NaNoWriMo: Plotting vs. pantsing

By Katharine Swan On Sunday, April 06, 2014 At 11:38 AM

For the last couple of years, NaNoWriMo has been using the terms plotting and pantsing to describe the two major ways that people write: with or without an outline.

I personally used to be a pantser when it came to fiction, through and through.  When I wrote as a teenager, it was all in my head: the overall arc of the story, upcoming scenes, etc.  Sometimes I'd have an idea of what I wanted to happen several scenes in advance, sometimes I'd already have an idea of the ending, and sometimes I would come up with everything as I went along.  I never outlined, though, not once.

The more other stuff I wrote, though, the more I began to see the merits of outlining.  I started outlining when I started writing longer and more complex papers in college.  Sometimes those outlines were nothing more than a placeholder in Word that I would delete when I got to each new paragraph or section of the paper, or quotes that I wanted to use and needed to fill in supporting text.

I started writing like that even more frequently when I started freelancing.  I also found that jotting down placeholders or a rough outline is a good way to get started writing when you feel like you have writer's block.  As you jot things down, you start thinking of how you want to write it, and before you know it that's what you're doing -- and if it's not precisely from the beginning, well, that's what the placeholders are for, right?

When I started writing short stories in college, I hadn't written fiction in five or six years.  I continued writing a little off and on, but it wasn't until NaNo 2006 that I tried my hand at a novel again, a full decade after the last novel I'd written.  I don't think I did a lot of outlining for that novel, although I did occasionally jot stuff down, placeholder-style at the bottom of the document, that I didn't want to forget.

Over the years since of doing NaNo, I've started outlining more and more.  I started keeping a rough outline in a separate file in 2008 or 2009, but I didn't always use it (or follow it).

It was software that really made me into an outliner: Scrivener's sidebar layout and the ability to create note cards and separate documents for each scene was a far better system than the placeholders in Word, and allowed me to see at a glance the progression of my story.  And Aeon Timeline, which I discovered last year thanks to my winner's code, took my outlining a step beyond Scrivener's note cards, enabling me to set dates and times, track individual characters, and create separate arcs.

It's a huge change from the way I wrote as a teenager.  Back then, I would have already been off and running, but now here we are six days into camp, and I'm still getting organized.  I've been taking the time to put my NaNo '13 novel (which I intend to finish writing in April) into Aeon Timeline, which is taking some time because I have two arcs to track.  And as I sort through the novel with this goal, I'm finding things that need to be revised because I changed my mind on an important plot point halfway through November.  Rather than trusting myself to remember to go back and fix those things later, I'm correcting them now.

I never would have thought it as a 15-year-old, but I actually like being more organized when I sit down to write a story.  The closer I come to finishing my novel's timeline, the more orderly the story feels inside my head.  I don't outline extensively, but I do like having the events of the novel laid out so that I always have a sense for what's going to happen next.  I think it's a sign that I've matured as a writer, but I know that not everyone feels the same way about outlining.

What about you?  Are you a plotter, or a pantser?

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Katharine Swan is a full-time freelance writer with more than 5 years of professional writing experience. In addition to maintaining several personal blogs, she writes a variety of online marketing materials for clients, including company blogs, articles, and press releases. In her free time, she spends time with her horse, reads, and writes fiction.

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