Manuscript Outlining for Pantsers

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What is a Pantser?

A pantser is a term used to describe someone who drafts their manuscript without outlining. They typically have an idea of where their story is going and may even have a few points about the plot jotted down, but they typically allow the story to flow naturally as they write.

However, as a pantser myself, I believe you can do more than a few points before getting into writing your first draft. I started writing my first few stories with the general idea as scenes pictured in my mind. I’ve since gone back and created an outline, plotting out the various plot points and emotional arcs together with the story’s arc. This has made a huge impact on my stories and has helped me improve my writing. But it was a lot of work, and editing the story to work better is harder do after the stories been drafted. So I hope this blog helps other pantsers avoid this pain.

Starting Out

I believe most writers start out as pantsers’ because they’re getting a feel for writing and developing their style of writing as they go along. It can also be a lack of knowledge about writing, character and plot arcs, and some other wonderful tools writers learn as they become more experienced.

Along the way a new writer has many doubts and lacks confidence in their writing ability. This is simply because they realise they‘ve much to learn about writing. Asking questions and searching for answers is a way to improve writing skills. As is practice and reading similar genre books.

Knowing you have a lot to learn doesn’t mean you know what you need to learn and many new writers can’t afford to pay for writing courses. And which course or courses are the right one for you, if you can afford it? I believe it’s helpful to get an understanding of the different literary tools writers use to get an idea of what is best suited to each individual. There’s no one-size-fits-all. Figure out what works for you and then go with that. There are many free blogs, articles, and webinars available/offered (although usually with a service they’re selling, but there is never an obligation to sign up for any of these), so this is a good place to start. Be warned though, not all advice is good advice, just as not all methods work for everyone.

Once you’ve spent days and weeks gathering all this theory, you need to attempt to put this into practice. However, there’s a big difference between understanding the theory and applying it. This takes practice, as is true for any skill, but how does the writer know they’re applying the theory correctly, or that they have understood it properly?


Hiring an editor is one of your most valuable sources of feedback and will help you develop as a writer, both your style and understanding of the theories, including manuscript outlining. When discussing the fee for service, ensure you understand what their edit will cover so you are confident you are getting the type of edit you need. Typically, a developmental edit is the first one, but a new writer will need more guidance than this so don’t be afraid to ask for it.

How do you find an editor, let alone the right one, for you? I suggest googling as a starting point and make sure they edit your genre. There is also ALLi which has a massive list of services offered to auditors, including editors. Reedsy and Fiverr are two more sources you can check.

If funds are an issue, try setting aside $5 a week (or what you can afford) into a separate bank account (if feasible), to save for the edit. It will take some time, but at least you are working towards having the funds for an edit.

Learning the craft of writing

Before you get an editor, you may want to do some reading about some aspects of writing like: outlining, the protagonists goal, the antagonists goal, story arcs, character arcs, plot arcs, emotional arcs, tags, conflict, developing characters and their back story, show don’t tell, the story’s theme. and manuscript outlining. I won’t go into all of them here because that would be several books – not a single blog! And there are several great books already published, which I’ve listed towards the end of this blog.

Word Count

I mentioned googling (or Bing or other search engine). I certainly do a lot of it. What I search for these days tends to be regarding aspects relevant to the story I’m writing: its setting, character development, environment at the time of the story/history, and so on. But when I started writing, I searched all kinds of things, including word count.

A novels word count was one of the first searches I did (which depends on the age range and genre). For me, the number of words was an indication of what I needed to aim for and formed part of my goal. I also searched for the average number of words per chapter, being the steps within my goal (see below about goal setting and how this all ties into outlining).

Both these searches, although I didn’t know it at the time, were very relevant and it’s something writers should be aware of. However, as with any rule-of-thumb, it’s not a hard and fast rule.

What does this mean? This is how agents see it, and self-publishing authors take note because there’s a good reason for this:

Your story falls 10,000 words short of the word count range for your genre.

Your story may not be fleshed out enough or has an underdeveloped plot or character arcs (both the protagonist and the antagonist).

Your story is way above your genre word count.

Your story may be repeating information (remove the repeated sections as this slows the pacing considerably – poor pacing). It’s also an indication of a rambling plot and potentially has scenes that don’t drive the story forward. (Try summarizing the scenes, in the order of the story, which have your protagonist in them (do a separate one per protagonist if you have more than one). Add between each scene “this resulted in/the impact of this is… the next scene must happen.” There needs to be a cause and effect linking each scene to the next scene. If that’s not there, there may be a hole in the story or some other issue.

In summary, both indicate your story isn’t ready to be published yet. You’ve more work ahead of you than you may realise, particularly for those writing their first or even second novel. Outlining your manuscript can help you identify problem areas.

Another thing to consider is concise writing – less is more! Don’t repeat information unless you want to make a point of it and it moves your story forward. Try and write sentences in the shortest, most impactful, way. This helps the pace of the story and keeps the word count down. Yes, you absolutely want to keep the count down! Don’t add words thinking you are fleshing out your story as this tends to be rambling, which is tiresome to read. Have you ever put a book down, never to pick it up again, because the writer spent too much time getting to the point? I sure have! And if I choose to put that in a review… that’s not good. Another horrible reality for that author – I will never buy another book of theirs! Uh-oh, future sales have been affected as I won’t be the only one responding in this way. So, keep the pace going, don’t repeat information unless necessary, and keep your writing tight!

When you start writing the emotional aspect of your characters and ensure that you are adding just enough world building and scene setting, written enticingly (and not a yawn fest), you’ll find the word count will come in around the expected range for your genre. Especially when you’ve looked at the other aspects such as your character’s arc.

Putting a basic outline together can help you achieve these aspects of writing a fantastic and compelling story, even for a pantser!

Goal Setting

A goal needs to be achievable and have attainable steps to reaching it.

My number one goal for each book I write is: To write a great story that readers can’t put down and will tell others about!

I am someone who likes to have something to aim for. I find it a great motivation tool. But how does a pantser set goals and what does this have to do with outlining?

Goals are helpful and can be anything that you choose! For me, word count is one, which I set in the outline of each story.

As an example you could set each plot point as a goal, or the number of words you want to write each day or week (whatever works within your schedule), or both. However, if a goal is having the opposite effect (and you’re finding it more difficult to write) then this goal won’t work for you and you need to think about another way to look at the goal.

Set goals that work for you to achieve the main goal, which I believe all writers have when it comes to writing their stories (whatever the underlying motivation for writing that particular book – their reason for writing that story): writing a great story that readers can’t put down and will tell others about!

Setting goals helps you to think about what you want to achieve with your story and focuses your attention. This will help motivate you to pop those few plot points on a timeline arc before you start writing. Keep this handy so you can update it as you write, effectively building your outline as you go.

Combining the art of outlining into your writing

As a pantser, I suggest doing a detailed outline after you’ve written your first draft. But it’s a good idea to have a few plot points to guide you on your writing journey. This will save a lot of editing later on.

One way to do this is to use a story arc and jot down the points against it (map the story). Below is a detailed version of what you could do. Just grab a pad and pen and roughly sketch the two different timeline axis’ of the story arc (shown in the image on the bottom timeline in black) and protagonist’s emotional arc (shown in the image in blue). Then, jot down your main plot points against the various story arc point headers, eg under Crossing the First Threshold one point may be: The protagonist heads into the tunnel (or whatever is a relevant point in your story).

Sample Arc Outline

As mentioned earlier, keep this handy as you write so you can make notes under the relevant headings as you go.

Character authenticity

Another aspect you may want to tackle once you’ve written a few scenes (not necessarily the beginning scenes, or even scenes which will end up in your manuscript) to help you get to know your characters, is to ask them questions and spend some time getting to know them. I’ve heard this referred to in so many different ways including “having a cup of tea with them”. Another technique I’ve heard of is using the free online personality tests (answering the questions based on how your character would respond) to get to know their main characters. This helps with writing that character authentically and ensures their voice is distinct from the other characters. As per the outline, keep this handy so you can make notes as you write. Here are some sample questions to “ask” your characters:

  • What are their goals?
  • What is the lie that they tell themselves?
    • What do they think they need?
    • What do they actually need?
  • What is their favorite color?
  • What foods do they like/dislike?
  • Who are their family and friends?
  • How old are they?
  • What is their life like now (ordinary world)?
  • What’s happened in their past (which will be relevant to your story)?

Creating the Detailed Outline

So, pantser, you’ve finished your first draft and you’ve been jotting your notes onto the timeline as you go. Now it’s time to have a closer look at your outline.

I use excel but use whatever works for you. You may find that the below format doesn’t work for you, so use this concept to develop what will work for you.

My first column is the story arc and the next one is for each chapter with the two columns for the locations and scene names listed underneath the chapter (creating a timeline going down the page rather than across the page). I have a separate column next to the scene for the days/months/years – age of the protagonist relevant to the scene and how the time flows in the story. This helps me to check that I’ve got my facts straight from a timeline perspective.

After that have columns for the Plots: Plot A: main plot, subplots B & C, and then, if relevant, the series plot D.

Following on from that I have emotional arc columns for the protagonist, antagonist, and key support characters (in one column).

Then I have the chapter number, scene number, word count, and total word count column.

Phew, that’s sure a lot of columns!

It is, but it helps you drill down into your story to check if it’s being told in the best way possible. Think along these lines: Scene 1 happens and because of this Scene 2 happens (and so on) creating a cause-and-effect link between each scene. Below is an example of what my outlines look like (yes, I like things to be colorful to help me know which aspect I’m looking at). You don’t need to go to the level that I’ve done below.

Sample outline spreadsheet

Once you’ve checked that each scene needs to be there, added in notes for any missing scenes, scenes you want to shift around, and other story arc, plot arc, and so on edit notes, go back into your manuscript, and start revising. Update your outline as you go along if needed (this will help you draft your synopsis when you are at this stage).

Repeat as needed, potentially after beta read reviews or a developmental edit.

Synopsis Bonus

This manuscript outline is also useful to help you draft your Synopsis. Use the Plot A and Protagonist’s emotional arc notes to draft the synopsis. This gives a very detailed “bullet list” of notes for you to work with. Consider which points go together and start combining until you have a synopsis that is around 1,000 – 1,500 words.

Recommended Reading

There are a few books often recommended to writers to read (I do too). These are available as eBooks from Amazon.

  • Creating Character Arcs by K. M. Weiland
  • Structuring your Novel by K. M. Weiland
  • Show Don’t Tell by Sandra Gerth

Some others I’ve still to read myself are:

  • Writing your story’s Theme by K. M. Weiland
  • Writing Archetypal Character Arcs: The Hero’s Journey and Beyond by K. M. Weiland
  • Build Better Characters: The psychology of backstory & how to use it in your writing to hook readers by Eileen Cook

For more information on the 6 emotional arcs of storytelling read this: The 6 Emotional Arcs of Storytelling, Why You Should Use Them, and Which One is Best (

Happy outlining!

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