First of all, let’s just be clear: there should be no negative connotations for being either an Overwriter or an Underwriter. These are not criticisms of style, but rather indications of the starting point of your writing process.
By the end of your process, a reader should not be able to tell if you are an Over- or Underwriter. It is not based on the word count of your finished work and it certainly doesn’t mean that your use of prose is either overdone or under-developed in any way.
It also, in this context, has nothing to do with the signing of legal documentation!
So, what does it mean?
Well, in imitation of Lemony Snicket, an Overwriter here means a person who fills out their first draft with as much detail, and as many words as possible, and spends the majority of their re-drafting process trimming and refining their work. An Underwriter here means the opposite. This person’s first draft will be brief and probably low on descriptions. This person will spend their re-drafting time fleshing out their world and adding to their word count.
If you want to think of it visually, an Overwriter would be like a sculptor working with a block of marble. They will cut away at the excess and chisel in the details until they are left with a masterpiece they are happy with.
An Underwriter, on the other hand, is more like a painter. They start off with broad brush strokes on their canvas that roughly resemble people, or the features of the work they envision; then they start to work in the detail over the broad strokes. As the layers of paint build up, the picture becomes clearer and clearer.
Of course, this is a fairly simplistic analogy and definition, as there will always be a time to add and a time to cut during re-drafting.
As I mentioned above, there should not be any stigma accompanying these two different approaches. They are simply two different mindsets that writers can adopt. In my experience, it is not something that you will necessarily have control over. I highly doubt you will wake up one morning and consciously decide to be one or the other. You will more likely find that as you go, you fall quite naturally into the pattern of either an Overwriter or an Underwriter.
There may even be a third option that hasn’t been thought of yet.
By now, you’re probably asking yourself: why is it even important to know if you’re an Overwriter or Underwriter?
Honestly, in the broad scheme of things, it probably isn’t. It won’t change how you write, and it won’t magically add to your word count or make you suddenly more frugal with your adjectives.
But what it will do is help you understand your own process a little better. And anything that does that can only be a good thing.
There’s also the fact that if you don’t work it out on your own, sooner or later someone else will point it out to you, so you might as well be aware of it upfront.
When I first heard of the distinction, it was like a lightbulb over my head. I suddenly understood a different aspect of my own approach to writing. I also gained insight into my best friend’s process as well. Which explained a lot!
Life as an Underwriter
I can quite honestly say that I am an Underwriter.
If I’m being even more honest, I’d tell you I have actually spent a lot of time feeling intimidated by Overwriters. I marvel at the speed that my Overwriter friends can churn out page after page of engaging content in a relatively short space of time. When I took part in 2017’s NaNoWriMo, I spent a lot of time on Twitter following other people’s progress and using that to fuel my own momentum through November. And I was completely blown away by people who posted REALLY early in November that they had already reached their 50,000 words goal (I’m talking, like, Day 5 early!)
When I was at University, it was drummed into me that it was a bad idea to rely on fleshing out your work, rather than being able to trim it back. At the time, I didn’t think much of this, but I do wonder if I took this to heart a little more than I should have given my own natural tendencies as an Underwriter.
My first drafts will usually cover the main ideas and events of the story I am trying to tell. A lot of the feedback I usually get after a first draft is description, description, description (usually to do with what the characters look like).
And I’m OK with that. As Terry Pratchett once said:
In working on my first novel recently, I have found myself making notes as I go about incorporating more details earlier on that (I hope) will add to the overall flow and pace of the book once it’s done. As I am still working on the first draft, and don’t want to lose the momentum I have, these notes will be like signposts for me when I come to work on the second draft.
Some people may find it daunting coming to the realisation that the manuscript you have been working on for [insert your own heartbreakingly long timescale here] needs more adding into it. I am not one of these people. For me, if I know that a particular scene or section needs something adding to it, it usually that means I know what needs to be added.
After all, if you read something back and realise that your characters jump quite suddenly from point A to point C, you know that you need to make sure they go via point B in the process. Knowing where your characters have come from and where they need to get to should make writing the in-between stuff that much easier.
In theory, at least.
My advice to any Underwriters out there is: don’t be intimidated by the need to insert extra content into your story. Writing is a process, after all, and if your process is to start small and keep building, then that’s what you have to do. In the same breath, though, be wary of the temptation to add content just for the sake of boosting your word count.
At the end of the day, the cohesion of the story should be first and foremost in your mind.
That goes for Overwriters too.
Both types of writers should constantly be asking the question: “Does this add to the overall story?” If the answer is yes, it stays. If not, delete it.
Of course, I say ‘delete it!’ like it’s easy. It’s one thing to get rid of the odd word here and there that has inadvertently been repeated but having to let go of great swathes of dialogue or detailed passages is nothing short of painful. I’m sure any Overwriter would be able to tell you that. But if there is no purpose for those words being there, then they have to go. There is nothing worse than having a Reader come to the end of a passage wondering: “Why did I bother with that?”
So, can we fix Over-/Underwriting?
Well, yes. Initially, we’ll be able to spot over- or underwriting when it comes to the editing and re-drafting stages. People who read your work in order to give feedback will be able to point out what is missing, or what has been over-egged. You job then is to listen to them and do something about it.
As I said above, at the end of the day, when your work is out there in the world, readers shouldn’t be able to tell whether you’re an Overwriter or an Underwriter. They should just be able to lose themselves in the flow of the story.
If they don’t, then one of two things will have happened:
- Either you haven’t received the feedback you needed
- Or you haven’t listened to it
Either way, it is your responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. Be thorough when it comes to choosing a critique partner or editor, and be thorough when it comes to going through their comments.
Hopefully, the more you write and re-draft, the more you will pick up on your own idiosyncrasies, even before they are pointed out to you. When that happens, learn from them. Train yourself to include the details your readers are missing. Train yourself to be wary of over-describing when it isn’t necessary. These are the kinds of lessons and techniques that can only be developed over time and with practice.
So, keep going. Be aware of your own process and improve on it where you can.
Now, you may be reading this as an Overwriter and feeling that maybe I haven’t touched upon some key aspects of your own process. The simple reason for this is that I don’t know what it’s like to be an Overwriter. If it’s something you feel strongly enough about to share, I’d like to invite you to write a Guest Post on the subject.
Just follow the link below for more information on my Guest Post Guidelines.