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Outlining for Pantsers

That title doesn’t appear to make much sense, does it? You might be thinking, do you even know what those words mean? One is either a plotter or a pantser. If you’re a plotter, you outline. You like to know where you’re going before you set out on your novel’s journey. You may choose to turn right where your outline indicates you will turn left, but that will be a conscious diversion. Order. You must have order.

Pantsers, on the other hand, thrive on spontaneity and the unknown. If you’re a pantser, you just get in the car and drive. You introduce yourself to your characters and let them navigate; you allow yourself to become their instrument. Outlines are like nasal-voiced GPS programs constantly chirping reprimands at you each time you deviate from the pre-approved route. SHUT UP, they make you want to shout. Don’t bother me with directions. I will feel where I want to go.

Me? I’m a pantser. When I write, I always hope to find myself in The Zone, that place composed of buzz and bliss where I forget I’m typing and the words surprise me as they appear on the page, outcome unknown. What do you mean it’s 5:00? Wasn’t it just lunchtime? Whoa, did Sage just drop the key to the whole story in her admonishment to her sister? I didn’t know she was going to do that. Did Michael just die in that accident? Where did that come from? That’s not where I thought this was going, but it’s great. I’m going to follow this trail and see where it takes me.

I may sketch out a few guideposts in advance, maybe identify some oncoming trouble points, but overall, this is how I draft new material. When I complete a draft, I follow the advice of wise author and teacher Jenna Blum: I write a chapter-and-scene outline of the completed manuscript.

“But why outline when you’ve already written the book?” This is a valid question. Here’s why I do it:

By outlining after writing, we pantsers can draft in the manner we work best but still make use of the organizational benefits of outlines. You can do this after every major revision; revise your outline, too, and take a step back to see how things look through a wide-angle lens. Your characters will thank you for the freedom you’ve given them, and your readers will be grateful for the extra steps you took to ensure your story works on every level, big and small.

About Tracy Hahn-Burkett [1]

Tracy Hahn-Burkett has written everything from speeches for a U.S. senator to bus notes for her eighth-grade son. A former congressional staffer, U.S. Department of Justice lawyer and public policy advocate for civil rights, civil liberties and public education, Tracy traded suits for blue jeans and fleece when she moved to New Hampshire with her husband and two children. She writes the adoption and parenting blog, UnchartedParent, and has published dozens of essays, articles and reviews. Tracy is currently revising her first novel. Her website is TracyHahnBurkett.com [2].