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Underwriting Versus Overwriting: Just Write

Screen Shot 2014-05-24 at 1.32.36 PM [1]
Photo by Trey Ratcliff

Today we’re thrilled to have Sarah McCoy [2] join us. She’s the New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of the novels The Baker’s Daughter, a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Nominee; The Time It Snowed in Puerto RicoGrand Central (Penguin, July 2014); and The Mapmaker’s Children (Crown, May 2015). Her work has been featured in Real SimpleThe MillionsYour Healthy MoneyHuffington Post, and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas El Paso. She currently lives with her husband and dog, Gilly, in El Paso, Texas.

Tatiana de Rosnay, international bestselling author of Sarah’s Key, has this to say about The Baker’s Daughter:

A beautiful, heart-breaking gem of a novel written just the way I like them, with the past coming back to haunt the present, endearing heroines and a sunny, hopeful ending. You’ll wolf it up in one delicious gulp.


Connect with Sarah on Facebook [3], Twitter [4], and check out her book’s trailer [5].

Underwriting Versus Overwriting: Just Write.

“Most writing is done between the mind and the hand, not between the hand and the page,” says Janet Burroway in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.

Yes, yes, of course we all agree, but between the mind and hand on the journey to the page, it’s been my experience that the writing can decide to take the long road or the shortcut: overwritten or underwritten. Is one better than the other, and if so, which?

That’s the question I’ve been pondering in my first drafts over the last many years. Since Janet Burroway is one of my most trusted writing guides, I often pull out my old graduate school copy of Writing Fiction and search the chapters for gospel answers. Sometimes you simply want someone to say, this is the right (a.k.a. easy, efficient, most masterful) way; this is the wrong (a.k.a. hard, bungling, numbskull) way. So that we, authors in the swamplands of drafting a story, can easily recognize the path of righteousness. Unfortunately, as with a majority of life’s lessons, there is no absolute. Oy.

I’m here to give my testimony of trying it both ways. We’ll use my most recent two books as our guinea pigs:

The Case for UNDER

For my 2012 release, The Baker’s Daughter [6], I underwrote. In my journal, I sketched out the bare bones of the novel. The major plot events or character information discoveries were the chapter breaks. Sometimes these weren’t even fully formed narrative actions—just a dialogue line or two spoken by the character. A jumping off point for the chapter. I mapped it out beginning, middle, end, then sat down at my laptop, fingers ready to dance apace. A good seventy-five percent of that journal outline didn’t go as planned. I didn’t force it. The book took on a life of its own. I let it. Novel’s prerogative. I’m just the author. The hand in Burroway’s mind-hand-page quote. It took me nine months to get the story on the page.

Then, in the revision process, my editor asked me to go through the entire manuscript and fill it out with more lush details, like in my first novel The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico [7]. She was referencing all the dripping descriptions I’d garnished on that. She said she’d rather have too much to begin with versus too little.

I was flummoxed at her request. It was a writing workshop whipping post I’d often been strapped to: overwriting is bad; overwriting will make your prose read infantile. Do the Hemingway— iceberg, iceberg, iceberg. I’d spent years picking adjectives, adverbs, similes, and metaphors out of my stories like ticks from a monkey’s head. Then suddenly told to fill ‘er up?

I am a notorious rule follower. During childhood, you gave me a rule, and I considered it added to the bottom of the Ten Commandments. Moses carried. Etched in stone. I’m coming out of blind obedience as I grow older ,but the inkling to stick to what I was taught is hard to dispel. It’s like the first time I realized the elementary rule against starting a sentence with a conjunction was bunk. It turned my world topsy-turvy. (Yes, I am a word nerd.)

So I went back into The Baker’s Daughter and allowed myself to gush, basically. I loved every hedonistic minute, but it took time… months and months of reworking and revising. My editor’s words reverberating: better too much than too little. Better overwritten than under.

The Case for OVER

Jump to my next novel: The Mapmaker’s Children (forthcoming from Crown, May 2015).  After years of historical research, it took me fifteen months of daily mind-hand-page typing to finish the first draft. I used the “everything I got plus the kitchen sink” overwriting approach. A massive 200,000-word result.

To keep myself laughing and not sobbing, I called it my Holy Moby Whale book around the house. My husband couldn’t even look at the document pagination without his eyes bulging. I sent it to my literary agent and team who loved it but all agreed: too long. Far, far, way, way, much, much, too long.

My amazing publishing editor said the same, but I wasn’t too worried—wasn’t this what had been requested of me for the last book—too much? So in a twisted, bizarre way, I patted myself on the back. This quickly turned into self-scourging as we began revisions, painstakingly carving the story from the mountain I’d birthed forth.

It took longer than filling out. It was harder than fluffing up. It was insomniac hours of sweat, tears and muscle.  Not the fairy-peppering of scrumptious details as I’d done to The Baker’s Daughter. It hurt—to cut material. To cut whole chapters. To cut characters. To rewrite hundreds of pages for brevity and narrative crispness.

Even now, this very hour, my mind-hand feels every molecular life beat in that book. I know every curve of its narrative face, every sharp edge of chapter, every fluctuation of pigment in its story spectrum. I know the characters like I know my own family. They are blood—my blood now.

Of course, authors feel a similar connection to all our books. We give a part of ourselves to them. We toil and create, curse and give thanks then toil to create again and again. We mind-hand across the page in similar fashion and yet, each time involves a different expedition with distinctive challenges.

Which did I prefer? Which is better? I can’t say either. They were what the writing needed them to be to produce the best book.  What I’ve learned is to stop trying to press my writing into a formulaic recipe. It’s never going to be “just right” that way. The answer is as varied as life, as varied as the stories we tell, and that’s exactly what makes our business exciting. It’s what compels our minds and hands back to the page no matter how weary we think they may be.

Seeking encouragement, I asked a handful of author friends and found that they echoed my suspicions. While the paths might vary, the message is pretty clear: underwrite or overwrite, right or wrong, for better or worse, just write.


I unintentionally TRY to overwrite, followed by endless tweaking to eliminate superfluous words and passages and upgrade language. I also try at that point to deepen content, so succeeding drafts rarely wind up shorter. My first drafts are painful to write, but once a draft is “complete,” I begin to have fun with writing. Not until a chapter is fairly well nailed down do I move on to the next one. ~Sally Koslow [8], author of The Widow Waltz (@sallykoslow) 

I am a chronic underwriter.  I tend to have minimalist sentences anyway, and as a short story writer I’ve been taught to be economical and trust my reader to the maximum degree—so with my novel I’m learning to dwell more, expand, and for me this has resulted in going back and adding more detail and connective tissue. ~Megan Mayhew Bergman [9], author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise (@mayhewbergman)

I start with a full first draft, praying I won’t need to do much editing. I read through and edit myself once when it’s done, and then my editor usually makes me rewrite at least half the book, plus go through three to five big edits. With Family Pictures I had to throw half the book away which was terrifying, and I didn’t know what I was going to write instead. Now that I have a truly wonderful editor, it has taught me how rewarding the collaborative experience can be, and my writing is the best it has been in years as a result. ~Jane Green [10], author of Tempting Fate (@JaneGreen)

Although I suspect and fear that many passages of my first drafts are likely overwritten, I do try to get the bare bones of the story on paper first. Once there is something to work with, I return to focus on the prose and play with language. I typically don’t share a draft with anyone until I’ve gone through at least three drafts and have had a chance to sketch out the skeletal, focus on the prose, and then pare down that language. For me, the overwriting probably comes in draft two.  ~Elizabeth Silver [11], author of The Execution of Noah P. Singleton. (@ElizLSilver)

I tried the bare bones approach for a brief time, but it doesn’t work for me. Diving in deep (even if half of it will be sent to the home-for-unread-chapters) is my comfort zone. The more I emotionally drill down in the first few drafts, the more I can concentrate on polishing and getting rid of the awful parts in subsequent drafts. ~Randy Susan Meyers [12], author of The Comfort of Lies (@randysusanmeyer).

I am definitely an underwriter. I tend to plan the story out before I begin the draft. I don’t usually call that phase an outline because it is not at all rigid. It’s more like a map for the story with pieces that can move around, stretch to expand, or contract if they become less important. So as I am writing the draft, I know sort of where I’m headed. I like to move quickly to get down the framework, then come back and develop the prose, the level of detail, the gesture and tone. ~Kelly O’Connor McNees [13], author of The Island of Doves

For a book, since it’s such a massive project, it’s more of a Pollack approach—hence the overwriting. I know basically where I’m going, thanks to my outline. But I stand back and look at the damned thing and try to decide where to start—i.e., what scene to plug into first. Inevitably, as I write my way into the book in kind of a mosaic way, the outline shifts and changes … The good news is, when writing is gratifying, it is GRATIFYING, however you get there. ~Jenna Blum [14], author of The Stormchasers (@Jenna_Blum)

I guess I do both. When I write a first draft, I throw in every character, scene, idea, magical entity, preposterous rule, and voice I can think of, however I do not bother with explaining anything or filling in the scenes with “connective tissue” to use the skeleton metaphor. I do write bare bones, but I use way too many bones for any functional skeleton. In the next pass I generally get rid of some extra bones, but it’s not until I’ve had a reader look at the manuscript and give me a “What the hell, Netzer?” that I ever seem to see the sense in filling in the “flesh.” ~Lydia Netzer [15], author of Shine, Shine, Shine (@lostcheerio)

I feel like I do both simultaneously, if that’s possible. I say what I want to say, and if I go on a bender with an idea, I let it run out because I can always scale it back later, but the important thing is the thought, the spark, the inspiration. You can always fix writing later, but you can’t fix lack of that core energy, lack of heart. It feels sometimes like I move through a first draft like a dust storm, cycling forward and back, fixing somewhat as I go, and sometimes stopping altogether to clean up the mess I’ve made before the next storm cycles up. ~Nichole Bernier [16], author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D (@NicholeBernier).

Your turn.

Have something to add? The floor is yours.

About Sarah McCoy [18]

SARAH McCOY is the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children [19]; The Baker’s Daughter [20], a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central [21]; and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico [22]. Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post [23] and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an orthopedic sports doctor, and their dog, Gilly, in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with Sarah on Twitter [4] at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page [3], Goodreads [24], or via her website, www.sarahmccoy.com [25].