“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.”Steven King
Writers around the world struggle with one of these in some degree. You can be both an under and overwriter, but my personal opionon is that at points in their novels, everyone is both. Before I begin, I would like to preface with saying that neither being an underwriter or an overwriter is bad, but it is something that hints at an inherent flaw in your writing. Underwriting does not mean you are not meeting a word count. A good writer can convey a good story in 100 pages.
Uunderwriting is when a writer does not add enough to a scene for it to make sense or truly “come to life”. Instead, the writing presents the bare bones of the scene and hardly go deeper.
Overwriting is not writing that surpasses an acceptable word count. I have read books surmounting 800 pages where every word was necessary to convey the story.
Instead, overwriting is when a writer that adds too much to the scene.
In essence, instead of selectivly reading one part of this guide, you should read both. Over and underwriting is not a condition of a writer, but a condition of a scene.
What’s Wrong With Under/Overwriting?
Think of it this way. There are three pieces of meat. One is rare with little to no seasoning. Sure, it’s a piece of meat, but that’s all it really is. The other is a thick and juicy piece with so much flavor that it’s nearly overpowering, making you unable to enjoy it. Finally, the last piece of meat is juicy, flavorful, but balanced. It gives you what you need, but allows you to enjoy it.
Underwriting creates the first piece of meat. Overwriting creates the second. The reader wants the third.
When you have a surplus or lack of details and sensory points in your writing, it blocks the reader from connecting with your piece at an integral level. But don’t feel guilty! Under and overwriting is a pre-existing state of writers. Don’t identify what type of writer you are, but instead, what kind of writing is prevelent in one of your scenes. I can have a scene where I am overwriting and underwriting at the same time in different ways. I can be missing an integral piece of information while overly describing a scene. First, lets start with underwriting.
Underwriting: Diagnosing The Problem
There are a couple main areas where someone underwrites. I will classify them based on their fatality.
- Not describing the physical descriptions of the scene
- Not establishing the setting in neccessary detail, thus leaving readers confused on the setting of the scene
- A failure to describe the emotions of the scene along with the actions.
- Avoiding to add scene connectivity so that the story flows.
- Not establishing which characters are speaking through dialouge tags.
- Not explaining a major system or concept in your story because you do not want to infodump.
- Not explaining your character’s thought processes when making a decision.
- Anything that causes the reader to be confused about what happened
- Character thoughts or personality quirks: this is a huge problem with underwriting. You as the author know your characters on a personal level, but inputting personality quirks, thoughts, belief systems, and style of voice makes a massive difference to readers.
Dissociate: When you are going back and editing your work, dissociate yourself from your work and act as if you are the reader. You know knothing but what the writing is giving you. When you dissociate and ask yourself does this make sense to my reader, or will they need more information? I do this often, and that helps me in parts of my story where I don’t give enough information about a concept or an event.
Take a break between drafts: To dissociate, there requires a level of distance between you and your story. After all, it’s not easy to This is why it is integral to take a break between major edits. If you don’t read with fresh eyes, you will often overlook these flaws and mistakes because to you, it all makes sense. I think a 3 month break is enough. During this period, I advise you to completly stop working on your story. You should still write, but probably not the same story or storyline. Then again, do what works for you.
Revise: Revision is the cure for underwriting. It often takes more work to fix this than overwriting because you’re adding something, you’re changing the expression of the narrative. When you revise, revise hard. Add those essenial details about the magic system or the conflict in that world. Input your characters thoughts and personalities at a deeper level. Assess what’s missing and what’s not. Explain your scene. Include character reactions. Add character dynamics. Develop a distinct voice. Pad up your writing so it’s well seasoned. Add the perfect amount of information with a hint of mystery.
Understand that though info dumps are damaging, getting across essential information is crucial: There are other ways to get across important information without info dumping. If your essential information is grandose, you can put in the prelude so it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the piece. If your character already knows this information, they can refer to it. You can have a character that doesn’t know this information. Or, you can get creative and craft an info-dump in a way that the reader is not overwhelmed, but interested. Here is a greate link on info dumps that you can read after: https://ellenbrockediting.com/2014/07/03/novel-boot-camp-lecture-3-how-to-avoid-info-dumping/
Overwriting: Diagnosing the Problem
Overwriting typically is described when the scene is described excessively with details that don’t need to be there. There are a couple areas where overwriters struggle the most:
- Adding too much descriptors in a scene that don’t advance the purpose: Aka my typical “Daya swiped the weat off her forward and gnawed on her lip.” Riya, cut that. We don’t need all that.
- Adding irrevelent details like your characters birthday or favoirte species of gerbile (if youstory does require this information though, super sorry. There’s probably something else that is a bit excessive though.
- Adding useless details that add nothing too the scene, causing the pace to slow.
- Using long sentences with no break which causes the reader to just keep reading and reading with no end in sight. This is a problem I face a lot, and it is very damaging to the flow of my writing. As you’re reading this section, aren’t you just wishing that I would have some variety in sentence length? Point made.
- Spoiling your own book because you add too many details
- Going overboard on the foreshadowing (signaling Victoria Aveyard who said “never trust anyone” a million times, making it impossible for the reader to trust her “plot-twist character”
- Overwriting so much that you begin to info dump
Overwriting: The Solution
Cut, cut, cut: That;s honestly yhe best advice I can give you for this. That Stephan King quote at the beginning, that’s what you should repeat to yourself when you’re editing. Be ruthless to your writing. Cut out what isn’t needed, even if you believe so. If it doesn’t progress the plot, significantly build the character, or add to the story in a meaninful way, then its gotta go. You decide what makes the cut.
Vary your sentence, paragraph, and chapter lengths: I know this seems irrelevent, but a tell tale sign of overwriting is when the author does not vary their sentence lengths. Obviously, different scenarios determine different necessites when it comes to variation, and there are many exceptions to this.
Don’t mistake ornate writing with overwriting: I love to read poetic prose. When it is beuatifully crafted with all the right words, it just hits different. Orwell wrote this essay about using words that simply don’t fit for the facade of elegance. When you pick words, pick accurate ones, not flashy ones.
Give enough, not too much: Readers are intelligent. Not all details should be given to them. This is where writer’s judgement comes in. What details do your readers need to know to start coming to their own conclusions. What details aren’t important to the story?
When Is The Appropriate Time To Tackle This Problem?
When you write your first draft, focus on writing your first draft. All of this stuff comes during the editing and revising phases of your novel. When you are writing your first draft, don’t care if you are over or underwriting. Just focus on writing. When you get onto your second draft, really focus and tackle this problem,
But Riya, how do I know if I’m underwriting or overwriting.
That’s what beta readers are for.
Beta readers are a God sent tool that I swear improved my writing by a hundred percent. Nothing can compare to the advice and critique you get from them. How do you find them? Great question! My organization, The Young Writers Iniative, has launched a new beta reading service where young writers will be able to get the help they need. Interesed? Check it out here: https://theyoungwritersinitiative.weebly.com/beta-reading.html
I hope you found this helpful
Riya M. Cyriac