The first novel writing experience was NaNoWriMo 2014. I had been internally brewing on the plot for 3 years, so come November 1st, I got right to the project. Every day I would do my 1700 words, and every day I was getting closer to 50k words.

But then: I finished my novel. As in, that plot I had planned for years? Was now all wrapped up – and it was far few than 50k words. I was alarmed. How could the story end up so short? Not being one to give up on something, I committed to continue writing 1700 words a day – but it was much slower, going through my novel, adding bits here and there, trying to up the word count so I could declare NaNo victory.

I did it. I did win NaNo 2014. But it was hard work, because it involved discovering I was an underwriter, and working to fix that problem.

What is an underwriter?

We often hear the term ‘overwriter’ – that’s a person who writes too much. Sometimes their prose is called purple. They go into things that don’t matter, bogging their novel down with detail.

An underwriter does the opposite. They write too little, creating text that is sparse on detail. Their novels often are quick and easy to read, but lack the depth you’d expect in a text.

Since NaNo 2014, my writing has improved a lot – not just in terms of underwriting! But there are several things I do to try to prevent underwriting problems, and so I am passing these tips on to you.

1. Give yourself chapter or scene word count goals

Giving your manuscript a big target – like 80k words – is good, but hard for you to check in as you work through your novel. Instead, I go through my manuscript and give myself a set word count goal for every chapter. (Really easy to do in Scrivener!) This way I know how I am going as I work my way through. If I notice that a chapter is only 700 words when I anticipated it would be 1700 words, it suggests I have skimped on some details. Before proceeding in my draft, I’ll go through, and try to fix this deficiency.

2. a. Enlist alpha readers, and

2. b. Listen to them

Unlike beta readers, alpha readers are people who are reading your manuscript ‘warts and all’. The idea of a beta reader is to have you novel close to completion, but alpha readers are those willing to look at a manuscript that may be a bit of a mess.

Once I complete my first draft, I do a quick read through, and then send it to two trusty alpha readers. Once I get their feedback, I listen. I will go through my manuscript closely with their comments. For example, if they were to say, “I felt like I wanted to know Robin a bit better.”, I would then go through every chapter in my manuscript and look for Robin and how they could be better developed, or how I could add Robin into places where they previously weren’t. I repeat this for every bit of feedback given to my alphas.

Once I’ve done that, my manuscript is a lot longer – and improved!

3. Show, don’t tell

The biggest problem underwriters have is they’re inclined to tell situations. They say, “Betty went to the store for bananas before going to work.” That’s telling. Showing is, “Betty rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, then reached for a banana from the fruit bowl. Nothing. She grabbed the bowl and shook it, causing an apple to bounce to the floor. There was no bananas in there. Bob must’ve eaten the last one! She slammed the bowl on the counter. What was she going to have for lunch now? She looked at the clock – she had time. Cursing at Bob, she threw her scarf around her neck, grabbed her keys, and raced out the door. Betty would have to make the detour to the store on the way to work. She glanced at the dash clock, saw the time, gritted her teeth, and skidded out the driveway.”

I could go on and give many more examples of “show, don’t tell”, but you understand the problem that underwriters are facing here.

You should go through your manuscript, carefully looking for tell-y moments. These moments need to be fixed. It’s time consuming, but it will add words to your manuscript – good words, that enhance your writing, and better your manuscript in more ways than length.

4. Accept and embrace underwriting

Sometimes, when an underwriter gets to ‘the end’ of their manuscript, they can feel disappointed because the word count hasn’t ended up as high as they anticipated. Sometimes it can feel like failure.

But in reality, a shorter manuscript has benefits. You are being economical – probably every word you have written has a purpose. When you work with a editor, they’ll find areas for you to expand on, and it’s so much easier to expand than cut. You’ll probably write manuscripts faster, and spend less time editing as an underwriter than an overwriter. So embrace your lean inclinations!

These days I accept that I am an underwriter. My first draft will be short, but that’s okay – it’s easier to edit a lean draft than it is to write one in the first place!

Do you have anymore tips for underwriters?

Further Resources

Shaelin Bishop’s The Fix for Both Underwriters and Overwriters