Everybody writes differently.
Generally, authors are divided into two types, with each individual falling somewhere on the spectrum between the two.
First, you have what we call “plotters”, who like to outline everything ahead of time. Plotters make detailed outlines which guide their drafts as they goes along.
Then, you have “pantsers”, who probably have a general idea of what they’re going to write, but they just write it by the seat of their pants. Pantsers just write the story as it becomes clear to them.
Now, these two types are so broad that I don’t know how you could possibly write anything completely outside this classification. You either plan ahead, or you don’t. But let’s get into the meat of what all this really means.
Personally, I count myself among the plotters. When I write something longform, I need an outline guiding me or else I tend to go on wild tangents. Now, some of my best writing comes from wild tangents, but for the sake of an overarching story, we need some structure.
Now, that’s not to say that writing by the pants isn’t useful, even for plotters. When I was writing the first draft of The Wanderer, I wrote it mostly by the seat of my pants. There was a lot of crazy stuff that got written that didn’t end up being viable for the final cut. However, a lot of that crazy stuff still exists in the backstory of the world that I built. Everything I wrote originally is now canon to the world of the book, even though it didn’t make it into the story. At least, that’s what I tell myself to feel better about writing 20,000 words of crap that won’t see the light of day.
But that’s the thing about pantsing. It’s risky. It’s unpredictable. It’s fun. You just allow the story to take the wheel and you don’t know where you’re going to end up. All the details make themselves known to you as you write them. That’s the magical part of writing, and it feels really good when it happens. Everything has a way of resolving itself in the process of putting it on paper.
This is where the two fields collide, in my own experience… When I write an outline, frequently I don’t know all the details. I will have an idea, and some characters, but I won’t know the whole story yet. But yet, as if by magic, it all clarifies as I’m writing it out in shortform. I’ll be going through the events of a particular chapter, and something will materialize in my head as to what happens next. This happened constantly when I was writing the outline for my next book (more details on that one next year). You write out everything you know about a story, and suddenly you find you know more than you did an hour earlier.
Pantsers, in other words, take hold of the magic and ride it like a wave by the seat of their pants. Plotters try to capture the magic and bottle it into an outline for later use. Are you the type of person who likes to ride the wave and see where it takes you, or do you prefer to try and control it? That’s the difference, although doesn’t it necessarily says anything about your personality. Not all plotters are control freaks, and not all pantsers are coked up maniacs like Stephen King. All writers are a little crazy though.
Writing, at its core, is a crazy act. We writers presume to bring our readers with us to worlds which exist only inside our heads. We take our readers by the hand, and we guide them on a journey to a destination we design. We inspire emotions in our readers. We give them hope, and love, and fear. We give our readers memories of adventures they’ll never have for themselves. That’s the gift of writing. Trying to do something like that requires a certain character that some would call crazy. I just call it being a writer.
Whether your a pantser or a plotter, all that matters is that your writing makes people feel something. Writing is meant to convey a message. Even if your fiction has no important themes, and it has no message within the narrative… It still has characters. The experiences of your characters will always convey a message, if they’re believable. The conveyance of that message is our duty and privilege as writers. Remember that.