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Friends Don't Let Friends Overwrite*


Profound? or not so much.

A few months ago Miss Snark's First Victim had (former) agent Nathan Bransford participate in one of her Secret Agent contests.  If you're not familiar with the site, I suggest you go check it out.  For those contests, she has people submit a snippet of their opening (250 words I believe), then she posts them for everyone to comment on, including a secret agent.  Then after everything has been commented on, the agent is revealed and he or she picks a winner--often requesting pages.

So anyway, as I was reading through Mr. Bransford's comments, I saw a recurring theme in his feedback.   On almost every other post it seemed, he was pointing out overwriting.  In some of those instances, I could see it, in others I would have never picked up on it had he not pointed it out.  So, it was really helpful to read through the posts.  Then, of course, I became paranoid--am I overwriting?

Even though I'm wordy in a lot of things (including these posts), I tend to have the opposite problem and underwrite in my stories.  I struggle sometimes with painting the scene or describing details because I want to jump right into the action or dialogue, forgetting that I need to let the reader know enough to ground them in the scene.  But when I looked through my chapters, I still had moments where I got a little heavy handed on the wordage and needed to dial back.

So how do you spot overwriting?
  • Too many adjectives and adverbs.
We already know adverbs are our nemesis, but dumping in tons of adjectives is a problem as well.  Do not put in three adjectives when one will do just fine.
  • Using fancy words when a simple one will do.
A lot of us can fall into this trap because most of us are vocabulary nerds.  We enjoyed studying for the SAT because learning new and interesting words is awesome.  That's why it's so hard to just use said when we could use pontificated.  However, those words are distracting and pull your reader out of the story.  If the simple word works, go with that one.
  • Describing things as if you were a set designer
Long passages describing every detail of the room, setting, or what a person looks like/is wearing, etc. drive me nuts.  I skim these.  Tell me the pertinent details to give my imagination the building blocks to create the picture, then leave me to it.  If you show me the ratty couch with holes in it, I'm good.  I don't also need to know the pattern on the throw pillows.
  • Simile and metaphor overload
A well-placed simile or metaphor can be a beautiful thing.  A whole butt load of them littered all over the page, not so much.  Let a brilliant metaphor or simile stand out on its own by not cluttering the sentences around it with more of the same.  I recently read a book that overused similes so much that I actually stopped reading it--it was completely distracting.
  • Redundancy
This can happen within a sentence (ex. the young four-year old) or can be repeating information you've already told us (telling us the hero's eyes are blue every time you mention his eyes or describing the same house every time the heroine goes there.)
  • Navel-gazing characters
Introspection is good, we want to know what's going on with the character.  But passages and passages of navel-gazing will slow down your pace and earn eye rolls.   Sprinkle the introspection in with action.
  • Trying too hard
The easiest way to find overwriting is to look for those places where you thought you sounded "like a writer." Think of American Idol when Simon Cowell tells the contestant the performance was indulgent.  Those are the performances where the person chose a song and gave a performance that they thought made them look "like a singer" instead of singing something that fit their voice and style. 

Alright, hope that helps.  Most editor articles I've read say that almost every manuscript can be cut by 10%, so get to trimming!  :)

So are you guilty of overwriting?  Do you ever have those moments where you think you've just written something very "writerly"?  Which of these drives you crazy when you find them in books?

Hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving!
*Today's Theme Song**
"Truly Madly Deeply" - Savage Garden
(player in sidebar--go ahead, take a listen)
*This is a repost from March 2010


Reader Comments (21)

Great post! I've been guilty of overwriting. I think most writers have. I don't believe, however, that a writer can simply read and follow rules and overcome the problem. For me, at least, the solution came about more by reading a lot of excellent fiction and writing, writing, writing, writing.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Davidson Argyle

Great post! I can often tell when I'm over-writing (most currently in my query) because I hear the movie voice-over guy in my head when I read it back to myself.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTracy

Great post! Simplicity is the key to good writing. If can aim for subtlety, we can bring a whole new level of depth to our stories.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterK.M. Weiland

Yes, I think that I would be guilty of overwriting and then going back and having to tighten things up.

I just go with the flow and whatever comes out is what I get until I meet my inner editor for lunch and then we eat up all the extra words.:)

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRegina

This is a great list. Really important. Critique groups can often encourage over-writing by making oohs and aahhs over gorgeous, writerly passages and clever similes, but they're not doing the writer any favors.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne R. Allen

Guilty! I've been working to dial back my manuscript this month. This is a terrific list to use for editing. Thanks so much. Super helpful.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPerri

I'm definitely guilty of this. Often my manuscript is covered in red during the first editing stage because of it! This is a great list of things to check for by the way. I'm going to use it next time!

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Great post Roni! It's something I'm much more aware of lately.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSteena Holmes

Every time i say I have not overwritten I read it outloud and smack my head

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJoanna St. James

I like to think I am an "underwriter" because I am not really comfortable with alot of description: "Curly blond hair" sounds WAY better to me than "spiralling locks of golden fleece", but I think I might be guilty of the rest of it.

Thanks for this post, it's a keeper!

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTeri Anne Stanley

I am paranoid about overwriting. So, if I'm doing some passage that's beyond simple -- I mostly try to keep it simple, a la Elmore Leonard -- I really look it over. Still, it's helpful even then to have several other sets of eyes look it over, too.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravener

Great post! I am guilty of this and of letting that writer's voice take over. Now I know what to look out for. Thanks!

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterE. Arroyo

Wonderful post. I was just reading about this earlier today in another book about writing fiction. Cathleen Schine, author of "The New Yorkers," wrote about this in an interview. She advised writers to sprinkle sparkly prose throughout the book, but to limit it to about one sentence per page. I try to be Ernest-like for the majority of my writing and then work on the "sparklies" later.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeather Hawkinson

This was an excellent refresher! I keep forgetting to watch for redundancy. Grr.

November 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOddyoddyo13

I always over-write in the first (and maybe second, possibly third drafts) but then by the time I finish with the book I'm so sick of the purple, I take it out during revisions. I think.

Happy Thanksgiving.

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Gallagher

I overwrote, then cut cut cut and underwrote. Yes, I cut out some of the richness. I'm putting it back in now, but not in any of the ways you've mentioned above.

It's all a matter of balance -oooh, I feel a topic for a blog post coming on!

I've just put a revised ch1 for lethal Inheritance on my blogsite and I like it so much better than the over cut version I had before.

It's also better than the overwritten version I had before that. Oh the journey is such fun, isn't it?

November 25, 2010 | Unregistered

Great post. I'm revising now, will definitely take it on board :)


November 27, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRachael Harrie

Great post and advice. I sometimes think I underwrite, too. I don't put enough description into my stories!

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEllie

Brilliant post thank you. I'm just off to scrub out those introspection scenes!

November 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJenny Beattie

Excellent, useful post. I hate overwritten description, especially of characters or countryside. I also hate it when an author describes a character a little, I picture them a certain way in my head, then two chapters later they add an extra thing like 'Tom had a moustache' and now the picture in my head is all confused...

November 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGirl Friday

These are great tips!!! :D

December 13, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlbdiamond

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