Sunday, September 18, 2011

Outliners vs. pantsers

The author Kelly O’Connor McNees (The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott) mentioned in her presentation earlier this summer at Saturday Writers the difference between writers who are outliners (those who plan) and pantsers (those who fly by the seat of their pants).

As a writer, I can honestly say that I love outlines. For nonfiction, I use comprehensive outlines. For fiction, I use a variety of methods that run from not much except an idea I have in my brain, to some sort of weird, abbreviated version of a list or plan of how I want to get characters from Point A to Point B.

As a speech teacher, I require students to turn in an outline form that I give them. The top of the sheet requires the student to state the topic and thesis. These items are followed by a standard outline format that lists main points, sub points, introduction, conclusions and transitions. I do this for a couple of reasons – one is that they have an appropriate speech topic with sufficient support for their thesis and main points, and the other is that they don’t wait to the last minute to begin working on the presentation.

Let me tell you about Andrew, a fictional student I just made up who represents several students I have every semester. Andrew usually approaches me right before class begins, or during our break to tell me his outline isn’t finished. He hems and haws around a bit, and sheepishly admits that he can’t seem to settle on a topic.

“I have some ideas,” he says. “But I haven’t written anything.”

I tell Andrew to pick any topic, and go with it. I tell him that I don’t care if it isn’t good. I tell him he doesn’t have to give his speech using that exact topic and main points, and I tell him that something is better than nothing.

What I don’t tell him is that by writing anything, it forces him to develop his ideas. I also don’t tell him that there is power and strength in beginnings, and outlines help us get rid of the fear of not being able to do it.

And Andrew always writes something. And it’s always good.
Write soon,



  1. I'm a pantser, Mary! Never written an outline in my life...but I've also never taken a writing or speech class. Always just go with my inner flow!

  2. The old just, Get it in gear and do it! approach works.

    I do not outline, but free writing flows when I write an essay.

  3. Hi Mary,
    How true that by writing something creates an idea.

  4. I had never heard the term "Pantser" before Kelly said it. I love it! Thanks for your comments!

  5. Mary,
    You have received a Leibster Blogger Award from me. Go to Sheree's Warm Fuzzies at to claim your blog award!

    Sheree Nielsen