Is it Outlining or Plotting?

Sometimes I get hung up on semantics. “Plotting versus pantsing” is a popular topic of discussion among writers.  Writing by the seat of my pants got me through my first two novels, and with a germ of an idea in mind it’s how I write most of my articles. During revisions of my second novel I had an idea for a third one and quickly wrote my way through its first chapter. Then I decided to give outlining a try.

It’s not working. Not only is it not working, it’s dampening my enthusiasm for the story.

Here’s where semantics come into play. My outline is attempting to touch on all the basic plot points that will take the story from beginning to end. So am I outlining or plotting? I don’t really know.

Whatever it’s called, I’ve drifted back to my earlier revisions and left the new idea to gather dust in the closet. That’s not a bad thing, of course. Novel #2 really needed a major overhaul so I’m glad to be able to focus on it without the distraction of #3. But there’s a still-earlier sort-of memoir that’s beckoning for attention now, too. I’m beginning to see signs of avoidance here and suspect it’s all because of this dratted outline-plotting thing.

Relating it to painting offers a slightly different perspective. With a scene in mind I begin by laying out a basic composition, but I don’t choose all the colours before I put brush to canvas. If I did, it would seem too much like a paint-by-number effort. I know the end result would lack the emotional element I desire and, knowing that, I would put the brush back down.

How would you define outlining versus plotting? In your writing have you found a balance between flying blind and working with a view in mind?


Published by Carol

A freelance writer of fiction and non-fiction living on the West Coast of Canada.

12 thoughts on “Is it Outlining or Plotting?

  1. When I began writing “Bitter, Sweet” I had one idea in mind that I knew would be a pivotal scene later in the story. That was all. I knew what was going to happen but wasn’t sure of the circumstances that would get all the characters to that point in the first place, But then the main character gave me the first line –which ended up being the first line of Chapter three although at first I thought it was chapter one. (Hope I’m making sense,) The rest really came very effortlessly. I don’t expect that will happen each time. I’ve tried working with an outline and it sounded like a great idea but I quickly got bored.

    1. I suspect we all have slightly different approaches to our writing but it’s surprising how many similarities there are, too. I’m really pleased to hear how it works for you, Laura. I’m currently working on a short story that was inspired by nothing more than a phrase I overheard that became its title!

  2. I know the basic plot of my novel, but I’ve changed my mind on the role of several characters and now have to re-work the whole story to take things where I want them to go. An outline would be a waste of time for me, but I’m considering putting the important scenes on cards that I can rearrange when I make changes.


    1. I can sympathize with the work involved in re-working the story since my current revision is a major one. I think the cards would be a great idea. Changing the roles of your characters must be a little complicated. Do you ever do character profiles?

  3. I like your painting analogy. That describes my way of writing perfectly. Outlining and formulas are like a paint by number set. I must just do it and not think about the mechanics, otherwise I’ll have a very structured piece of garbage.

    1. I just left a comment on Jordan McCollum’s blog saying that I think, consciously or otherwise, I’ve been using a loose version of the “Snowflake Method” where I start with a basic idea, flesh it out as I write and add textural details as I revise.

      Then again, maybe trying to put labels on what we do and how we do it is an exercise in futility and we should just write!

  4. Sorry I’m late – been tied up lately. Your painting analogy sums this up quite well. Writing fiction for kids is probably much easier that what you’re doing. I get to use lots of slang & get crazy & make impossible things happen, but it wouldn’t be so much fun (for me) if I knew where I was going with every keystroke. I did jump ahead & write a few chapters when I was hit with a scene & dialogue that was ‘way over the top’ (& didn’t want to lose it) but it fit in perfectly later (IMHO). I’d rather just let the story build – & then edit. I wouldn’t want to paint… I mean write by number.

    1. The spontaneity is probably what gives your writing such a spark, and I don’t doubt the kids love it. I don’t know that writing for them is any easier than writing for an adult audience although I suppose you don’t have to rack up quite the same word count.

  5. Bad Latitude was (is – duh!) 67,000 words. Too many to be considered by the Florida Writers Association for YA submission (limit 50k). Reckless, so far, is in the 75 – 80k neighborhood but I’m not bashful about cutting & chopping during rewites & edits.

  6. I’ve only ever used “outlining” after the first draft. It’s meant as a way for me to determine if I have any big holes. It was also handy in the old days when agents/publishers asked for one in the query kit.

    Plotting is something I do when I’m stuck. If I’m plotting, I’m desperate. If I went to a therapist, and while I was there I mentioned “plotting”, through therapy it might be revealed that my real problem is the distractions around me.

    I think plotting is a way to refocus. If a writer has my kind of home life, I think plotting might do in place of that special creative writing nook where one spins fabulous tales the likes of Harry Potter et el. Apparently, Ms Rowlands has a special place where she goes to craft her final draft. Geez, I wonder why?

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