Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Self Diagnosis - Outliner or Panster?

A popular post from September 2013.

By Josi S. Kilpack

At first glance this seems easy to determine about yourself, but put off making the determination until you answer a few questions.

First, let's define the two terms:

Outliner: This is a writer who spends a relatively significant amount of time planning out their book in its entirety before sitting down to a blank page and beginning the actual writing process. A true outline consists of knowing the beginning, middle, and, especially, the end of your project.

Panster: This is a writer who's 'swinging by the seat of your pants.' This means that the author has no written plan when they start their project, but rather they let the story unfold for them as it will unfold for their reader.

So, here are the questions to ask yourself:

1) Do your stories typically begin (as in very first thought about it) with a character or a storyline?

2) When you sit down to write, do you have a pretty good idea of what you will be writing?

3) Do you have a set goal when you sit down? (# of words, specific scene)

4) Would you say your strength is in drafting or revising?

5) Have you ever written with an outline, if so, what percentage of your story stayed exact to the outline you began with?

6) Have you ever completely free-written a project with no written outline to follow?

7) Do you find yourself bored with your story if you know what is going to happen next?

Now, look at the answers you gave to these questions. Go back to the definitions of outliner or panser and see which one better suits you. You may very well find yourself straddling both places--that's actually pretty normal. Most of us are hybrids, but we tend to lean one way or another. Here's how I answered these questions:

1) My stories start with character--most pansters are the same way. However, I am currently writing a series that uses the same character over and over again. Because my character is established, I have to focus more on plot when a story gets going for me. I also have to be aware of plot elements, motivations, settings, themes, and methods of murder used in the earlier books. I've found that my panster ways are seriously impeded by the considerations I HAVE to make. Amid this series I've done a co-authored series as well and it has been much more in tune with my panster ways, and yet I've had to be considerate of the other stories in the series. It hasn't been as difficult as in my mysteries, but I've had to have some written plans, and especially, coordination with my co-authors

2) As a panster, I usually know what my writing for that day will 'start' with, but I don't know where it will end which I think is pretty typical for us panster types. When I'm using an outline, I find it's pretty much the same thing except I have a bit more direction because it's written down. Regardless of which 'mode' I'm in, I almost always go back and read/revise what I wrote the last time I sat down to write before I start new writing. This catches me up to my story and reminds me where I am.

3) I rarely have a set word count goal when I set down--when I am too invested in writing a set number of words, I get anxious. I will often have a goal regarding a scene to either write or revise. I try to keep my goals small enough that I KNOW I will meet it. If I have too big of expectations, I run a high risk of frustration. Often, a small goal will get me into a groove and I'll move on to the next scene without a problem. I actually have no idea if this is more typical of an outliner or a panster, I think it has more to do with anxiety issues :-)

4) My strength is definitely in revising. Most pansters are the same way--they draft to learn their story and then they revise to make it good. Outliners on the other hand are often very strong drafters and their first draft is quite solid and fleshed out because they developed a lot of the ideas prior to writing them.

5) I have attempted many outlines and, up until my most recent project, I would say I kept to about 25% of what I outlined. I therefore felt as though I had wasted the other 75% worth of effort. This isn't entirely fair because any amount of time spent planning and thinking through our story makes our end result better, if only because we reject something that doesn't work, but it still frustrates me. With my most recent project, however, I have done a very long and multifaceted outline. I spent a few weeks on it and used 90% of what I outlined. I am still pantsing a lot of the story and I've moved a lot of things around, but I feel as though I have well utilized the time I put into the outline, which is an exciting thing for me.

6) I have completely free-written many projects. I always have a second document for 'cuts' and have had up to 800 pages of cuts for one project. For me, the story does not develop fluidly so I often take tangents that result in 10, 40, 150 page cuts because what I've written turns out to be crap. I still have to be forgiving about it because it helps me learn my story, but it's a big reason why I want to learn to outline, so as to avoid so much cutting. I 'enjoy' freewritting more, however. Most pansters enjoy writing without knowing what's around the next corner.

7) I have never found myself bored with a story because I know what's going to happen next. Even if the story is fully developed in my mind, I know it's not 'real' until it's on the page. This leans more towards me being an outliner, as many pansters don't want to outline because it loses some of the magic of the story.

As my own self-diagnosis, I would call myself a panster. It's my natural inclination and my 'happy' place. However, as my writing has transitioned from a hobby, to an identity, to a career, I am developing into more of an outliner. The expectations of me require that I give summaries and even synopsis before a project is completed, so there is no option for me to free-write start to finish. I am, however, very happy with the experience so far. I'm learning a lot and growing and beyond wanting to write great books, learning and growing should be one of our top priorities as a writer. Perhaps the day will come where everything I write is brilliant and I can tell anyone who wants a summary of book not yet written to go to the devil and they will scurry away like mice, but that day hasn't come and if I ever want it to, I need to learn the skills that will take me there.

So, which side of the fence are you on, or like me, are your arms out to help maintain your balance between the two.


J. said...

This was helpful to read. I guess I'd be a pantser.

Aften said...

I'm a mental outliner with a knowing inability to stick completely to the outline- so I rarely bother writing it out before free-writing. My problem is that I like the idea of outlining. I desire to be an outliner, but get sidetracked as my stories progress.

Aften said...

I'm a mental outliner with a knowing inability to stick completely to the outline- so I rarely bother writing it out before free-writing. My problem is that I like the idea of outlining. I desire to be an outliner, but get sidetracked as my stories progress.

M. R. Buttars said...

I usually have a loose outline of a project, either in my head or bullet-pointed in a notebook, before starting any project. However, once I start writing, the characters or story often develops in ways I hadn't considered before. So I'm a flexible outliner, I guess.

Shannon Baker said...

It sounds like an interesting series. I will check it out

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Anonymous said...

Why is it "panster" and not "pantster"?

Anita said...

I'm not a fiction/novel writer; however, I lean toward outlining (in my head). When deciding how to make a point in an essay, I may end up with a bit of pantsing, though - which, by the way, is a new term for me. How did I miss this one!

Thanks for sharing your writing thoughts and tips.

Josi said...

It probably is "pantster" :-)