3 Better Ways to Organize Your Story for Writers Who Are Pantsers (Instead of Using a Traditional Outline)

Some writers are plotters (which means they meticulously plot every detail of their novel before they write it), and others are pantsers (which means they plan nothing and fly by the seat of their pants), but what I’ve found after working with hundreds of writers is that most writers fall somewhere between the two. Identifying as a plotter or a pantser is not a black-and-white type of situation. Instead, there are many shades of gray in between.

Since my specialty is in coaching intuitive writers, I’ve had the unique experience of seeing lots and lots of writers who lean toward the pantser side of the spectrum figure out their process. And what I can tell you is that there are many different ways to approach pantsing, and it doesn’t all have to be in a way where you do zero planning.

These are the 3 main strategies I’ve seen writers who are pantsers use to organize their story either before they start writing it, or as they’re writing it in the first draft stage.

Cluster Maps

Cluster maps are also known as “mind maps,” and they’re used as a way to combine brainstorming with the organization of ideas. A cluster map might manifest as a good old-fashioned flow chart, or it might be messier and more chaotic and show up as a bunch of hand-drawn thought bubbles on the page.

One of my favorite authors, Alice Archer, says that cluster maps, “make intuition visible enough to mull over…I can choose my perspectives.” She has a great article on “BEING SEEN Explored in a Cluster Map” that shows a visual example of how she uses cluster mapping to work through an idea.

Cluster maps work wonderfully for writers who are intuitive and visual, and who love seeing the big picture spread out in front of them all at once. Cluster maps also offer the bonus of being able to incorporate a lot of little details without including big chunks of text (as you would need to use if you were plugging all the information into a traditional outline), so writers who are visual are able to see these intricate details at a glance without getting caught up in a wall of words.

Color, Beauty, and Fun

Bringing in color, beauty and fun to the process of organizing a story works particularly well for writers who carry the artisan archetype. Artisans are artists and also usually tinkerers. They love to make things, whether they’re using words or clay or brightly-colored yarn. Artisans also thrive in the creative process when they can engage their tactile sense, when they can feel something in their hands and run their fingers over it.

Because artisans love color and beauty and they have this enhanced tactile sense, artisan writers can benefit from using something like index cards to write story details on and keep things organized. They can shuffle through the cards, feel the different parts of the story, and arrange and rearrange them in an actual physical space, like on a wall or their dining room table.

Artisan writers can also bring fresh energy into their writing process by using colored markers, pictures, and decoration. I have one client who doesn’t use a filing cabinet to store all of her different writing projects, she uses a collection of beautifully decorated boxes that she keeps within her line of sight when she’s at her desk because seeing them makes her feel good. If you have the artisan archetype in you, your writing practice is going to improve if you let yourself incorporate play, experimentation, bright colors, and fun objects into the process.

Lost in the Maze

For most intuitive writers, a story is not an idea you get for an invention and then something you try to build out like a machine. For intuitive writers, the story we’re writing is more like a puzzle, or a riddle we’re trying to solve. It’s a mystery with a thousand different multi-faceted pieces and what we want more than anything in the world is to put all those pieces together. Because the element of mystery and confusion is such a core part of the process for intuitive writers, sometimes we need a way of organizing things that is just as mysterious and mind-bending.

For writers who resonate with their story feeling like a puzzle, they might want to experiment with using a maze to catalogue the details of characters and scenes. You simply draw your story out as a maze on a sheet of paper, focusing on where the beginning begins and where the end ends, and then you fill in all the twists and turns in the middle as you write. This gives you room to work with some of the things that you know about the story, while also allowing space for the things you don’t know to come in and land where they’re going to land.

I’ve also known writers who have started at the end of the story and worked backwards. There was a woman in my very first writing program back in 2006 who wrote plays and did this. She said she always started at the end because if she didn’t know how things ended, then how was she ever to know how it all began?

As you can see from the above, there are many different ways to figure out your plot and organize your story rather than using a traditional outline. The best way to improve yourself as a writer is to experiment with different ways until you find the way that is right for you, and then keep going in that direction, no matter what all the popular advice says about how things should be done.

The more you experiment and play, the more you will open your creative channel for the most surprising and extraordinary stories to come in, and that is the true gift of being a writer.

Lauren Sapala is the author of The INFJ Writer and The INFJ Revolution. She is also currently offering a free copy of her book on creative marketing for INFJ and INFP writers to anyone who signs up for her newsletter. SIGN UP HERE to get your free copy of Firefly Magic: Heart Powered Marketing for Highly Sensitive Writers.

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