Can Outlining Too Much Derail Writing Progress?

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There is an age old debate about if you’re a plotter or a pantser as a writer. Basically, plotters are those who find it very difficult to write fiction unless they’ve developed richly detailed outlines that break down every single action in every single scene, and the reactions and the transitions to the next scene, etc. They map everything out.

Pantsers, on the other hand, are so named because they ‘fly by the seat of their pants,’ so to speak. This means they don’t outline as they find that process to be too restrictive, or they have a few bullet points or write a few paragraphs but that’s it. Instead, they sit down with maybe a general idea of what they want to write about in a given project (and sometimes not even that) and they wait to see what comes to them, relying on unpredictability and the flexibility for changes to keep popping up.

There are countless debates about which method is “better”–that is to say, which method yields more writing output or enables more creative flow to facilitate the writer’s process so that they’re able to maintain a momentum once they’ve started their project.

I’ve recently come across the idea that outlining is too restrictive and can be a major reason for impeding a writer’s ability to keep up a momentum within what they’re working on. It’s too stilted and forced for some writers. Others go as far as wondering how plotters ever get anything done. Plotters wonder the same about pantsers.

This blog post isn’t going to try to tackle that debate–that’s been done in many places before and on a much bigger (and more comprehensive) scale. But what I am driving at is wondering if one of the reasons writers get stuck on a manuscript (or indeed, stalled altogether) might have a relationship with the fact that they are too rigid in their role as plotters and perhaps they may need to experiment with pantsing, no matter how uncomfortable that may seem at first.

Some writers must know the ending of their book before they even begin to write it. They work backwards, or they shuffle up and randomize the order of chapters they start (so instead of following the conventional and linear pattern of writing Chapter 1, 2, and 3 when they start a book, they might start with Chapter 10, make a detour to Chapter 18, go to Chapter 6, then tackle Chapter 2 and leave Chapter 1 last).

Different things work for different writers. No two processes are exactly alike. However, there is a tendency to associate plotters with “paint by numbers” kind of plotting, while some writers are quick to point out that while they are plotters, they don’t chart out every little single detail of their manuscript in excruciating detail necessarily.

Some people refuse to even “start the car” (or begin a book, to extend the metaphor) without having a map to guide them or without making sure they’ve got a GPS system installed because without those things, they know they would be completely lost within seconds and have no idea where they were headed.

Another school of thought argues that writing is like driving at night–you can only see what’s directly in front of you and the darkness and shadows of the night cover up the rest, so you must rely only on what you can immediately see (perhaps plotting one chapter at a time) else you’ll risk swerving out of control if you try to arrive at your destination too fast.

In my experience, pantsing to me feels like “winging in,” as in the writer just randomly deciding “Okay, cool, I’m going to go into this project and just go with the flow of whatever comes up.” I’ll admit I haven’t tried this method hard enough, or perhaps it could be that I’ve misunderstood how to go about pantsing (in which case, someone please tell me what the dynamics of pantsing are!) But what I do know from winging it in other areas of life like at work or school presentations is that it’s a 50/50 thing: either it can go really, super well or it can blow up in your face and show the obviousness of the fact that you’ve done zero preparation and that you have no idea what the heck you’re talking about.

Still, there is also the prevailing argument that outlining in too much detail can be too stifling and can lead to writer’s block because in essence, the writer is trying to exercise too much control, and forcing things to go unnaturally where she or he wants things to go, so…ironically, there is such a thing as plotting things out too well, which leads to bouts of hair-pulling and existential crises.

So, what’s the best solution? Is it a combination of both approaches? Is the answer to use neither of these approaches but something completely different? Is one method superior to the other? I’m very curious to know what writers think of this! Sound off below!

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2 thoughts on “Can Outlining Too Much Derail Writing Progress?

    jmh said:
    4:05 pm at 16:05

    I’m a dedicated pantser as you know, but to me, it never feels like “flying by the seat of my pants.” I personally may not know what my story is, but my characters do, and as long as I listen to them and trust them, it’s always worked out.

    Whatever they come up with is guaranteed to be better than something I can plot out, so I’m happy to take dictation while they do the heavy lifting.

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      A.E. Siraki responded:
      5:02 pm at 17:02

      Hi Holli! Thanks for commenting! I think your description of pantsing is a good one and I’m glad it works for you 🙂

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