• Linnea Archibald

Writing and editing as a pantser with a plan

If the writing podcasts and articles are correct, writers fall into one of two categories, regardless of genre:

  1. Planners: Those who plan out their story’s plot at the beginning before they begin their first draft.

  2. Pantsers: Those who begin drafting without a solid plan, writing instead to see where their initial story idea or characters lead them.

When it comes to fiction writing, I have always considered myself more of a pantser than a planner. This is admittedly rather odd since I’ve always been a planner when writing nonfiction pieces. When I sit down to write a nonfiction article, I generally know what the beginning, middle, and end will be. When I sit down to write a first draft of a novel, I often know the beginning (or the inciting incident), I know the characters, and I may know one or two turning points in the characters’ stories.

Unlike previous manuscripts, I’ve learned to lean on both my pantser and planner tendencies with my latest work-in-progress, and I think it’s making my story better, clearer, and more polished. If you find yourself somewhere between a full-blown planner and a full-blown pantser, here’s how I’m combining the two methods and viewing each draft this time around. I hope it will be as helpful to you as it has been to me!

1. The first draft should be messy. Write by the seat of your pants.

If I were to sit down before writing my first draft and plan everything out in detail, I would likely never write the draft at all. If I already know what’s going to happen and what the characters are going to do, why bother writing it? Plus, part of the beauty of a first draft, in my opinion, is that it helps you get to know your characters in real-time. As I write, they become more fleshed out, more nuanced, than they would if I were forcing them into a preconceived plot.

The important thing about a first draft is that you finish it. Don’t let yourself get distracted by grammatical errors, historical inaccuracies (if applicable), or disjointed narratives. The first draft is supposed to be shitty, as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird. “All good writers write them,” she writes. “This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”

If your inner critic is preventing you from writing a messy draft, my suggestion is to write quickly. Give yourself a deadline and tell people about it, whether that means you told your spouse, your best friend, your mom, or your writing group. This is where something like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) can be helpful. Now, as any agent or editor will tell you, never query on the basis of that quickly written first draft. It is, with all due respect, probably terrible. But getting your draft done quickly, on a deadline, will keep your momentum up and ensure you actually finish the darn thing rather than having three-quarters of a novel in an abandoned Word doc somewhere (speaking from experience here, trust me).

2. Your second draft is the structural draft.

When I finished my first draft of my current work-in-progress, I already knew the structure of the book would change in my second draft. As I wrote, I got to know my characters better and saw how the story could be served better with a different structure (in my novel, I added a second POV). Instead of turning around and trying to restructure the book while I was in the initial drafting phase, though, I finished the draft by the deadline I set for myself and made notes on how I wanted to change things the next time around.

With my rough draft in hand, I began parsing it out by scene and dividing it into chapters, interspersing the second character’s POV with short chapter descriptions. This process took days, but it’s serving as the scaffolding for the second draft. Now that the structural outline is done, I’m going through and adding anything that’s missing, deleting unneeded scenes, etc.

I highly suggest using the table of contents functionality in Word or Google Docs for this draft (I’ve lost too much work in the past, so I use Google Docs for the cloud backup). This functionality will let you see the structure of your book clearly at a glance and it lets you jump around easily without scrolling for three years. In Word, you can find the table of contents feature in the “References” tab. In Google Docs, simply bold the chapter titles and it’ll add a table of contents to the left-hand side of the screen.

Below is an example of how mine looks. You’ll notice that each date appears twice because each POV character gets a section that corresponds to the same date:

As you put this structure in place and move around the pieces of your rough draft accordingly, you’ll be amazed at how much your story comes together. It’ll illuminate holes, but it’ll also give you a glimpse at how the book will look in its finished state. This is also a great time to read sections out loud to catch any weird typos, missing words, or clunky turns of phrase.

3. Your third draft is the polishing draft. Then, hand it over to beta readers.

This is the phase that’s currently looming in the near future for me (hopefully in October, writing group friends!). Once I’ve imposed a structure on the madness of the first draft, the third (and any subsequent) draft is about polishing. This draft is the one I re-read probably 10 times, considering each sentence, word, and comma and assessing what it does to move the plot along. To the outside observer, it may not look like I’m changing much during this phase, but I can assure you that this draft will end up looking much different than the second one did. Word by word, I’m making the book as polished as it can be.

Once that draft is as done as you can make it, it’s time to hand it over to beta readers and get outside opinions. Stephen King calls this the “door open” draft in On Writing. The first and second drafts were for yourself, and the story was yours alone. The second draft is when you give it to readers. Now, the question remains: how do you know when it’s “as done as you can make it”? My barometer has always been that when I’m changing five or fewer sentences in a chapter, it’s time to hand it over. If I have that few changes, it usually means I’m editing for the sake of editing.

Hopefully, the next time I share about the editing process, my current manuscript will be back from my writing group beta readers and getting ready for the next stage (hopefully querying and eventual publishing)!

Are you a pantser or a planner? How are your drafts different from each other? Do you have a rough draft phase and a structural draft phase?


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Image by Susan Q Yin