Pantsing vs. Outlining: Structuring Your Novel

If you’ve written a book for any length of time you’ve probably heard two words: pantsing and outlining. Pantsing literally means that you write from the seat of your pants. Outlining is where you structure the novel beforehand. Both of these are methods used to get the novel in your head onto paper. Both of these have pros and cons (although some people would argue otherwise), and I would be willing to bet that at some point or another, most writers will have used both methods, although some will prefer one more than the other. The question is, what are they?


The term pantsing basically means you sit down at the computer or with a pen and paper and you start writing. The words flop out of your head and onto the page. Sentences are formed, paragraphs are created, chapters are written, and eventually you have a complete book. Personally, I love pantsing. I won’t argue whether or not it’s effective, but I think it’s fun. I love seeing where my characters go, what they do, what surprising twists they take. I love that I’m not limited to a certain idea or structure. It’s always an adventure. That being said, pantsing has plenty of cons and is sometimes discouraged.

When pantsing you don’t have clear direction. You really can get off on a tangent with your characters and completely lose track of where you are going. For a novel, this can be highly ineffective. It leads to chaotic scenes, plot lines that break and never complete, character development that isn’t consistent, and a novel that just doesn’t make sense. When the novel is complete, you then basically have to start over and fill in the gaps that you created while pantsing. Usually there are a lot.


Writers create outlines for novels because it gives them structure to follow. The outline is a space for direction. It keeps the novel on track, keeps the characters moving in the direction you need them to move. Basically, it’s like the treasure map that will lead you to gold. The concern that comes up with outlining is that it reduces the movement of the characters, it limits where they will go. Many authors avoid outlines because they are concerned that they will be so stuck to the timeline they created that the characters won’t be allowed to be or do anything else; the writing will be flat.

This is a valid concern. If you’ve created an outline that is ridiculously¬†tight, you really may end up with a story that nobody connects with. A good way to determine this is to ask how you feel about the story? Is it flat to you? If so, it’ll probalby be flat to them. However, there is no reason to have this concern stop you from outlining. Outlining is a great way to keep the writing on track, and to keep you moving toward that goal. And believe it or not, it does allow for fluidity in the writing because you can always change parts of it, but you just keep it in line with the main goal. Also, outlining puts in a certain amount of accountability.¬†Personally, I find value in combining the two.

Making Both Methods Work for You

When I wrote my first novel I did it entirely by pantsing. Not kidding. I sat my butt in that chair and I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote… for five months. Then I celebrated! I had written a novel. Yippee!!! Thrilled, I started editing… and editing… and editing. For seven years. Why? Because the novel was flat. It was a really great outline. So I ended up going back and filling in the blanks. I added depth to the characters, I altered the storyline, I created a villain that you could hate and I created a relationship you could fall in love with. I started challenging my characters emotionally instead of just physically. I started making them look at the why of what they were doing. What were their commitments, what were their fears? I fleshed them out over the next seven years. Looking back, I think that was the best thing I ever could have done because I learned so much.

When I wrote my second novel, I changed it a bit. I incorporated both methods. I started with an idea and I began fleshing it out from the get go. I created a basic outline that I knew I would follow. I knew where the character needed to end up, and after months of thinking about it, I figured out where she came from. My outline was really a one page synopsis summing up the basic points of the book. That was it. But it was enough for me to follow.

When I started writing the novel, I stuck with the outline and allowed myself the space to write from the seat of my pants. I gave myself that time to really get to know the characters and see who they were when they were put in the situations I presented them with. Thousands of words later, I see things that I need to go back and incorporate. The outline evolved as I wrote, as a result of the pantsing and as a result of where I needed the story to end up. There were aspects I didn’t create when I was outlining that showed up later as I was writing. To me it was perfect. I know I do not have a perfect book. I know I have to edit and change a few things, but the structure is in place the way it is largely because I wrote that original outline, and then allowed myself the space to play.

I am following the same method for the second book in that trilogy. I wrote the outline last week. It reads like a synopsis but it’s a structure I can follow. I’m going to employ the pantsing method because I feel like it gives me the space for creativity to show up, and it is going to stick with the outline. For me, it’s the best of both worlds.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *