On Overwriting

DSC_0313_editI don’t often discuss the technical side of writing in depth, but after reading the self-published works that inspired last Monday’s post, I’ve decided to discuss the biggest problem I’ve seen in these novels: overwriting.

What is overwriting? There are two ways authors overwrite: with excessive details, and with particularly wordy phrasing. Even a perfectly spelled piece with flawless grammar can be made frustrating if the author overwrites them. It makes a book frustrating to read and in today’s fast paced society, most readers will walk away. I’m particularly forgiving of this if the story captivates me, but enough of it will make even me gash my teeth.

So today I’d like to discuss some of the things that can–and should–be cut from your writing whenever possible to make it easy reading.

Let’s start with the details:

1. Characters brushing their teeth. Or combing their hair, or getting dressed in the morning. These things should only be included if they’re used to add depth or move the story forward. For instance, if your character notices a giant bruise developing on their face while they’re brushing their teeth in the morning, that’s a good use of the scene. In fantasy settings, often the nobles have servants to dress them, and these scenes can be used for gossip with the servants to great effect. George R. R. Martin uses this technique often to pass information between characters.

2. Details of your setting that don’t matter to the plot. Festivals, events, street names and other details of your setting should only be mentioned if they’re important to your story. If you’ve spent hours creating your location or done months of research it can be tempting to include all the details, but that will bog the story down. Include only what is necessary to the plot. People don’t pick up a novel expecting a detailed tour of the city or town in question. They want a story, not a tourist guide. Some detail helps them enjoy the story. Too much irritates even the most patient reader.

3. Most flashbacks. There’s often a more efficient way to mention past events, and flashbacks should only be used when absolutely necessary. Unless you’re doing a story intentionally that starts at the end and shows you how the character got there, the best way to give readers a feel for the important parts of your character’s past is to mention them briefly and then expand on them bit by bit later. Make it a gradual thing rather than a flashback or a long winded explanation, and you’ll keep the reader’s interest more easily.

And some words that can almost always be left out:

1. Just. It seems like an innocent word, but while it doesn’t ruin your grammar, it’s often redundant. Think about these sentences:

He was just a little bit taller than me.
She lived just around the corner from the scene of the crime.

In both sentences just is grammatically correct, but does it need to be there? Consider these sentences:

He was a little bit taller than me.
She lived around the corner from the scene of the crime.

The sentences are now a little bit stronger and shorter without having changed meaning. Getting rid of ‘just’ might not seem like a big deal, but once they’re gone, you’ll see a big difference.

2. Then. This is one I’ve been ripping mercilessly from my manuscripts. Sure, there are occasions where it’s essential, but often it’s unnecessary, particularly when used after the word ‘and’. Consider these sentences:

And then she kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and then held it in front of her defensively.

Now look at these:

She kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and held it in front of her defensively.

Which sentences do you think are stronger? In the end, ‘then’ is just another word bogging down your work. Cut it whenever you can, especially when you see it after ‘and’.

3. Very. This is another unnecessary word. Take a look at these sentences:

The mansion was very big.
She was very angry.

Now consider these:

The mansion was massive.
She was furious.

By eliminating very and using stronger words, I’ve made these sentences shorter and more visual. Look for this word in your work and delete it whenever possible. Be ruthless. There’s almost always a better way to emphasize something than using the word ‘very’.

Exercise: Pull out a story/project you haven’t looked at a while and a highlighter. Highlight every excessive detail and every instance of just or very that you see within the first three pages. Count them, and then find ways to get rid of them. Remember that overwriting doesn’t make you a bad writer–almost all of us do it in our first few drafts. Editing may be painful, but it gives your work the best chance possible for success.

Just for fun, post how many instances of overwriting you found in your first three pages. For each reader who does, I’ll look through one of my old projects and count the instances of overwriting. Let’s compare numbers!

9 thoughts on “On Overwriting

  1. I’m totally guilty of overwriting. I set daily word counts for myself and I often find myself overwriting just to make word count. In editing my novel, though, I’m learning it’s better to write more concisely. The world won’t end if I don’t hit my 1,000 words for the day. It’s better to write 400 words that don’t need to have the life edited out of them than 1,000 words that completely suck or are just filler.

    • Hi Brianna,

      Word count goals definitely can lead to overwriting–particularly during Nanowrimo as mentioned by RedParrot above. That said, I still find them incredibly useful when I’m working on the first draft of a novel, but that’s partially because I go into it expecting that I’ll have to start over from scratch for the second draft. That’s my process, but it’s different for everyone.

      It’s also interesting to note that when it comes to non-fiction or even short stories, I find word count goals much less useful. When I’m writing one of these projects, I spend more time tinkering with it and the focus is less about just getting everything on the page. So I think it’s important to analyze what your goals are for each project and think about how much time you’re willing to spend editing each one.

      Thanks for stopping by,
      ~Dianna

      • Brianna Soloski

        I overwrite during NaNo every year. I don’t write much non-fiction, but what little I have written, I don’t worry about word count. Interesting how that works.

        • Brianna,

          I think everyone does that during Nano 🙂 I tend to worry less about word count with non-fiction too–the focus is more on making sure I get the information across than making sure I reach a certain word count.

          ~Dianna

  2. Greetings!
    Such a great post! I never really understood what overwriting was until you explained it. I’m guilty of some of the word choices for sure. Nano also is an encouragement of word production but I think the point is that it doesn’t all need to go into the final product.

    For sure, this is one of my favourite posts of yours. 😀

    I have just finished a nano-length fanfic and should try doing your edit test on it!

    Hope you are well … aways reading if not always commenting. As ever, keep up the great work!

    cheers!
    RP

    • Hi RP,

      I’m glad you liked this post. I’ve known about overwriting for so long I never realized that others might not–until I started reading self published books that had amazing plots but were horribly overwritten. I don’t particularly like talking about the technical side of writing because I don’t usually need to focus on it, but I’m dedicated to helping my readers make their work the best it can be, so I’m thinking I’ll focus a little more on the technical side this year.

      It’s also important to remember that overwriting is fine in a first draft–especially in a Nano draft–but it doesn’t belong in the finished product. Don’t get down on yourself for overwriting. Just work to get rid of it.

      Congratulations on completing your fanfic, if you do try this test let me know how it goes.

      Thanks for stopping by,
      ~Dianna

  3. It took me a long time to stop overwriting – at least in my fiction. My academic essays are a different matter. One of the problems, for me, of overwriting had to do with my early influences, mostly 19th and 20th century European fiction. I had to make a very conscious choice to give up early influences and find a style of writing that was my own. One of the ways that I did that was by imagining someone else speaking. In the novel I recently self-published, the character speaks in a particular way, and I think it’s unique.

    • Hi Akajoshua,

      I think everyone’s guilty of overwriting at some point, and some of us never truly overcome it–we just learn to edit that stuff out later. It should also be noted that a hundred years ago the literary style was very different. What worked then doesn’t work now, such as Tolkien’s epic poetry and detailed world/cultures/languages. Our society has become more fast paced, and now people want more fast paced books. The days when people read a chapter and then go to sleep are mostly over. Now if someone puts down your book, they’re much less likely to ever finish it.

      Imagining hearing someone else speaking is an interesting technique I’ve actually never tried. I’ll have to give it a shot next time I start a story project.

      Thanks for stopping by,
      ~Dianna

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