writers who are uncompromising outliners and others (aka: seat of the pantsers) who see outlining as a sentence to a dank, damp dungeon. Think the Count of Monte Cristo.


When I started writing, I was a dedicated outliner. Being a tad OCD, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I detailed every scene on a spreadsheet. I include the date, time, place, POV character, other characters in the scene, and what happened. For one book, I color-coded the scenes by POV character. Talk about a rainbow effect. Made me dizzy.


I drew up detailed character profiles of my protag and antag and the major secondary characters. I wanted to know those people inside and outside, their problems, goals, and motivations. I described what they looked like, their little quirks. Before they ever set foot on the page, I needed to know everything about them.


I once spent six weeks outlining a novel before starting chapter one. In the middle of act two I discovered the characters had taken the story completely away from all my careful preparation. And they wouldn’t let me take it back to the outline! Talk about a sit down strike. We finished the novel their way. And it came out better.


map 1That was my first lesson in not being married to my outline.


My current work is a fantasy novel in response to a challenge from my weekly critique group. Besides exploring a new genre, I’m writing first person POV for the first time. And I’m writing completely seat of the pants.


It was with great trepidation I sat at my laptop that first day. I had a title, my male protag’s first name and general idea of his story goal. I had the same for my female protag. I knew my beginning and my end and I had a vague idea of what would happen in the middle.


110,000 words into the story, I’m finding I enjoy the adventure of pantsing. In each scene, I know what the outcome needs to be. Then I start to write and let my characters take me there. Sometimes they take me to a different outcome. Which is fine.


In pantsing, I deep edit more often—at least weekly. I look for promises I make to the reader and jot them in a notebook to make sure I deliver on them by the end of the story.


Another thing I’m discovering is the need to keep track of so many things. In the fantasy, there are people, religions, animals, plants, foods, countries, weapons, and kingdoms that all need names. And many have quirks or powers.


Hello spreadsheet!!


I’m enjoying the process of writing without the outline. I enjoy the challenge of keeping all the information straight and consistent.


Have I been delivered from outlining? Not entirely. The closest I come now is to periodically free write a page or two about Typing-Writingwhere the story is heading. In early April, I free wrote a page for my male protag and another for my female protag. I am still working off those pages today.


I’d say I’ve reached a hybrid state of writing.


Are you strictly an outliner? Or a seat-of-the-pants writer? Which method works best for you? Why?

6 Responses to Are You an Outliner or a Seat of the Pantser?

  1. Paula Bicknell August 21, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    I’m seat-of-the-pants and love writing the first draft. It’s nearly like being a reader, finding out what happens as I go. Such fun! But editing the second draft is rough!

  2. Henry August 21, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

    Hi Paula,
    I’m working on my first completely seat-of-the-pants manuscript. Thoroughly enjoying it. I can already tell second draft is going to be hard figuring what to cut.
    Thanks for stopping by. It’s good to hear from you.

  3. TNeal August 22, 2013 at 8:29 pm #


    Excellent information. I’m a pantser but I like the idea of jotting down the promises I make to the reader and keeping those promises. Sometimes in the unfolding of the story, I forget the earlier questions I’ve raised but have yet to answer.

    God bless,

  4. Henry August 22, 2013 at 8:40 pm #

    Thanks, Tom.
    In writing this book by the seat of the pants, I find it helpful to print it out every couple of weeks and go through the entire MS looking for those promises and making sure I’m consistent.
    I’ll find details I mentioned in earlier chapters that I need to incorporate into later chapters.
    It’s fun writing this way and keeps me on my toes.

  5. Darlene L. Turner August 22, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    Hey Henry!! I’m a combo of both (is that possible?), but lean more on the pantser side!!! 🙂

    Great post. Thanks!

  6. Henry August 23, 2013 at 1:04 am #

    Hey Darlene,
    Thanks for stopping by. On my last couple of outlined books, I learned to go seat of the pants when the characters went off on their own. I guess that would make us hybrids.
    Going totally SOP is its own adventure.

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