Overwriters and Underwriters (and Finding the Balance Between Them)

A few weeks ago, I did a series of posts discussing Planners, Pantsers, and Plantsers. As I was working on those, I started thinking about other categories writers might sort themselves into: Overwriters and Underwriters.

Both terms relate to a writer’s word count (a topic I have some opinions towards and wrote a post about here), but may also relate to more specific things like how much narration or description they might include compared to dialogue for example. It may also be that the story itself is too long or too short, like too many or too few scenes or characters have been included.

This post is all about Overwriters and Underwriters, with some information to help you determine which you are and some tips applicable to both.

Let’s get to it!

Overwriters

Simply put, an Overwriter is the writer who writes too much. Overwriters have a reputation for adding too much extraneous information, like a full history of a character’s past or pages upon pages of worldbuilding. These scenes can sometimes leave readers feeling bored because they do not want to sift through an encyclopedia of exposition about the world’s origins and would rather skip ahead to the part where the story picks up again. 

Underwriters

An Underwriter is the contrast of an Overwriter. Rather than writing too much, an Underwriter writes too little. An Underwriter’s story might be straight and to the point, but this might leave readers wondering about the logistics of a situation because a piece of information has been omitted, or feel like they cannot connect with the protagonist because not enough information about them has been provided.

The Balance Between

While it may be argued that a writer is either an Overwriter or and Underwriter, as is the case with Planners and Panters, I like to think there is a middle ground between the two.

This is where I would place myself.

As I’m editing multiple projects, I’m finding that I tend to be an Underwriter when it comes to scene description and character movements. But I can also an Overwriter, namely in relation to character backstory.

A similar struggle I regularly encounter is the kind of worldbuilding that comes with writing historical fiction. While I’m not exactly building the setting from the ground up in the way that a fantasy or science fiction writer might, but I still need to blend historical details into the everyday lives of my characters. It can feel difficult at times when introducing period-centric terminology relevant to the plot and necessary for the reader’s understanding, such as primogeniture and the expectations and daily activities of and rules for a servant in the case of Guises to Keep or the bookbinding found in Bound to the Heart. While such terms might be new to readers, it’s important to not overwhelm them or make my story read more like a textbook. At the same time, these details are helpful for creating a realistic depiction of the time period.

However, I am also very much an Underwriter. My first drafts are often skeletal and exist with the purpose of creating the foundation to build on to. This is in part because my first drafts are typically written by hand; once I start typing it up, there tends to be more substance.

Some Tips

As mentioned above, one of the Overwriter’s greatest challenges can be determining what stays and what goes when it comes to a story’s elements. They become attached to their “darlings,” such as characters or scenes that they love that may ultimately not serve a greater purpose to the story as a whole, or they might want to include a complete history of the world their characters reside.

Overwriters are often advised to make substantial cuts in editing. When deciding whether or not something is worth keeping, consider its significance. Does it move the plot forwards? Does it impact a character’s individual arc? Does it feel like something a reader might skip over?

Meanwhile, Underwriters are tasked with adding more information and details.

Description is often a pitfall for me. It’s common for me to not include enough of it. In these circumstances, I’ll do my best to put myself in the character’s shoes. What sensations are they experiencing? What are they seeing or feeling? Body language can also help, so I might act out lines of dialogue to get a sense of what gestures I make and certain inflections of my voice, like where my tone changes or I pause.

In either case, I like to think about what information a reader most needs to understand the story. This can relate to the historical context, but also things a reader might need to know about a character’s past or their world. What questions might be raised about how things work or why something has happened? Does the progression of a character’s relationship feel too abrupt? Figuring out where more attention needs to be spent can help you figure out where you can expand on the narrative.

Just like Planners and Pantsers, it is not bad to be an Overwriter or an Underwriter, it just means there is more than one way to approach the writing process. Knowing which you identify as can make things easier in both writing the first draft and editing towards publication.

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