pantsers and self-editing

Ran across this blog by author Amy Jewell which offers some issues pantsers might come across as they are trying to edit. As I read I kept hearing myself mutter, “I have a solution for that in my February workshop…that too…oh, yeah, talked about that too.”

I am NOT a pantser as I’ve previously mentioned. And I have studied story structure in depth for teaching 10 years of literature analysis to teenagers. I’ve coached students through writing stories of their own using by teaching them to use these structures as guides. But many students just wanted to write. So I’d get them to tell me what they wrote about with prompts after they wrote each scene.

So what does pantsing have to do with self-editing? In February 2021 on Zoom, I taught a 4-week (four 1-hour sessions) workshop “How to Self-Edit.” At many points during the four hours, I caught myself saying, “During the first draft you wrote the first thing that came to mind” and “if you’re a pantser, you probably just asked yourself ‘what happened next’ and ‘next after that’ and so on.” That’s definitely a nod to pantsing. There’s no getting around it, a lot of writers are pantsers.

But you can’t “pants” editing. You have to recognize the structure underneath the details, recognize good “bone structure” from “toothpicks for arms” half-assed reasons for characters to do things. And you have to be able to rearrange the story, moving scenes to more logical places. The basis of good plot is sound cause and effect. Good editing starts with marking what structures are already there: who are the characters, what do they want, and how do they go about getting it (and, frequently, get foiled on their way to getting it)?

So, you make a summary sheet for your characters about what you’re certain is (or should be) in the story: the most memorable, most compelling details about who they are and what they want. Then you check your story chapter by chapter and scene by scene that you didn’t leave any of those details off the page or contradict yourself. While it’s possible to have multiple motivations, any discrepancy requires that you take a second look and ask yourself if you’re sure that’s what you meant to do and that there’s enough evidence to support it within the story.

Jewell’s post makes mention of timeline issues: things said to have happened “10 years ago” (I’m looking at you Xena writers – or more recently, the OUAT writers) end up having the character at the wrong logical age, or a different location is mentioned where the event took place and other travel clues put the character in the wrong place. You have to reconcile these things. Even if after the fact, you’re going to have to create a timeline. But start with making consistent what is absolutely necessary to move the story forward. If it is an emotional impact event, moving it a year ahead or behind, or even just shifting it a few months, weeks, or days, is not going to upend your entire plot. But if it is necessary to cause an effect at a specific time, then it has to remain in that relational proximity.

If you found these tips about self-editing useful, you might be interested to learn I’m turning that four-hour workshop into a self-editing book. Unlike a lot of other books I’ve noticed on the market for this topic, my book will be more “workbook” than “reference guide.” It will have things to look for, examples of problems and examples of fixes. It will also include work pages for recording and planning your revisions. And I hope you’ll find it useful.

Look for it sometime in the fall.

~ Lara

3 thoughts on “pantsers and self-editing

  1. Knowing how sharp your editing skills are, I’ll be among the first to buy your editing book!
    You’ve made some good points in your piece (as always), and I’m reminded of the many times you’ve helped me with structure and cause-and-effect.
    Keep being awesome!


  2. This was very helpful. I am a pantser, so the plotting of my books occurs while I am writing them. I haven’t consciously considered ’cause and effect.’ I generally think of a plot as a sequence of events following a logical path. On reflection that may be the same creature wearing different clothes. Keeping cause and effect in mind will help structuring a story while pantsing it at the same time.

    I’m looking forward to your editing book. Thanks.

    Les M.


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