Pantsing Revisions

by limebirdkate

Most of us writers are familiar with the term ‘pantsing’. It refers to writing a novel without the benefit of an outline, or even a plan. At best, our muses have given us a glimmer of a story idea. We begin writing, and we let the words flow straight from our imaginations to the screen, or paper.  Writers will often find themselves in debates over the wisdom of pantsing. Some swear by the uninterrupted muse, while others insist pantsing is a waste of valuable time.

I have always pantsed my writing. As much of a planner I am in my life, I am the complete opposite in my imagination. Because I love the act of writing so much, I don’t want to ruin the experience by sterilizing my passion.

But what happens when a pantser finishes her first draft and is ready to tackle the story again. Does she pants the second draft, too? How does a writer whose natural affinity is to let words pour unhindered from her mind change tactics and become a structured planner? Is it even possible?

With my first book, I pantsed every round of rewrites. I never put the book away to rest. I didn’t assess the story as a whole before I started tinkering a little here, a little there. I pounced on anything that didn’t look right, instead of flagging it and waiting to make changes until I’d gone through the whole story. Changing elements with no concern as to whether the book would teeter in response. I wrote and rewrote the book as though I were following a Labyrinth and not a plotted course.

After a while I realized that this book was taking me far too long to complete. I was constantly working on it. I remember asking myself why are revisions so complicated?

Revision is, in essence, rewriting. If pantsing works with writing, then why doesn’t pantsing work with rewriting?

I think revision requires a clinical, objective, hard-assed approach, while writing needs the creative, open, fertile field of imagination. If we finish our rough draft and begin the next draft with our story idea still flowing, still unraveling—then I don’t really call that revising the story. I think that we’re still writing it. And sometimes that happens. Sometimes, we’ll ‘finish’ the first draft and feel the need to continue writing it. So we tinker with random scenes or characters. This is not revising. This is more writing.

I think revision can only happen after the author has finalized her decisions regarding the structure of the story—beginning, middle, end. If we’re writing our fifth draft and we’re still unsure how everything will come together then I’m not convinced we’re revising. I am tempted to say we’re still writing.

The revision stage needs to be planned. I don’t think it can be pantsed. I don’t think revisions can be done successfully in the midst of creative writing. Writers cannot be sentimental or ambivalent in the revision stage. We can’t ‘wing it’ in the revision stage. Writers need to make hard decisions in the revision stage, and we need to know how one scene will affect another scene. With revision we have to slay our Little Darlings. With revision we have to heed word count. With revision we need to think more like a reader, and less like a writer.

How about you? Did you ever think you were revising your book when, in fact, you were still writing it?


60 Responses to “Pantsing Revisions”

  1. Pantsing is a term I hadn’t heard before in writing. Perhaps that’s a British way to put it? I would describe a “pantser” as an organic writer. Someone who plans his or her writing is an outliner. No matter how one gets it done, I think it’s important to finish that first draft and read through it with an eye toward story and story alone. Make some notes in the margins, but resist the urge to dive right into the rewrite. Does the story fit your “big picture” that you had in mind when you began writing? Then go back and begin to revise once you’ve decided the story is framed correctly. Taking a seat-of-the-pants approach to revision seems a bit slapdash and I would encourage anyone to take a more organized approach toward story and character. You will save yourself time and aggravation, and not wear out your pants so quickly 😉

    • I hadn’t heard of pantsing before reading this post and I’m British! Kate is American though… so maybe it’s American? (Not sure where you’re from David!) Hehe… It’s nice to learn new things!

    • No, I’m not British. I’m American. Yes, pantsing a novel is quite organic and it works for people who can see that whole novel in their heads, I think. Even though I’m fairly detail-oriented, I love putting together a story quickly just to see what will happen next. Organic writing (pantsing) does not work well with revision because like you say we need to know if we framed the story correctly. My problem is that I’m impatient, I have a short attention span, and I abhor outlines. These are the main reasons I made the mistake of not putting the story away to marinate between drafts.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Great post Kate! Really enjoyed reading this, and learning a new term! When I hear pantsing, I could imagine using it instead of a swear word… like ” Oh pantsing heck’.. just me? I sometimes also say ‘Oh pants’ if something goes wrong, but I think that’s a British thing.

    I think that I’m a mix of what you do and having an outline. I like to have a rough idea about what I’m doing, but then I’m free free flowing when I write. However, you raise a good point about pantsing when you’re revising your MS. I think that pantsing sounds more suited to the first draft rather than revisions.. Who knows! Interested to hear what everyone else thinks! 🙂

    B x

    • You never heard of the term? Wow, I thought it was one of those writing expressions everyone knew. And yes, you could certainly take a tawdry view of it, haha.

      I think pantsing is suitable for that rough draft (I think this is what a lot of writers do for NaNoWriMo). But, no, revisions need to be outlined or structured so that our story isn’t all over the map.

      I’m getting better about outlining rough drafts now, though. I’ll still write organically, because I love the act of writing, but now that I’m older and wiser, I seem to have more of a structure behind my freedom. 😉

  3. I admit I burst out laughing after a few paragraphs because of the use of the word “pantsing”. I’m fairly confident this is a reflection on my immaturity. However, once I got over it (and I did), I appreciate the point you make as a very valid one. I often pants. In fact, I’ve only ever not pantsed something once in my life and I didn’t enjoy it because, as you rightly say, it sterilised the experience. However, when it comes to making revisions, I do find I can’t pants it, or I get lost.

    In my limited experience, the hard part is getting what’s in your imagination out on paper fast enough, before the thought vanishes and is replaced by the next wild idea. I find that, even though I can type more than the average number of words per minute, it’s never quite fast enough. But if I do manage to get everything down in time, I read it back and fiddle and chop bits up and re-write sections. This is the point at which I stop pantsing and start planning.

    I usually find I use paper to plan, as opposed to planning on-screen – does anyone else find this?

    I need to learn to revise more in general though, rather than just moving on to the next pants story 🙂

    Thanks, Kate. Thought-provoking.

    • P.S. Having done a bit more reading online, it looks like the term “pantsing”, which I admit I hadn’t heard of before, may originate from “seat-of-your-pants” writing (

      • By the way, I’m not endorsing that other site – I don’t actually agree that you have to be good to succeed in pantsing (although I guess it depends how you measure success).

      • Awesome! Thanks for this link. And seat of the pants makes a lot of sense now that I know it.

    • How funny that you’re unfamiliar with this term. I honestly thought it was widely known.

      Yes! I know what you mean about not being able to get the ideas down fast enough. For a while I thought I was a hyperactive writer because the ideas would not stop zipping around my head. And you’re right, if we don’t snag them and get them recorded somewhere (I have sticky notes all over the place to help with this) then we lose them.

      I am not precise enough with my drafts, unfortunately. Rather than separate drafts, they all tend to blend into each other. This is not good for me in the long run, because this habit enables me to simply keep writing. I have to really be firm with myself about planning out revisions.

      I think I’m the same–when I actually do make myself plan–that I do it on paper as opposed to screen. Perhaps it is because we can spread out more with paper? I know I’ve taken up the entire floor of my study with scenes and this way I can move them around to find the best structure.

      Thanks for commenting, lordscree 🙂

  4. I’m surprised that several people seem to not be familiar with the term ‘pantsing’, I thought it was a fairly well known term amongst writers too, but obviously not!

    In response to your post Kate, I always like to work from the premise of – write from the heart and correct from the head. So for me that equates to pantsing when I first write, but being more structured when editing. I haven’t actually written a novel yet though, so we’ll see how that works when I do! I can see what you’re saying about the confusion, or the blurry line, between still writing and editing. Is it ok for one to naturally merge into the other, or should a definite line be drawn?

    • Nope, never heard of pantsing… maybe I should add a poll in here to see how many people were familiar with it before they read this article!

    • Write from the heart and correct for the head. Great phrase and reiterates how killing your darlings is possible if you approach your draft logically. It’s less painful that way. Or it’s supposed to be anyway!

      In regards to pantsing, never heard of it and failed when I tried it. I do best when I plot the story before I begin. I leave the plot vague enough to let my creative side grow the story. But nothing works for everyone.

    • Hi Vanessa,

      I love that – write from the heart and correct from the head. That is absolutely perfect. Writing organically/pantsing allows us to enjoy the act of writing, whereas if we’re too clinical from the get-go I fear that our writing suffers. I write first and foremost because I love it. If I am too methodical and structured, then it’s no longer enjoyable to me.

      However, I do understand the need for that structure. Even though it is difficult for me to downshift from heart to head, I know I have to do it if I want the story to make sense to anyone else.

      Yes, that confusion is part of what slows my writing down. I need to be more strict with myself when it comes time to revise. I can’t allow myself to get sucked into the story.

  5. Kate, I’m writing a post about pantsing vs. plotting today. ( I thought everyone knew the “pantsing” term, too!!!!)

    At any rate, I’m trying to make myself become more of a planner… and I definitely think that when you’re looking at the completed (ha! completed!) manuscript, you need more of a detached, clinical, plan-oriented, strategic approach. Best of luck as you plan!

    • Isn’t it funny how this expression isn’t as well-known as we thought?

      Thanks, yes, I need all the luck I can get as I figure out how to be a planner for my next book. It’s obviously too late to figure out how to plan for my WIP, even though I consider it completed–it is an example of a pantsed novel through and through.

      Looking forward to reading your post on pantsing vs plotting. 🙂

  6. Most of us writers are familiar with the term ‘pantsing’. It refers to writing a novel without the benefit of an outline, or even a plan.

    I hadn’t heard of this term before. Although it perfectly sums up how I used to approach my writing.

    Now that I go via a more ‘plot and outline first’ route, I have started to actually finish my stories (rather than losing my way part way through).

    • Hi mlfables,
      Another one who has never heard of the term! Seems like there are a lot of people out there who haven’t heard of pantsing.

      That’s what I have come to realize–that people who plan and plot before they actually write have a better success rate at finishing their stories. I finished mine, over and over and over again 😉 not realizing that I was simply still in the writing mode. Now that I have seen the error of my ways I am doing some work to learn how to structure and plan so that I don’t do this again with my next book.

      Thanks for swinging by.

  7. I pants my first draft, but then I put the whole thing away and marinate on it for a while. I never actually outline my second or third (or more) drafts, but I do revise with a purpose- fixing spots that are dragging and improving plot devices… each revision has some kind of a plotting goal.

    • Hi Laura,

      Your strategy is a good one. That’s what I should do. I still want to enjoy the writing part, so I think I’ll always be a pantser when it comes to my first drafts. But I will make myself put it away before touching it. Planning or plotting out the revisions is still a rusty skill for me, but I am determined not to repeat past mistakes. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. *chortle* You limebirds obviously live in a pantsy world. I, too, was ignorant of the term and it took a while before *ding* I realised it was seat-of-the-pants and not the British expletive, as others have explained. ; )
    But I agree that revisions are pants, and can’t be pantsed. Unless, that is, you’re are starting from feet up.
    I’ve got ants in my pantsing pants now, so better go and scratch.

    • Funny comment 🙂 Right, revisions need to be organized and structured so that we can make sure our story is going where we envisioned. Making that transition though is tough when you’re natural inclination is to write organically.

      Good luck with your ants. 🙂

  9. I’m American and I never heard of pantsing, although I immediately assumed it came from the phrase, doing something by the seat of your pants. A touch of Google produced “flying by the seat of your pants,” that is, by instinct. See
    I guess I pants, although usually a lot of it is done in the brain beforehand. I work out the plot and even phrasing in my head and then rush to tape-record it or to write it down. Unfortunately, once something is in the shape of words on paper or screen, it’s like it really happened and it becomes set in stone. I have a hard time actually cutting anything, although I have done it. I can always find an inescapable reason why I must keep this particular event or fact or character trait. Sigh. That’s one reason why my books are always too long.
    For me writing and revision is the same thing. I never write distinct drafts. I simply write the first draft and then I tinker with it.

    • Hi Lorinda,

      Thanks for your help in answering what turned out to be a mystery to many, lol. I had no idea so many people had never heard of this term.

      I have a tough time with cutting, too. I’m sentimental to begin with, so anything I write is quite dear to me. It takes a while for me to realize something just isn’t as great as I think it is.

      I like how you explain your process, that you write the first draft and then tinker with it. I think that’s me in some ways, also–which is why I was pantsing my revisions. I’m glad that you are able to work that way. I really wish I could, but it hasn’t done me any justice I’m afraid.

      Thanks for your comment!

  10. I’m with you with one small caveat. I want to know the beginning and have a fair idea of the ending. That way I can see just how far off the road I am getting while I am pantsing the middle. I agree completely that revision has to be structured and most decisions must be carved in stone, (Okay maybe wet clay.) Maybe that’s why some writers never finish their stories. They never settle on the final decisions.

    • Hi Dennis,

      Pantsing is great fun, and that’s a huge problem for me. At some point I have to end the fun, and get serious with revision. I think you’re right in your suspicions about why some writers never finish their stories. Even though I ‘finished’ I went back and finished it again, and again. (Having a sequel didn’t help, actually.) Without a clear plotline, my story was all over the map. I’m getting better with planning though, now that I see where I went wrong.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Yes, I definitely think the problem is pantsing the middle. I’ve said before I get into trouble when I don’t know the plot and I improvise, which is basically the same as pantsing, I think. I have a good beginning and a good end in mind but then I go off on tangents in the middle and introduce characters that are fascinating but really unnecessary. So I guess maybe pantsing isn’t the best way to go for me – I need to resist!

    • Dennis, I think you’re spot on with both your points. I’ve never quite gotten around to finishing a story any longer than about 2000 words and I’m sure it’s down to a mixture of a) not having a clear idea of the end before I start pantsing my way through reams and b) not going back and taking a proper structured approach to revisions.

  11. Well, I also thought all writers used pantsing as shorthand for “by the seat of my pants.” Whenever its origin, pantsing is how I write.

    Like you, Kate, I “pantsed” not only the writing of my first novel, but also the “revisions.” Several agent “passes” later, with more experience, learning, and writing under my belt, I realize pantsing is not the way to approach revisions. So with my second novel, I wait for all my review comments to come in and then decide what changes need to be made. Since those often require changes to other sections that were “okay,” I need to be thorough so that the changes I do make are logical and consistent with the story. I hope that combination will lead to a more marketable (and enjoyable) novel.

    And now that I’m applying that approach to the original WIP, I hope it’s soon to be ready for a fresh round of beta reading. Then I should know if it can be rescued or should remain tucked in a drawer….

    Great post, and I think Beth should add that poll! 🙂

    • Hey JM,

      Glad to find another writer who pantsed her revisions. It is a hard lesson to learn, but a really valuable, in-depth one too. I think you’re smart with your new approach with beta readers, especially because you’re getting multiple opinions on the entire ms, and not just the first 50 pages. They are able to help you see from beginning to end–and that’s tough to do on our own. Especially if you’re sentimental like I am and can’t bear slaying the Little Darlings. 😉

      I think Beth should add the poll, too. I am stunned at the number of people who have never heard this term.

      Thanks for swinging by!

  12. Hmm. I’d never heard the term either. At least in this context! It did remind me of “… by the seat of your pants”, too.
    This is another interesting one. I think I tend to plan more than pants. Although I tend not to write my plan down. Much. If I do it’s close to useless. It’s mostly in my head, which is a bit dangerous.

    • Wow, Beth definitely needs to do a poll on this! I really thought ‘pantsed’ was a well-known term. Planning has its benefits. How interesting that you don’t write down your plan. So, you are able to remember it then? I can see how that would be a bit dangerous. 🙂

      • Hi Kate, I have sometimes come up with an idea which I haven’t written down and then completely forgot abut it until I came across the same part of the story again and re-think up the idea. Weird It’s like the story itself prompts me. I really should write them down more…

      • I know. This is the reason I have sticky notes all over my walls instead of traditional wallpaper.

  13. First I hear of the term. 🙂

    I write this way, and wouldn’t change it for the world. Some folks are lost without an outline, and I get that, because we are unique creatures who work in different ways. We edit for a myriad of reasons. I’m on my eighth hard edit now, with purpose. In the initial stages, I firmed storyline and consistency, in part by gaining familiarity with the story and its characters. Personality followed, an adjustment of tense, grammatical considerations, incorporation of some inspirational element, yet with a willingness to place anything and everything on the table for potential edit and removal. After, factual information – as an example, it pays to be accurate describing the workings of a given government and laws pertaining to an element of subject matter.

    Now if someone argued that in the sixteenth month I’ve put in too much time, well… this is my first novel what will seek a publisher. It can’t be good enough in my eyes, it needs to be perfect. Further, this is me, learning my craft and putting in the hard miles of roadwork. There are no short cuts to experience. Those 70 hours or so a week count for something.

    • Hi Nelle,

      Yes, everyone has to go about it her own way. No use foisting a plan on someone if they don’t think like that. And every round is good for something. I think it is difficult to do a one full edit that incorporates all the elements. Although some writers can do it. Maybe it is a matter of feeling our way there, and eventually we’ll find the way that best works for us. Thanks for commenting.

  14. Wow. I have never considered the possibility of pantsing a revision. The whole time I was reading this post, I was like WHAT is she TALKING about?! It wasn’t until I got to the very end – the question – that I got it. And, lemme tell you… MIND. BLOWN.
    Clearly, I’m a planner. I really think everyone is a planner. Even pansters. The difference is that you plan by getting the story out, and tweaking again and again. Instead, planners get the bones out, flesh it out, and draft one is pretty much what we want (at least in the beginning). I’m probably not explaining this well. Haha.
    Revisions, I think, can take more time than the actual writing. There are so many levels. There’s getting the story right. Telling it in the right order. Making sure all scenes have all scene elements. Grammar. Sentence structure. Many, many levels. Can we really focus on them all at the same time? Not really. AND… We have to put time between revisions. It’s like accounting. Eventually, you end up with a spreadsheet full of numbers that all look the same, and you need a nap.

    • Well, I didn’t consider pantsing a revision either–it certainly wasn’t anything I planned, lol. It just happened. But I don’t think I was revising, in all truth, I think I was still writing the darn thing. I thought I had finished, but I hadn’t. I never really answered the question with which I opened the story, although I thought I did.

      You’re right, there are various levels to revising. Here again, I think it’s easy to get swept up in the joy of storytelling though and forget that you’re revising and you end up rewriting a scene. I have to be more strict with myself–that’s the bottom line.

      Love your analogy to accounting. Naps are useful at these junctures. 🙂

  15. I laughed when I started reading the post, to me and my teenaged daughter, “pantsing” is what the high-school guys do to each other, and it means pulling the other guy’s pants down as a joke. Applying it to writing took a second, lol. I’ve heard the term, in fact I’m fairly sure we’ve had articles on here using it before.

    If pantsing is by our definition the writing of a novel without an outline or plan, then the revision process must be a separate thing. Basically the revision process is not writing, it’s correction, so for me that wouldn’t be pantsing.

    • If I had known I was going to be amusing half the commenters here, I’d have brought popcorn. 🙂 I know, the first time I heard the term, I thought of the prank. Yes, I’m sure we’ve discussed pantsing on Limebird before, too–which is really why I’m so surprised at the number of people who say they have never heard of it.

      Right, revision should be separate from the writing–and yet revise means to change or fix. So in essence you might have to rewrite, not just correct. I think that even in revision, writing still occurs. This is where I get stuck. Rewriting still ends up feeling like writing to me. I get swept back into the story, even in the revision process. I have to learn my boundaries, apparently. 🙂

  16. Okay, I fall into the British camp of not knowing the term “pantsing” – however, that counts for nothing as I live in another world half the time anyway. I think pantsing is great for drafts whilst I am working my story out – this might take three or four drafts whilst I find the true story. However, once I’m happy with the story then I start reading through with a look at cause and effect and signposting etc For me it has to be part pantsing and eventually the pants have to come off – no that sounds rude – the pants have to be pulled up as in the term pulling your socks up.

    • If there’s a prize for the best comment, my vote would go to “…eventually the pants have to come off”. I think you’re quite right, loopyliterature; revision needs to be done with a more serious hat on, and pants off… I mean up…

    • That is absolutely a great comment! I agree with lordscree, haha. I think pantsing has its place in writing just as much as plotting does. It’s a matter of keeping the two separate and using them when needed. I don’t think I could ever not pants a story at some point in its life.

      • This is funny for me because I checking comments at the moment because I feel really tired and am pantsing my Maggoty Motleys and am therefore procrastinating. This wouldn’t be a problem if I hadn’t decided to put a chapter on a week – do the whole pantsing thing on-line. If I was pantsing privately, I would just write and say oh whatever because of the way I feel – pantsing is totally different when doing it to an audience – have you ever done this?

      • Wow, that would be difficult. No, I have never pantsed to an audience–other than comments to blog posts, lol. But, even then I’m kind of obsessive/compulsive with editing and phrasing and voice. I think procrastinating, or even losing interest in a project, has a lot to do with pantsing. If we don’t know where the story is going, and we run into that dreaded writer’s block, then it’s that much harder to push forward with the writing. That still never stopped me from pantsing (because I don’t really get blocked), but I think it makes sense that it would negatively affect a writer.

  17. I am certainly a pantser, though I never heard the term before. Thanks for your insight!

  18. I had not heard of the term before and I’m an Englishman living in the USA. But the essence of the post is clear. Wish understanding my own writing ambitions was as clear!!

    • Hi Paul, glad to know the post made some sense to you. After a while it has begun to befuddle even me. I think this means that while at heart I’m a pantser, I know I must be more structured if I want to finish my books. It’s time for compromise, methinks.

  19. I tend to take a break between drafting and revising. At least 3 months. That allows my mind to switch gears. I approach revision with a much more analytical formal method. Because I’m not creating, I’m looking for plot holes, character inconsistencies. I’m looking for problems within the story. But that’s what works for me. I don’t know how to pantser a revision but that just tells me it’s not the method for me. 🙂

    • Hi Kourtney, yeah I need to be taking that break and stepping away for a lot longer than one week. I used to think that was break enough. Turns out it wasn’t. I also needed to start another project just so I wasn’t so enmeshed with my first one. I think that would have made a difference. I don’t think pantsing a revision is a real thing, actually. I am fairly sure it was my own mistakes that caused it to happen. Because I really wasn’t revising, I was still writing. I just didn’t realize it.

  20. I think part of the reason I’ve spent so long on SORB is because of exactly this. For the longest time I didn’t know exactly what I wanted from the end or middle so I was constantly rewriting. Not editing. By the time I had the structure laid out to a point that I didn’t want to change any more, I was on my fifth ‘draft.’ This time, however, but thinking about the project as a whole, I’ve been able to do a much more effective job on it.
    Yes… I may write by the seat of my pants, but I can’t edit that way.

    • Yes, I’m finding that structure is kind of important when we’re ready to revise our book — or at least, a firm decision on how we’re going to answer the big question we posed in the beginning.


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