Understanding the Edit-As-You-Go Writing Method

The world of writers is made up of ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers,’ each of these groups using a different method to get to the same goal of having a finished work of fiction.

‘Plotters’ are writers who use outlines. Some plotters write long, detailed formal outlines, and others make do with much shorter outlines. Plotters transfer the excitement of discovering their new story from the first-draft stage to the outlining stage.

Subsets of the ‘plotters’ include those who use the Snowflake Method and Plot Gardening to come up with their outline.

My problem, when trying to be a plotter, was that once I’d finished the enormous goal of writing an outline, I was done with the story. The outline made it feel too flat and lifeless to actually write.

‘Pantsers’ are writers who just sit down and write the ideas in their head without an outline to get in the way. Pantsing is looked down upon by some how-to-write authors— there is even one book called ‘Pull Up Your Pants,’ which I assume encourages pantsers to become plotters.

But since writers like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin are pantsers, using that method doesn’t have to be death to your writing career.

I don’t know how much the average successful pantser has in his head about the contents of a chapter when he sits down to write it. Probably it’s different for different writers. Many of the ideas come during the process of writing.

My problem when trying to be a pantser is that I end up with a lot of chapters that don’t match each other. The mess gets bigger the more chapters I accumulate. Is it any wonder that I prefer to write short poems, which can at least be contained in my head and don’t have to match anything?

The answer to that problem is a subset of pantsing called ‘Edit-As-You-Go’ writing. In the book ‘Fiction Writing for Dummies’ by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, pages 62-64 are dedicated to Edit-As-You-Go writing, and the book states that Dean Koontz uses that method.

I looked up an article on the Great God Internet: ‘Edit As You Go And Why You Must Try’ by Ryan J. Pelton. He says that Edit-As-You-Go is what writers Lee Child, Stephen King, Dean Wesley Smith, and Elmore Leonard do.

How EAYG works is that you write a chapter or three as a pantser— no outline to bind you, no editing, just see where your story is taking you. And then you go back and start to edit-as-you-go.

If you have already written chapter two or chapter three before you go back to EAYG chapter one, you can make the adjustments that your later chapters demand. Perhaps you have created a minor character in the later chapters who needs to exist in chapter one, or at least be mentioned. Maybe later still in the story you will have to go back to your earliest chapters to add characters or plot elements, or merge a couple of minor characters into one.

The reward for using EAYG is that you don’t end up with a wild, meandering first draft that needs more editing effort than you can supply. When you write ‘The End’ it is really the end, or close to it, not the beginning of 6 months to two years of rewriting hell.

This is how it is working for me. I had written a bunch of chapters and chapter-fragments for my current WIP (which is nameless.) Some of these don’t even have the same Lead character! These chapters are set in 2 different fantasy kingdoms (which border on each other.) After a few chapters, I had worked out that the Lead is a girl from Kingdom 1 who escapes to Kingdom 2 to get beyond the reach of a King that has evil intentions towards the girl’s family, who are noted for their skill in working with dragons.

I chose a chapter that seemed like it could become a fully functional first chapter. After finishing it, I began rewriting. I had to correct some mistakes, like failing to mention that a viewpoint character was a dwarf, and using Lord Zeeman’s name without having bothered to introduce him to the other characters or the reader.

I am also going ahead and ‘pantsing’ the successor chapter, which is in a different setting and introduces the Lead character’s father just as he is imprisoned by the tyrant king. This will replace a partial chapter I wrote earlier in the process, when I was still discovering the story.

I think EAYG will work out for me, as I learn more about doing it. It’s clear that the other methods I’ve tried don’t work out that well for me as an individual writer. I don’t say that what works for me is what will work for you. You have your own brain and your own natural working methods. Maybe you love outlining and feel that makes you a better writer. I’m not saying, don’t do it. I’m saying, if it doesn’t work for you, here is another method to try.

Some Books (NOT affiliate links, alas):

The Snowflake Method: Writing Fiction for Dummies by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy

The Plot Gardening Method: Plot Gardening by Chris Fox

The Article:

Edit As You Go and Why You Should Try by Ryan J. Pelton