Friday, May 18, 2007

Jack Sprat and His Wife

Are you an Underwriter or an Overwriter?

I’m beginning to realize that authors usually fall into one category or the other. Overwriters tend to, well, over-write their books. They pile on unneeded description, write scenes that add nothing to the story, ramble on and on with dialogue that goes nowhere. Their revision process consists of trimming all that fat.

Pat Conroy is an Overwriter. I understand he writes massive tomes, hundreds and hundreds of pages of sparkling prose that frequently wanders all over the place. His editors trim and condense the still-thick books that go to print. Laura Joh Rowland is also an Overwriter. I’ve heard her say her first draft can be as much as a hundred pages longer than her final copy. In the course of her revisions she’ll slash not just scenes, but entire chapters she realizes are unnecessary.

Other authors are Underwriters. Their first drafts are lean, sparse things. Their revision process consists of adding scenes they realize they missed, plus going into existing scenes to lengthen dialogue and enrich description.

I’m an Underwriter. Sometimes I will cut bits and pieces when I'm revising, but rarely. Many writing books tell beginning writers to cut off the first three chapters of their manuscript and start the story there, since so many people begin their books too soon. Not me. I’ve frequently needed to ADD two or three scenes on to the beginning of my manuscripts because I later realize I’ve started the story too late. My romance editor was always making me write epilogues because she said my books ended too abruptly. And even after my own revision process, when I’ve added multiple scenes I realized were missing, my editors always come back asking me to write a few more scenes. I can’t remember ever being asked to delete a scene.

Neither way is right, of course. We each work in our own unique way. But I suspect it helps to know which category you belong to. So, what are you? An Underwriter or an Overwriter?


Chap O'Keefe said...

An underwriter. Fortunately, I'm up to writing novel #20 for a genre series that needs short books only. I would find 100,000 words or more too daunting to contemplate. I don't think I have the ability/staying power for a major project, and I fear it would show in the results.

Shauna Roberts said...

For my nonfiction, I'm an overwriter. Even worse, almost all of the articles I write need to be in the 300- to 800-word range. I sometimes have to cut my articles in half before turning them in.

For my fiction, I seem to be an underwriter. Each succeeding draft gets longer. If I did 50 drafts, as Steve Berry says he does, I'd end up with War and Peace.

Charles Gramlich said...

I realized from Shauna's comment that I'm much like her. I do a lot of 500 or so word articles and I overwrite those and then tend to have to cut pretty drastically. In fiction, though, I'm an underwriter. A lot of my early short stories were only 1500 to 2500 words, and I find myself enjoying writing flash fiction. Of my novels, only Cold in the Light was over 100,000. I tend to add to my drafts as I work on them, and I suspect I'd do the same with non-fiction if I had longer pieces to write to begin with.

cs harris said...

I've realized I do the same thing as Shauna and Charles--overwrite my nonfiction, then kill myself trying to chop it down in size. I wonder why the difference?

cs harris said...

...and Chap, I think you're right, many writers seem to have an inner length "set." I personally would find it hard to write a much shorter novel. That requires a discipline all its own, an ability to craft leanly and clearly.

liz fenwick said...

What is your word length though? I under write:-)

Steve Malley said...

Under. Definitely under.

My first draft, I'm just trying to find out what the hell happens. Often, I'll skip bits without meaning to, or think something's understood that isn't.

It'll seem like I've maybe overwritten, but by the time I take out the wrong turns and sudoku moments, I'm usually left a little too lean...

Emily said...

I used to be an overwriter, but now I'm an exact writer, with an inner length "set," at least for the "Ms. Mentor" columns I write for the Chronicle of Higher Education. (Those are my major writing projects.)

I find that even my first drafts come in at almost exactly 1200 words, which is the assigned length. I suppose it's a kind of internal metronome, and I suspect most newspaper columnists also have it.

This is a very interesting topic, and one I've discussed a bit with a poet friend--wondering how she knows when a poem is "done," since there's no set length except for forms like the sonnet.

I will continue to ponder this.

Emily Toth

P. S. Here's the URL for my Ms. Mentor column:

Charles Gramlich said...

Maybe we overwrite non-fiction because it's fact based and the information is available. We then have to shape it, sort of lke sculpting a piece from a larger mass of stone. Whereas with fiction we have to do more creation of the information, more like building a mosaic than sculpting.

Shauna Roberts said...

I think Charles has a good point. One could write an entire book on the mandibles of the ant Atta colombica alone. Writing 500 words on foraging behavior of social insects requires choosing the five or ten most important and representative facts and theories out of the millions available.

Emily said...

Charles is certainly right with the sculpting metaphor for non-fiction. What trips people up, including dissertation writers, is trying to choose from all the information and avoid what I call The Hoarding Principle: I found it, so I'm gonna use it.

Advice writing, as a branch of non-fiction, can have that problem if there's a lot to say about, say, the structure of academia that causes someone's particular difficulty. But it's not as hard as deciding which facts to use about tne ant mandibles.

Maybe what makes it easier is that with advice writing, there's a specific presumed audience--the person who wrote the query. There are thousands of other readers, but they're lurkers. Only the letter writer's situation really needs to be addressed.

This topic still intrigues me. I am not finished with my cogitations, esp. since I'm writing a column right now.

Emily Toth

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