Five keys to (mostly) painless revisions for pantsers
I never know where my characters are going next when I’m writing a rough draft. It’s what makes the process fun for me: just like when I’m watching Stranger Things (who else is counting down to July 4 and skipping fireworks this summer?), I want to get back to the story so I can see what’s going to happen next. But as I’m writing away, story threads crisscross and drop and twist this way and that, and then I have to go back and knit them together seamlessly into a novel that makes sense.
What that means when I get to “the end” is that I still have more than half of the work waiting for me. Having just turned in my ninth novel for publication last night, here are the strategies I’ve learned for making the revision process as painless as possible when flying by the seat of your pants is the only way you know how to write.
1) Step back:
If you have time to back away from your manuscript after you type “the end,” you must do it. Deadlines don’t always allow for this, but if you can swing it, a week or two (even a day or two if time is tight) of walking in the fresh air and buying groceries for your family and just generally doing more normal human and less crazy writer lady things is the very best gift you can give yourself and your novel.
2) Read like a reader, not like a writer:
One of the gifts in the “step back” box is the ability to remove yourself from the work. Get un-attached. Readers aren’t going to care how hard you labored over that subplot if the end of it makes no sense and it doesn’t move the story forward. On your first pass, you’re just looking at the story, not at the unpolished writing. Don’t get mired in moving commas and changing verbs yet—this is the time to make sure the reader in you is moved by the tale you’ve told.
3) Make an outline:
It may sound counterintuitive to do this after the fact, but it’s incredibly helpful. Go chapter by chapter, write a short summary and then make a list of important plot developments and movement in character arcs. Nothing I’ve found helps me see the big picture more—you’ll spot weaknesses and filler faster that you can say “revise and delete.”
4) Don’t be afraid of the heavy lifting:
Yes, you already wrote this book. I see that shiny new idea waving from the other side of your desk, too. Don’t give it to the temptation, because I guarantee that if you’re a pantser, there is at least one thing in your manuscript that you threw in because you didn’t have a better idea at the time, and you know darned well what it is, too. Now is not when you should let that slide. Pull your book apart, take the “it’ll do” out, add some “wow, that’s so much better,” and put it all back together. As many times as you have to.
5) Print it out and read it aloud:
Preferably in as close to one sitting as you can. I’m amazed every time at the brilliant ideas I get for plot fixes, as well as the language tweaks I can make, by not skipping this vital step. I know, it makes you cringe to read your own work out loud. Me too. Sometimes when my family is home I lock the bathroom door and perch on the edge of the tub and pretend I’m in a sound booth, because I know it’s that important. I always see things on paper I’d never catch on the screen, and your ears will alert you to dialogue and language that doesn’t ring true.
Career authors, are you a pantser or plotter? What are your best revision tips for either style? Tell us in the discussion on Facebook!
LynDee Walker is the national bestselling author of two crime fiction series featuring strong heroines and “twisty, absorbing” mysteries. Her first Nichelle Clarke crime thriller, FRONT PAGE FATALITY, was nominated for the Agatha Award for best first novel, and in 2018, she introduced readers to Texas Ranger Faith McClellan in FEAR NO TRUTH. Reviews have praised her work as “well-crafted, compelling, and fast-paced,” and “an edge-of-your-seat ride” with “a spider web of twists and turns that will keep you reading until the end.”
Before she started writing fiction, LynDee was an award-winning journalist who covered everything from ribbon cuttings to high level police corruption, and worked closely with the various law enforcement agencies that she reported on. Her work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the U.S.
Aside from books, LynDee loves her family, her readers, travel, and coffee. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, where she is working on her next novel when she’s not juggling laundry and children’s sports schedules.
You can find her online at www.lyndeewalker.com, and connect with her on
Facebook at lyndeewalkerbooks or Twitter @LynDeeWalker.