This is another topic that many writing groups love to discuss in length. I especially enjoy being a fly on the wall and sitting back to observe all the back-and-forth. Many are convinced that their way is the “right” way (Because, you know, people.) but there are also a few like myself who realize the truth of it.
Plotters are writers who sit down and map out their entire story from beginning to end. They may have a one-page outline, they may have twenty pages. They may only outline the entire story, they may do it chapter by chapter. Whatever the exact method, these writers feel the need to have the details planned out ahead of time. Many say that they need a direction, a path in mind, before they start any actual writing on the story itself.
Pantsers are the exact opposite. They merely sit down and start writing. They have nothing set in stone beforehand as far as the plot, though character profiles/notes can be helpful. They claim that the story comes to them as they go and planning ahead doesn’t work for them.
So which method is best? Let’s discuss the pros and cons of both.
Having a direction, a goal in mind can be helpful when you sit down to write a story. If you have an idea of how the story will end and key plot points, it can make it easier to focus on other details of the story, like setting and character development. However, sometimes having every single detail planned out can become troublesome if you end up needing to change something important in the story. Let’s say a vital character needs to die that originally wasn’t supposed to. The writer now has to change many of their notes past that point to account for this change. Sometimes, a bunch of small changes can mean rewriting that outline again and again, rethinking events that they so painstakingly thought through the first time.
Simple though it may seem, plotters can sometimes get pretty irate about any major changes to their outline. Some see it as a set-in-stone list of rules, when the truth is it is merely meant as a guideline. Be flexible, people.
Pantsers have the freedom to write the story as it comes to them. Sometimes they claim that the characters themselves write the stories and can change their minds as they please. This does give them a lot of freedom with the story itself, but that might not always be a good thing. Having no defined end in sight can often lead to boredom with the story. Writers could easily get sidetracked or “blocked.” They may become so wrapped up in their characters and unimportant details that the major plotline is forgotten.
So once again, I have to go with my usual advice of do what works for you. Myself, I do both, depending on the story. Sometimes I completely outline a story and write from there. Sometimes I spend time on an outline, and then lose all interest in writing the story. On occasion I sit and just write whatever comes to me, letting the story develop as my muse allows. In almost every case I have at least a rudimentary list of character notes and perhaps some setting details like town names and locations. How much more depends on the story itself.
There really is no right or wrong way for writers. It’s all on a case-by-case basis. Weigh the pros and cons, give both ways a shot, and see which method works best for you.