A couple weeks ago I discussed the concept of overwriting, the use of needless words in your writing. Having known about overwriting for years, it seemed like basic stuff to me. So I was stunned by how many of you told me you’d never thought about it before. I was even more stunned when I asked Twitter what to blog about today and RedParrot told me she’d like me to talk more about overwriting.
My goal has always been to help you become better writers, and since there’s high demand for advice on this topic, I thought I’d discuss a few more examples of overwriting to give you a better feel for it.
Last time we discussed overwriting I gave you a handful of specific words/details that can be left out of your work. Today I’m going to show you how to cut overwriting by showing the editing process I’ve used on one of my own stories.
To do this, I’ve grabbed the first paragraph from one of my currently-in-editing stories, Brothers.
When my father sent my thirteen-year-old brother to live with the Byrnes, I was jealous. I’d only ever been allowed out of the city twice, both times with my parents and a hundred armed guards to attend a wedding. Of course they were training Andre to be a Noble Slayer—the elites of our army, whose job is to kill the undead—while they taught me to be a king, but back then, I would’ve done anything to switch places. At least a Slayer had some freedom. They could walk down the hall, even out of the castle, without anybody watching.
When my father sent my thirteen-year-old brother to live with the Byrnes, I was jealous. I’d only ever been outside Moon Spire twice, both times with my parents and their guards to attend a wedding. They were training Andre to be a Noble Slayer—the elites of our army—while they taught me to be a king, but back then, I would’ve done anything to switch places. At least a Slayer had freedom. They could leave the castle without anybody watching.
You’ll notice that the original paragraph is five lines, whereas the edited paragraph is four. How did I achieve this? When I could turn two words into one–such as turning ‘out of’ into ‘outside’–I did so. By removing the word ‘some’ from the second last sentence, not only did I shorten the sentence, but I made it stronger. Too many words weakens the sentence and distracts the reader from the point you’re trying to make.
I also took out some of the details because they’re not important to the story. This story has little to do with the Slayers, so it’s not necessary for the reader to know that they battle undead. When Jacob says he was jealous of Slayers for their freedom, saying they could leave the castle without anybody watching is enough. We don’t need any more details to know how constricted Jacob feels within the life he’s been given as heir to the kingdom.
If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that not all my changes shorten the work. In the second sentence I traded “the city” in for “Moon Spire”, which is still two words. Why did I do this? Because “Moon Spire” is more specific. It gives you a better idea of where you are–a specific city rather than just any city–and doesn’t use any extra words. Being specific gives your readers a better feel for your setting and characters, and is more important than shortening your sentences.
Applying this to your own work
To eliminate overwriting from your manuscript, start by looking for places where two words can be shortened to one. This includes contractions, but it also includes things like changing ‘next to’ into ‘beside’.
Once you’ve found all the places where you can turn two words into one, start looking for extra words and phrases. Words like just, very, some, and most words that end in -ly can be cut from your manuscript to make it stronger. Remove these from your manuscript whenever possible. Keep them only when removing them alters the sentence beyond recognition.
Even after you’re familiar with the concept of overwriting and you’ve ruthlessly cut unnecessary words and phrases out of a dozen manuscript, you’ll find that you still end up overwriting. That’s fine. Everyone does it. No writer is perfect, and that’s why nobody should ever send out a first draft. Your job is not to make sure everything’s perfect–it’s to make sure that you only send out the best possible work.
Where have you found instances of overwriting in your work?