If you’re planning your book, beware …

Have ‘pantser’ authors discovered the quickest way to become a writing genius?

bookediting.co.uk editor Lee Dickinson

By Lee Dickinson

You should skim this blog. Don’t absorb the words, just get through them. Read them quickly even if you love to savour words, and if going back properly later, in total, takes you more time and ruins your enjoyment. 

But, you ask, can I read it the way I prefer? The way that works for me? With the same approach I adopt in the rest of my life, staying true to my personality?

No, because I’m a ‘pantser’, and there is no way but mine …

Every day, pantsers are out in social media force urging writers to bash out something, anything. They’re armed with images of sea sunrises, misty forests and, once, a gorilla? Writing for them seems to be more of a holiday romance than a relationship, so they’ve got ages to spend online with stock images. Quotes are their main cudgel, though, with Stephen King and Margaret Atwood their favourites.

Trot out a few examples like that and the case is apparently proven, especially if you don’t acknowledge those famous writers are the exceptions. I’ll tell you what the pantsers don’t: Stephen King is a one-in-a-billion writer; trying to ape his method will backfire. 

Books are complicated, rarely come together on the hoof, so why would writers not plan for that complexity? Where else would pantsers call for that to be ignored? Would they have paced the floor of the Sistine Chapel with a rollerbrush, yanking on the scaffolding and shouting: “Oy, Mick, get a bloody shift on”?

There’s doubt over the truth of many pantsers’ claims anyway. The kudos of being able to slap it down and produce a masterpiece is alluring. That makes them geniuses, right?

Probably, but digging deeper might reveal something else. The accounts of writing binges producing literary classics need scrutiny because, for example, tales of a 12-week Jack Kerouac bender culminating in On The Road ignore the nine-year gap between his inspiration and the finished book. Kurt Vonnegut’s claims of one-session finished manuscripts are folklore, but his son Mark inherited his trunk and found it crammed with drafts, outlines and abandoned attempts.

That’s inconvenient when you’re an evangelical pantser; better to focus on myth and emotion. Type “pantser author” in your search engine and you’ll see. 

“I’m just too impatient to get writing,” crows one, as if impatience is a virtue that somehow proves her superior love of words. 

“It’s SOOO exciting,” coos another. 

“I wrote my book in a few weeks,” chimes someone else, “then spent years trying to fix it. Never again.” 

Such rewriting is a huge task, so what are the chances of it being completed by impatient pantsers craving excitement? That means a binned manuscript, which surely wasn’t the aim?

The main reason to challenge pantser recruitment is the end result. ‘Plots’ which would benefit from at least being scrawled on a bus ticket have instead been hurled out in the same disposable manner as their battered keyboards. ‘Characters’, especially villains, are cardboard instead of flesh. A developmental edit should highlight this and other problems, but your editor’s exactly that, not a magician.

I wrote my first novel as a pantser, and it was dreadful. Did I enjoy the writing process? Not when I later realised how bad it was, and that it should have been planned from the start. 

The pantser approach can only work if goals are realistic. Get it traditionally published? Without extensive rewriting, forget it. Treat writing as a thrill-seeking adventure then use the end result as a doorstop? Probably. Forget about the failure but become a pantser recruitment sergeant anyway? Definitely.

Panters hate planning – I get it. Speed is vital to them – OK. They love words so much they have to get them down instantly – lovely. I’ve heard. Repeatedly.

Just as they love to freefall, though, plotters enjoy pulling the planning ripcord and gliding to earth. 

It’s the way I work as an editor and proofreader, which demand a structured, careful approach. It extends to my writing. The method works for me, but it might not for you, so I’m not trying to recruit. Good luck finding your own writing way. That might even be as a pantser, if you’re a genius. Writing for excitement is attractive, but the adrenalin needs to be tempered with realism and honesty.

Please, pantsers, stop trying to recruit from the ranks of the plotters, who are unfit to behold your genius anyway. Or, if you can’t curb your zeal, admit you’ll bin your words or spend more time rewriting than you would have spent plotting.

This article’s writer, Lee Dickinson, is an advanced professional member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and chief editor at bookediting.co.uk. You can read his blog here.