Do you need an outline? The answer is...it depends.
Those who write outlines are called outliners (duh!), and those who don’t are called “pantsers,” which refers to how they write by the proverbial seat of their pants.
I recently ran a survey in a Facebook writer’s group I belong to, and what I discovered surprised me. While there are more pantsers than people who consider themselves outliners, the biggest group was made up of people who consider themselves both! Sometimes they outline, and sometimes they don’t. Some will outline the beginning and then let the story work itself out from there. Others outline certain kinds of projects but not others.
Me? I’m an outliner. Not only do I need to outline the entire book before I sit down to write it, I also need to outline individual chapters before I write them. I like to outline the next thing I have to write when I finish writing for the day. It gives me something to work toward when I return to the manuscript. I have a terrible sense of direction, and the outline is my road map. I need one, so I don’t get lost. For me, being a pantser just isn’t an option.
But I don’t just need to have an outline; I LIKE having one. It means that I can always “start with dessert.” I know what all the scenes are and where they go, so I can start with the scene or conversation I’m most excited about. And I do. My full outlines have bits of dialogue and some fully fleshed out scenes in it, because those are the desserts I’ve already eaten. I only move onto the things that aren’t dessert when I’ve eaten all the desserts I can. And you know what? Very often I find the things that I’m not really excited about writing don’t need to be written at all. It’s cool how that works out.
I know that many outliners feel that pantsers should be outliners too, but I’m not one of them. I believe you should do what works for you, and if that’s writing without an outline, then you should definitely do that.
Some pantsers think that outliners should be pantser, too. Very often it’s because they see an outline as something that restricts creativity. Being a pantser gives them freedom to take their story anywhere at any time. I don’t like getting lost, but for many pantsers, that’s a part of the joy of writing. They love getting lost in their story, discovering it as they go along, and seeing where it leads. They love discovering the characters and being surprised, just like a reader would.
Again, that’s not me. I don’t enjoy getting lost. I’d rather fly straight to Orlando, check into a hotel I’ve researched well so I know what to expect, and take Disney transportation into Disney World, a detailed schedule of what I’m going to do in each of the parks tucked away in my bag. Have a great time getting lost and wrestling alligators in a Florida swamp, pantsers. It sounds exciting. It’s just not my idea of fun.
And outlines really aren’t as restrictive as many pantsers seem to think. Who says that just because you have a detailed schedule in your hand you have to pass up a better opportunity if one comes along? Outlines are flexible. They can be rewritten. And it’s a lot easier to rewrite a five page outline than it is to rewrite a 250-page book, which is what most pantsers who write novels end up having to do.
Some strict outliners and pantsers don’t see it as a choice.
Some outliners say, “I can’t write without knowing where I’m going.” Are you sure? Have you ever tried it? Who knows, it might be fun.
And some pantsers say, “How can I write an outline if I don’t know where my story is going? I don’t have a plot. I just have these characters. I don’t know what they’re going to do until they do it.” Then how do you know they’re good characters? How do you know they have a story worth telling? Of course, if it turns out they aren’t and they don’t, you can always rewrite the whole thing. Me? I have too many great characters with stories that I’ve already fully outlined in my head, and not enough time to follow around characters who may or may not get anywhere. Of course, it’s the finished result that matters, not how you get there.
The answer to what you can do if you’re an outliner who wants to be a pantser is easy: just do it!
It may be scary, but maybe that’s a good thing. And if you find yourself stuck, just give yourself a timer and a goal. How does 500 words in an hour sound? Don’t be surprised if after the hour is up, you feel the urge to write more.
The answer for the pantser who wants to be an outliner is a little more complicated: instead of being a long-form pantser, writing every little detail as you go along, try being a pantser of a short story.
You can write on paper, but you can also write it in your head. Just go and get lost in your story, but try not to do it for more than a page. If you need to, add another page. And another. It could be a series of short stories with the same characters and a single character arc. You can keep writing those short stories until you find a satisfying end to that character arc. And then you’re done. You’ve just pretty much pantsed your way to an outline.
I hope this helps, or at least gives you some food for thought. Again, there’s no right or wrong way. There’s only what works for you, and you won’t know what that is until you’ve tried both options.