Underwrite and Overwrite

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The piece of work has to be proportionate to its drama, to its suggestiveness, to its ideas. There’s a power that can sometimes be gained by taking things out. But more often than not, to tell you the truth, I find myself telling my students that they’ve underwritten. There will be specific scenes that will be overwritten. But more often than not, the story itself is underwritten. The characters haven’t been given enough room to grow. The whole line of events hasn’t been made clear. Later on, when that’s out there, then you kind of find things within the sentences and within the scenes to cut down.

For a young writer, the best thing to do is get it out. I certainly have to. I have to write at length before I can write in brief. I have to see what the terrain is before I single out that telling moment, that telling detail and cut away the others. But I have to write the others to get to that one. So you don’t want to start off in a stingy way when you write. You want to be extravagant. You know you’re going to rewrite anyway, so what the hell? Pump it out, see what comes. And be free in your composition. You can be an editor later. But you don’t want to be an editor and a writer at the same time, when you’re doing that first draft. I think that’s a mistake.

A lot of writing is an acquired schizophrenia. You have to really allow yourself to be a kind of egomaniac when you first start a story or a piece of work. Everything you write has to seem good to you and just get it out. Let it inspire you to the next sentence and the next scene and the next character. And in that way, you discover what your story is. But if you’re looking over your own shoulder all the time, crossing every other sentence out, and holding every other word up to the light as you’re composing, that can lead you to become kind of constipated as a writer. Later on, you have to look at your work with a very cold eye, as if you were editing someone else’s. But in that first blush, why not enjoy it?

Tobias Wolff

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