Write Tip: Outlining From A Finished Draft For Pantsers (How I Do It)

Okay, if you’re a pantser like me, you may reach a point where you feel like you need to actually get a better handle on organizing your manuscript. You’ve finished a draft or two but there’s character arcs to refine, plot line arcs to refine, motifs to identify & exploit, etc. You’re not an outliner. Organization is a crutch. It might even block your process. But there comes a time when one has to refine and examining the structure is usually key to success in doing that. Since people ask me for advice on this, I’d like to show you how I go about this process. It may not work for everyone, no method does with writing, but at the very least, it might stimulate your creativity and help you create your own approach to accomplish the same thing.

First, I like to do this on paper. One, because staring at things on screen gives you an incomplete image of each page/scene. Two, because I stare at the screen all day when writing and editing and need a break. Three, because I can do it anywhere without electricity needed and thus find energy by moving around or even have the manuscript with me on errands if I wind up having to wait, etc. (Although please don’t do it while driving. This has been a public service message from bryanthomasschmidt.net.) Four, because it helps you stay focused on the goal without getting distracted tweaking your manuscript and then never getting back to this task. (Don’t lie, you know it happens.)


Second, there are three phases to this:


Phase One, make a list of your plots and subplots and assign each a number or letter. For example:

A Assassins are killing Vertullians and Davi and friends must investigate

B Davi and Tela’s relationship hits some road blocks

C Aron has joined the Council and must adjust to life as a leader working amongst his former enemies



Phase Two, you reread the document which you should have not touched for at least 2-3 weeks, preferably a month, so you can be objective and fresh. As you go through, you make notes.  You will label each scene with the letters of the plotline it relates to: A, B or AB if it involves more than one plotline as some scenes can. If you want to focus on the outline, you should also make notes of anything such as character names switched or POV issues or pl0t holes. But keep it short so you can stay focused. You can go back later and wrestle with these. Make notes in margins or keep a separate sheet. You might even do a separate sheet for each plot line. It’s up to you.


Phase Three, this is where you go back and take your notes and write a brief description of each scene on a page for each plot line or a master sheet for the whole story with plotline indicators (A, B, C). You might even want to color code it in Excel or with highlighting in Word. This will allow you to read through each plot separately and examine the arc and tension and turning points, etc. to make sure it’s where it needs to be. All you need in scene descriptions is the key dramatic points and which characters and plots are involved. Keep it concise. No need for a whole synopsis of each scene unless you feel compelled. There are no rules. Writing is a journey and a constant process of growing and refining your craft, after all, and that’s what these Write Tips are designed to help with and stimulate. None are intended as end-all rules.


That’s it. Three easy phases to an outline AND the bonus is you’ve probably already made notes on some of the issues you need to address. Now it’s easy to go back and move scenes around if you need to, find flaws in plotting or character arcs, or expand motifs. You can also look at pacing, balance and other things.

Now lest any of you pantsers get said pants in a bunch with the “I CAN’T WORK FROM OUTLINES” attitudes, remember that all I am helping you do is make a chart of the outline that already exists in your work. You wrote it by the seat of your pants but you still created a structure in doing so. Now’s the time to fine tune and refine it and I’m merely suggesting a way to do that simply so you can be more effective. If this doesn’t work for you, feel free to take the concepts I suggest and make your own method. In fact, I’d love if, when you do, you’d comment on this post so we can all learn from it.

So there you have it, a simple method for Outling From a Finished Draft. At least, that’s how I do it. What’s your way? We’re waiting with baited breath. For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.


9 thoughts on “Write Tip: Outlining From A Finished Draft For Pantsers (How I Do It)

  1. I really enjoyed this. I’ve started outlining more in general, but I always make a chapter-by-chapter outline as I draft. Being able to see the entire plot boiled down to a handful of pages makes a huge difference.

    1. Thanks MK and Alex. It certainly helps when the time comes to polish and refine. It’s a different mode of thinking than pantsing itself and it just helps you get a handled on the many disparate elements and work to bring them together in a better, more effective manner.

  2. I’m a strict pantser in the midst of writing a new draft, but I am always open to trying new techniques. I appreciate your advice for outlining a finished draft; though I’d be interested to know how you go about the ‘writing-in-progress’ phase. Full-blown outlines seem only to restrict creativity in a way – almost like one is putting their Muse in a box. Yet sometimes, the Muse is an elusive bugger, and it simply refuses to poke its head in the next scene. What do you suggest in such a case? Do you resort to outlining or let the manuscript ‘rest in a drawer’ for a bit?

    1. I pants it mostly but outlines can be helpful in revision and when planning sequels as described in the story, Rachel. I do tend to make a brief one sentence outline of scenes in a chapter before I write it. But I throw it out, rearrange it, etc. as I want to. When you work with big publishers, outlines will be required but you are not forced to stick with them. They just want to know you have some clear picture in your mind before giving you money. As for the stubborn muse, what I’d suggest is writing a description of what you anticipate needs to happen next, broken into scenes if possible, just the immediate scenes. And then try and write one of them, even if it’s not the next after where you left off. So skip the problem spot and see if the reason you’re blocked becomes apparent. I know several writers (K.D. McEntire and Paul S. Kemp, for example) who write scenes out of order. They write whatever they’re inspired to write at the moment. I can’t work that way, but it’s damned impressive. I do that somewhat when polishing, but not during first draft.

  3. Thank you for writing this post. I think I’m going try doing this for the novel I’m currently writing. I’ve written about two chapters but I still have some plot issues I need to fix. The overall picture is there but the details are missing.

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