Pantsing or Outlining: Which Is Better?

outline pantsing messy neat writing

Pop quiz: Is pantsing or outlining better when writing?

Pantsing is great because…

Initially, I fell into the winging-it or pantsing camp. That approach allowed me to write freely with very little constraint whenever I had the opportunity. I’m still very much a proponent of writing anywhere, anytime. And philosophically, there’s something incredibly beautiful in allowing the story to have that kind of control. I like that the story can become what it should be, rather than what I initially wanted.

But then again, outlining…

But I’ve also come to see the practicality of outlining. With a clear roadmap, it can be very easy to flesh out scenes or sections of content. Writing can happen incredibly fast as a result. So outlining is a logistical positive.

Sitting in the middle

So right now, I’m falling somewhere in the middle. For my current work in progress, I outlined the plot, chapter by chapter. But the meat of the scenes, all the descriptions and dialogue, I left to spontaneity. I knew where I needed to go, but I allowed myself the freedom to take any path in that direction. And that felt perfect.

I also still believe that you don’t have to work chronologically, even if you have an outline. In fact, some of the best authors assert that it’s almost impossible to introduce a book you haven’t written yet. They recommend leaving the intro chapters for last or planning to rewrite them, so that they make more sense after the rest of the book is in place.

I’m pretty sure that this evolution has happened for me largely because I’m simply getting older with more responsibilities and goals in my lap. Those changes have meant I need to put some safeguards in place to make things happen.

But I’ve also done a ton of writing oriented to business. That’s helped me to view my career as a writer with much more of a CEO mindset. And if you consider a novel, article, or anything else you are writing as an assigned project, then it’s pretty hard to imagine any boss allowing you to have zero structure for the work. A good leader is going to step back and not micromanage, but they’re still going to want to know what your game plan is. So in that sense, as your own boss, it makes a lot of sense to give yourself a basic framework that offers both flexibility and accountability for the goal you have.

Why pick one when both pantsing and outlining will do?

Although you can adjust the balance to fit your circumstances and preferences, my advice is to outline and pants, rather than to go entirely in one direction or the other. You’ll have a greater guarantee of getting a decent amount of pages out consistently without losing the creative spark that comes from reduced constraint.