When I was a teenager, though legally a young adult in Canada, my mother generously purchased a mail-order writing program for me, to encourage my fledgling desire to be an author. The course consisted of dozens of modules, all to be handwritten on the booklets provided and returned by snail mail to the course instructor for marking. The first few modules I completed with gusto, my ambition to be a published author before I was twenty and my hubris to be famous about it, too, lending fire to my efforts. The exercises were everything I loved about writing: crafting sentences, brainstorming ideas, expanding vocabulary, allowing the Muse to flow through the words, finding new worlds inside to be expressed on the outside.
Then, module Four: Outlining.
The course ground to a halt, the box of booklets shelved, never to be reopened, even at my mother’s frustrated, futile prodding. (Sorry, Mom). I attributed this sudden dislike for the task of writing to the fact it felt like homework (because it was), to the deadlines that were too strict while working full time, to the procrastination tendencies I already struggled with, and to the life events that persistently clouded my vision of a viable future as a writer.
What I did not attribute the quick death of desire to, until years later, was the fact that my creativity was essentially collared, tethered, corralled, trapped, and otherwise tamed by the very pervasive and persistent notion that one must craft a written project by outline, from broad story down to scene details, in proper order, before even starting to write. I am well aware that for many writers, this process fuels their creativity and provides necessary structure for them to do their work, but for me, to outline a work of fiction means the broad, imaginative act of creativity becomes parsed into mechanical elements that produce stiff, manufactured tidbits devoid of life. My creative Muse huffs impatiently and flies away to someone else who is open, fluid, and willing to work with Her on HER terms. However, at the time I was very stuck in the mindset that an outline is the first and last resource of quality writing, of good story, and of worthy authors (since it is a theory that is taught repeatedly and firmly in schools, universities, writing programs, books, etc), so I waved goodbye to said Muse with forlorn, stubborn fatalism.
Two things simultaneously removed this handicap from my worldview, which, twenty years on, had stalled my dreams of being a fiction writer. The first was when I threw practicality to the winds and sat down to write whatever the heck I wanted, for no productive gain. Because there would be no benefit to what I wrote other than the (very important, often sidelined) self-satisfaction I receive from the act of writing, along with that banished practicality went the idea of needing an outline, and in wormed the long-buried treasure of a question: “What If?”
What if I wrote a sentence triggered by the word “exculpated” or the vision of spongy moss or the sound of a cow bell, and then I wrote another sentence based on what came in the first, and on and on from there, to who knows where? What If?! The world was my oyster, and every unexpected word a new pearl.
When I was five thousand words into this exciting, liberating pearl necklace of “what-if”, the Muse sniffed out my open, fluid spirit from Her self-imposed distance and came flying back, striking me over the head with a story She had been trying to give me through dreams and other nebulous means since the first time I sat down to write a book at seventeen. There was no struggle with writing, now. New ideas triggered research, and research triggered new ideas, which in turn triggered deeper, more involved layers of story and character, which in turn triggered more and more words on paper.
This feeling of freedom to write without a plan was literally euphoric. What I mean is, I felt high after a writing session, sometimes writing up to ten thousand words in a single go, and coming away from it feeling positively elated, as though I had entered another plane of existence. As though the act of writing was at once meditative and invigorating, because that’s exactly what it was. The writer’s block I had wrestled with for two decades— throughout college assignments, memoir writing, and forays into paid non-fiction gigs— evaporated as the words flowed. However, the words only flowed because I threw away someone else’s idea of what the writing process should be, and let it be exactly what it needed to be for me.
The second handicap remover was during this process, when I began to research writing styles, different ways of being a writer, and seeing myself and my newly discovered process reflected in some of the best writers in the world. They had been collectively practicing and preaching this method for hundreds of years, often quite publicly, but somehow, because it was not taught in the standard education system (since it cannot be contained or quantified scientifically or mechanically) I had never heard of it, and could barely comprehend that it was not only an actual thing, but actually produced some of the best fiction I had ever read. They called it, quite unglamourously, “Pantsing.” Referring to “writing by the seat of one’s pants” with no outline, no plan, just winging it. Finally, something I excelled at, explained in detail as an actual, viable method of writing, a valid way of being a writer.
Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, jumped out at me as one of the foremost proofs that being a Pantser could never be considered substandard to being a Plotter. When I found out how she expanded a whole descriptive, plot-relevant scene in her book from just the reflection of light through a cut crystal glass, I knew I had found my writing style, and the bolstering community of quality writers to go along with it.
Never again would the pressure to outline stifle my writing creativity, or drive away my umbrous Muse. Instead, I would simply identify, proudly, as a Pantser, embracing the vagaries of this unbounded approach. And that is exactly what I did to write my novel.
At least, for the first draft.
When the first draft was complete at an exorbitant 200,000 words, I eyed my unrepentant Muse and graciously thanked Her, while also quietly but firmly smothering Her chatter under a fluffy down pillow of practicality. I needed to cut, to edit, to refine. To do this, and to do this well…I hated to admit it, but I needed to outline.
I was not about to be sidelined because of this old nemesis. I would conquer this monster, this mountain, this mechanical killer of creativity. While I researched highly technical and much-praised software systems, and took recommendations from fellow writers and Plotters, I scribbled on sticky notes and pegged them to a cork board, just for my own at-a-glance resource of my novel.
And then, I actually looked at that corkboard.
It looked an awful lot like…an outline.
I pulled a sticky note, containing a troublesome scene I could not figure out how to fix, off the board and moved it, re-reading the flow of the story with the scene in its new place. It worked. It made sense. It improved the plot.
I was plotting. And it was not painful!
I rewrote the entire novel’s plot points onto sticky notes, and then rearranged them. A few times I introduced a new colour sticky with a newly-imagined scene or plot device, or perhaps character arcs that were not clearly defined in the first draft. I arranged and rearranged in this very analogue, very untechnical method, until the story was shaped exactly as I wanted, and then I revised the first draft into a 40 000 words shorter, much more cohesive, and still very creative, very much my voice second draft.
So, am I a Pantser, or a Plotter?
The possibly unsatisfying answer is: I am both, though first and foremost a Pantser. My story and writing flow only when I feel and act unhindered, when I follow the path of least resistance, and outlining is a solid-rock mountain of resistance for the tender, vulnerable seedling of a story within me. Nothing really unfurls if I force its growth with the harsh light of an outline. The Muse definitely pouts when restrained by anything so technical as an outline.
But I am also a lover of symmetry, of logic, of brilliantly formed and executed entities, whether buildings or stories, and these elements generally require planning. In a story’s case, this means plotting. And so, when I need to refine, to deepen, to tighten, to increase story elements such as conflict, character development, or worldbuilding, I work with what the Muse brought through Pantsing, and I devise an outline from what is already there, and what is not yet there, but should be. I plot after pantsing; I outline after free-writing. Essentially, I fine-tune what otherwise would never have been created. Pantsing is a sculptor with a hammer and chisel, hacking away at the granite to uncover the hidden form within. Plotting is the fine cuts that define the final shape, and sandpaper is the editing.
The point I would like you to take away is that, unless you are a neurosurgeon or astronaut, there is no “right” way of doing much of anything, especially something as creative as writing. There are as many ways of being a writer and approaching the craft of writing as there are ways of being human, because the creative world is essentially one of allowing your Self out into the world to play. If that Self is hindered, or masquerading as anything other than its true form, the results will be stunted and underwhelming, just as your true Self is stunted and overshadowed by someone’s idea of who, how, what, where, when you should be. It doesn’t matter if your way appears to someone else as silly, as undisciplined, as unprofessional, or as downright strange. What matters is that it works, and that it brings you joy, or at least satisfaction.
Want to be a writer, or a better writer, and are searching for the “how” of it all? Look around you, at what you already do, and then figure out how you feel about the process of doing it. What brings you both results and bliss? Do you write on napkins while at the coffee shop, only to return to the keyboard in your office at home and instantly feel frustrated and blocked? Then go to and be where the story comes to you, and write it on napkins, because that feels best, and it works. Do you sit down to write at the first impression of an idea, only to find yourself lost in the weeds at the first plot point, unable to continue? Then try writing an outline. Do you feel caged by the thought of outlines and pre-plotting scenes? Then just write. Ask what-if questions. Throw the outline out the window, and do what comes naturally.
Do whatever works for you, even if something different, standard, or common works for someone else.
Pantser, plotter, or something in between, just do what needs to be done to get the words on the paper, because no matter what method you use, the editing will be where the real story emerges, and you can’t edit a blank page.