Plotting, Pantsing, and Outlining

For those who don’t know, plotters typically have a very well-developed outline before they start writing their alpha drafts. Pantsers “write by the seats of their pants.” They don’t know where the story is going until they write it. There are a tremendous number of traditionally-published, famous pantsers and an equally large number of plotters. Sometimes they’re called ‘architects’ and gardeners, and sometimes ‘pantsers’ are called ‘discoverers.’ Use the wording that’s right for you.

Plotters: JK Rowling, John Grisham, Ada Palmer

Pantsers: Stephen King, Patricia Briggs, Margaret Atwood

You can transition from one to the other. Chuck Wendig did.

A large number of novice writers start out as pantsers because they don’t know anything about writing stories, so they just write a story. Eventually they learn about outlines and then most try to outline. This is the point where you discover if you’re a plotter or a pantser. If you’re a plotter, outlining will feel good and fairly natural. If you’re a pantser, outlining may feel stifling, claustrophobic, boring, frustrating, or tiring. Plotters need to know where they’re going and what’s going to happen before they feel comfortable writing — when they try to “pants” their writing, they peter out because they have no roadmap for what’s ahead. Pantsers need the thrill of the unknown. Once they know the story, they lose interest in it and move on.

All that said, pantsers do use basic outlines. You are not a “plantser” if you use index cards or short notes. In fact, the reason that famous published pantsers do produce books in fairly short order is because they understand story structure and they steer by that. I’m a pantser, and I’m going to describe my method of faux-outlining. More specific information on story structure can be found here.

The first thing I do is figure out how long I want my novel to be. I typically try for 80,000 words, which is your typical 300 page novel. If I was writing an epic fantasy, I’d be aiming for 120,000 words. A thriller would max out at 80,000 and might be 70,000 instead. Know the word count for your genre and plan accordingly. More info can be found here.

Second, I develop my characters. Who is going to be in this story, and what is this story basically about? This is not a genre thing. Say you’re writing a romance. Is your romance about a property developer at odds with the historical preservation society? If you’re writing a fantasy, is the story about a kid who wants to become a wizard? Or a magical object that changes the world? Etc. Figure out what your story is about and create your characters, including your antagonist. More information on that can be found here.

Third, in most novels there are about seven major events, with the last event happening right before the end of the story. The events need to be spaced out evenly or your story will lag and your middle will sag. I take out a piece of paper, open a doc, get out index cards, or whatever and I write down what these events might be. My characters are going to have inner struggles, interpersonal struggles, and struggles between themselves and the antagonist(s) and or villain(s), so I use those seven major events to detail those struggles. I don’t do “Twist 1: Struggle between protagonist and self.* Twist 2: struggle between protag and best friend.” You can layer those. Maybe Twist 1 is a struggle between the protag and himself, which manifests as a fight between him and his best friend. The more you can layer into your twists, the better your book will be.

So I get a general, basic idea of what’s going to happen in those sections. My twists list usually looks something like this:

Twist 1: Joana finds Bryan.

Twist 2: Joana sets off to train Bryan.

Twist 7: They kill the vampire.

As you can see, that isn’t really an outline. It’s more like a list of events. I know a lot about the characters, so I don’t really need to write down the interpersonal stuff. I know it’s there. I’ve found that if I write down much more than 1-2 simple sentences about my twists, I end up trying to railroad my characters into those events and they resist.

When I go to write, I separate out my books into equal chunks of about 9000 words. For the chunks I’m working on, I will typically figure out how to get from the twist I just passed to the next twist. Or from the beginning to Twist 1. I lay out anywhere from three to six index cards for scenes,** and then I write 1-2 sentences about what might happen in that scene. Again, if I do any more than that, I lose the story. And then I write.

Again, this isn’t outlining. I had the pleasure of meeting Ada Palmer at GenCon 49. She was on a panel about this subject, and she showed us her outline. It’s extremely detailed and complicated. She knows precisely what is going to happen during every scene in her story–and an 80k novel typically has around 64 scenes. I have no real idea what’s going to happen in my scenes at all. Important details just come to me as I write.

For example, in my Lisette novel, I knew Lisette was going to meet Diego, but I had no idea that Lisette and Diego were going to be lovers until I wrote that she woke up in bed next to him. I knew that Lisette was going to know Florencia, but I had no idea they’d be friends until they were. I knew I had to introduce other, minor characters, but I had no idea that one of them would be engaged in a power struggle against Florencia, the leader, until he was. And that power struggle became a significant subplot. That’s pantsing. A plotter would have planned all these things out before writing Word 1.

I believe that most successful, published pantsers understand story beats and story structure, at least on an instinctive level, and keep those in mind while they write. The ones who write for a living have this engrained in their heads, so it’s much simpler and easier for them to execute. With a little knowledge and some practice, you can do that while you pants your way through your story as well.

*All of these twists have specific names, which you can learn here.

** For more on scenes, read this.

How to critique

For this article you should know the basic kinds of editing already. If you don’t, please read “Kinds and costs of editing.” Also, I’ve posted links to related articles about critiquing at the bottom of this post.

I critique an average of 9000 words each week, six weeks out of seven, and I’ve been doing this for at least four years. According to Scribophile, as of today I have critiqued 353 works, and that’s a low number because I’ve also critiqued for offline friends. (If you want to know more about Scribophile, a crit partner-matching website, read this article.)

My first at least 50 critiques were entirely copy editing. I cringe when I look back on them both due to my total ignorance and my absolute and awful arrogance. I corrected I don’t know how much punctuation, spelling, etc. I threw in a little line editing, but that was mostly when someone had obviously used the wrong word. “The building was inflammable; it wouldn’t burn” kinda thing. Most writers, especially novice writers, do a considerable amount of copy editing in their critiques because they think that’s the only kind of critiquing there is. You give me your work, I’m going to polish it.

The problem with that is, you’re most likely polishing a turd.* A polished turd is still a turd. It won’t sell. If you pipe sunshine up the asses of novice writers and they publish to Amazon, you (and they) will kill their careers even before they start. DO NOT do this. It’s cruel.

So this is how and when and why you should critique.

If a writer is giving you an alpha draft (a draft that has not gone through a beta read, also known as a ‘rough draft,’ also known as the thing most writers tend to rewrite about eight times before they show it to someone else–your rough draft can have drafts of its own) then you developmentally critique it. Do not talk about word choice. Do not talk about sentence structure. Do not point out that most of the sentences start with “I” or “He” or “The.” Do not point out adverbs, dialogue tags, bad punctuation, etc.

Why not?

That is enough to make any novice writer, especially the ones still in larval stage–teens on Wattpad, people who just started seriously writing a few months ago, etc.–cry and quit. Then you have crushed someone who might go on to be a very good writer. Many writers have deep and persistent self-esteem problems and they only grow out of it with patience and practice, and if you crush a new or novice writer because you think they can’t punctuate–if you give a new writer a critique that is a literal sea of red ink–you are being absolutely awful, arrogant, and generally not a person I’d care to be around. All that craft bullshit can be learned, or you can pay to have it corrected. And you can argue that a writer should be resilient–I agree!!–but resilience must be grown. If you step on the newly-germinated tree, it will die. If you step on a full-grown oak, it will not.

But also, as I said, if the work is fundamentally flawed, the person is going to rewrite it, and all your comma corrections are trashed. For example, I’m working on a book currently titled Joana. I wrote most of Act 1, showed it to crit partners, and had my characters soundly (but kindly) panned. So I rewrote it from scratch. New scenes, new settings, everything. It was (kindly) panned again for being slow and uninteresting. I rewrote it from scratch again–new scenes, new settings. That one worked. If I’d had someone else spend an hour or two of their time nit-picking my adverbs, they’d have wasted their time entirely.

When you do a developmental crit on an alpha draft, it should be mostly in paragraph form. If you’re working on a Word or Google Docs file, you might consider making a few brief comments using the “comments” function in places you want the writer to be aware of. Then make a separate file, title it with the author’s name and yours and their chapter number and the word ‘critique’ (note: I teach teenagers so I tend to give explicit instructions), and write a few paragraphs about the characters, the pacing, and the plot. I will break this out by act later. If you are using an online platform such as Scribophile¬†or Betabooks, there will be ways of doing this inherent to the platform.

By the way, I highly, highly recommend Scribophile and Betabooks. See “How to find crit partners” for more.

Default to developmental editing crits as much as possible unless the writer has asked for something else. Developmental crits are the deepest, most useful crits that you can receive or write. They will teach you the most, as a critiquer, and they will help you the most to receive as a writer.

If the writer has explicitly asked for line editing, you will go through their document and use the comments function to make note of what needs to be changed. Do not rewrite someone else’s work unless they ask for it! That’s rude. Sometimes I have, very politely and hesitantly, suggested to a writer that they rewrite a sentence in a particular way. I show them how I would write the sentence, and then I explain why. The explanation is crucial. When the writer gets that suggestion and explanation, they are then free to accept the rewrite or reject it, but they’re not going to think you’re an arrogant asshole who believes he’s better than they are.

So you might do something like this:

edit 2

I wrote the text and made the corrections. Note that I didn’t correct the punctuation in the third paragraph. That’s because it’s a function of copy editing, not line editing. Now in a real crit, if I were line editing, I’d throw in a little copy editing for obvious stuff like that as well, and I always highlight typos and dropped end-quotes in any crit I do, but those tend to be rare because a good writer will at least run spell check before uploading anything, and spell check catches a lot of typos. I will write an eventual article on dialog tags and shit like that, and when I do I’ll link it here.

So that’s some basic line editing, and what a critique for line editing might look like.

A critique for copy editing would look very similar, but instead of the suggestions I made for alternate words, I would focus on the bad punctuation. I’d highlight it and in the comment I’d put in the correct punctuation so that all the writer would need to do is hit “accept” or whatever the button on your comments is and it will automatically make the correction.

If a writer has a chronic problem, like, for example, they write a lot of dangling modifiers, then highlight the first one and make a comment about dangling modifiers. Explain what a dangling modifier is and how to fix it, and then just go through the rest of the text, highlighting the dangling modifiers, and in the comment write something brief.

For example:

edit 3

Do not express anger and frustration at a writer’s consistent errors, especially if you’re only reading the one thing they give you. They can’t magically fix the entire document the moment you point out the first error. Many writers write their entire WIP before they ever show it to anyone, which means the same error may be in the 80,000 words you just volunteered to read. Explain the error ONCE, mark it in a consistent and bland fashion when you see it, and keep snappy, snarky, mean comments about GPS (grammar, punctuation, spelling) to yourself. All they’ll do is hurt and demoralize the writer.

The fact of the matter is that many, many writers are terrible at GPS. But they write great books. They may be extremely good at creating compelling characters and exciting plots, which is considerably harder to do than having good GPS. Dyslexics, for example, can’t spell, and if you yell at them for their spelling, all you’re doing is being an ableist asshole.** Also, sometimes a little misuse of GPS is fine. Most writers insert the occasional fragment in their writing (like I have in this paragraph) and that is a matter of tone.

Personally, I wouldn’t do any copy editing beyond really obvious typos unless I was explicitly asked to do so, I knew the author’s nationality, I was familiar with the GPS conventions for that nation, and I knew their intended audience’s nationality. English people spell and punctuate differently than Americans. The official language of Nigeria, India, Belize, and several other surprising countries is English, and do you know if they use conventions from England, or if they (like America did) invented their own? Case in point: one of my friends and crit partners is South African. She writes romances that are set in South Africa. I have critiqued some of them. She speaks English natively, but as I have not studied her country’s punctuation conventions, I don’t crit her punctuation.

Fact of the matter is, in a real, fairly professional environment, you will almost never critique a person’s GPS unless they explicitly ask you to look at it prior to publication. Typically copy editing is done after the writer has hired and paid a professional do some editing.

So if professionals are available, and if you absolutely should hire them (and you should if you ever want to develop an audience), then why bother getting someone to critique your own work? Why critique anyone else’s?

If you learn how to do all this stuff, then you won’t have to pay as much to the various editors for their work. Some editors charge by the hour instead of by the word. If you are good at GPS and if you’ve had a friend critique your work for mechanics, then you don’t end up paying as much for a professional to catch everything you and your friend miss. Also, the more you critique other people, the less likely you are to make the same mistake. And the more people critique your work, the more errors they will catch and you can fix before sending it to that expensive editor.

Caveat: you will be incredibly bad at catching your own errors. Typically you will make all kinds of horrible, newbie mistakes that embarrass the hell out of you when you write your alpha draft. I drop end quotes all the time, or I put an end quote after a regular sentence for no apparent reason, because when I’m in the flow sometimes my brain signals get crossed and then I do this.” A crit partner can catch that for me tomorrow, but I’m going to need to wait at least a week before re-reading it if I intend to catch it myself. I’m too close to the work.

Now if your GPS is terrible you shouldn’t do line edits anyway. But don’t worry — you can still write! There are ways of fixing GPS.

There’s one other kind of criticism that you can and should give, especially during the alpha draft / developmental critique stage. You should tell the person whom you’re critiquing what they’re doing right. I’m not a fan of the praise/shit sandwich and I don’t naturally do this, so generally when I critique a work I go over it once for the critique and a second time to pick out what the person did well.

This isn’t intended to make them feel better or make the critique go down easier. I firmly believe that if you can’t handle criticism, you need to develop some resiliency. I’m not here to service anyone’s feelings, and professional writers would never ask me to.

That said, a large number of novice writers have no idea what they’re doing right. It’s important to know what you do right or well because it gives you confidence in your own writing, it’s something you should work on to develop even further, and you can then use that to help other people who aren’t as good as you at it to become better at it. If you help a novice writer see what they’re doing right, they’ll begin to develop a better eye for the strengths and weaknesses of their own works and of the works of others. They’ll be able to articulate those things easier. They’ll learn faster. And they’ll be less likely to have to steel themselves before they open your crits, no matter how much they appreciate and are grateful for your commentary.

Also, the occasional reader response stuff is good too. Note where you laughed and where the story made you feel one way or the other, even if the feeling is ‘boredom’ or ‘distaste.’ How’s the person ever going to fix their boring story if they don’t know precisely where you got bored? Writers need to know all these things in order to improve their craft. Don’t make your whole critique reader-response, but do put some in.

Read this for how to respond to crits you’ve received.

Read this for what to do with the crits or edits you’ve received.

Read this for how to find critique partners.

Read this for how to develop the right attitude (or for what not to do to other writers, etc.)

*There are a host of articles out there about ‘shitty rough drafts’ and the like.

**I know many English teachers whose spelling, punctuation, and grammar are worse than mine. I teach history. And while you can use spellcheck, if you struggle with whether you should use ‘lay’ or ‘lie,’ or whether it’s spelled ‘gray’ or ‘grey,’ or you mix up your ‘their,’ ‘they’re’ and ‘there,’ spell check isn’t going to help. As for the Oxford comma, only point that out if they’re inconsistent. If they use the Oxford comma in one sentence but don’t in the other, that’s a point worth making. If you hate the Oxford comma and they use it, let that sleeping dog lie. Your opinion is not valid either way there unless you’re using a style sheet for a particular publication.