How I Became a Reformed "Pantser"

Thursday, February 08, 2024


Photo courtesy of Pexels/Jill Wellington

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “Confessions of a Free Spirit Writer.” I discussed the differences between being a free spirit writer (also known as a “pantser) and the type of writer who prefers outlines and projects that are planned out before attempting them. 

I’m here today to announce that I’ve almost grown out of my free spirit writing attitude (maybe). I’m on the verge of finishing up a massive edit of a book I wrote during NaNoWriMo in 2021, and I wouldn’t have been successful without the use of sticky notes on my office wall explaining the major plot points. I also have accompanying documents for this book that list the different characters, brief backstories, and physical attributes that are mentioned. The outline for this book is around 5,600 words, which is longer than some short stories I’ve written! 

This book features fictional podcast transcripts, newspaper articles, POVs from different characters, and diary entries. I’m not sure I would have been able to keep everything straight if I hadn’t organized the material before writing and revising. While I’m still more of a “free spirit” with short stories, I prefer now to be more organized when working on book-length projects and nonfiction. 

If I’m writing an article for a magazine or website, I’ll interview sources, find background material, and then write out a rough outline of how the piece will flow. When I’m working on a script for my podcast (I like to write them out rather than talk off the cuff with bullet points) I’ll compile the research and then create an outline that reads something like: Introduction, Title, Case #1, Case #2, Sponsor Messages, Case #3, Call to Action, Outro. Because I have weekly deadlines for the podcast it helps me to format each episode this way. However, I still don’t have a long-term plan for podcast episodes and usually plan them out one to two months ahead of time. 

Now, when it comes to coming up with ideas for writing projects, I still feel like a free spirit. I’m constantly writing ideas down in notebooks and discussing ideas with other people without finalizing the next steps. But I think that’s all part of being a writer and creator, right? I already have ideas for a non-fiction book based off my podcast and a novel following the “Out of the Bottle” formula. And you’d better believe I’ll be outlining that one! 

Have you gone from being a free spirit to an outliner/planner or vice versa? I’d love to hear your thoughts! 

Renee Roberson is an award-winning writer and host/creator of the podcast, Missing in the Carolinas.


Yvonne Osborne said...

I have not. I don't know how to outline. I wish I could. Forever by the seat of my pants.

Angela Mackintosh said...

I'm a plantser! (Part plotter, part pantser.) So I outline a little and then freestyle the rest. I know the major plot points and how it will end, and this is true of both essays and short fiction, as well as novels. But I like to leave some room for surprise. I'm currently taking a novel writing class and I haven't plotted on paper, but I have everything in my head. I'm really appreciating the freedom of allowing the plot to form organically. It adds a lot of wonderful red herrings, flash backs, and twists that I probably wouldn't have thought of if I stuck to my right-brained outline.

Angela Mackintosh said...

I forgot to ask, did you use Save the Cat for The Podcaster or another outline?

Nicole Pyles said...

Reformed free spirit writer here! Or at least, I'm getting there. I began to outline this story of mine that I wanted to write but didn't know where to go with it. Instead of meandering with the story, I plotted out (or just imagined, okay what would happen if I wrote the story like this), and I can tell it's so much easier doing it this way.

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I used to outline obsessively. Now I do it a bit more like Ang. I am a plantser. I know the major plot points and then . . . I explore.

Renee Roberson said...

Yvonne--I understand. I've been a pantser for years, and still enjoy doing it when I write short blog posts and short stories. For longer pieces of work, I feel having an outline helps me stay focused and there's one book called "Save the Cat Writes a Novel" that helped me learn how.

Ang--I guess maybe I'm more of a plantser, too! Even when I write something off an outline I do it more freely. I plan and rearrange chapters more when I go back to do the big developmental edits. I did use "Save the Cat" for "The Podcaster," specifically for the "Whydunit" genre. I have an "Out of the Bottle" project planned next with the prom night story!

Nicole--I feel like even plotting with general bullet points is helpful. I definitely don't plan down to the very last sentence and keep my mind open, which is what it sounds like we all do. Even the other day I was working on "Podcaster" edits and a new character popped in with the last name Mansen. He joked that he was no relation to Charlie Manson, which a true crime podcaster would find ironic and because the character owned a home security solutions business. It's weird how that happens.

Sue--That's funny that you've gone the opposite direction--but with all the nonfiction books you work on I would lean towards outlining more, too. It sounds like you are having fun exploring with fiction now!

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