writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Signs of Overwriting

One of the most frequent mistakes I come across as I read works by struggling writers of fiction, particularly those at the beginning of their careers, is overwriting. It’s a trap. And it’s been known to catch even the most seasoned writer, if they aren’t careful. Every writer needs to be aware of the signs, but beginners especially need to be extra cautious.

What, exactly, is overwriting? It’s difficult to distill into a concise definition because so much of it is a matter of art, but a rule of thumb is: overwriting constitutes too much of a good thing. Or what we think is a good thing.

The problem is that when we decide to try and learn this art of writing, we think, naturally, that in order to do so we need to be WRITERS. We have a way with words. Our family tells us this; our teachers tell us this; our friends tell us this; so we try to become WRITERS. Writers are poetic and profound and eloquent. Thus we try to be eloquent and overwrite.

An example. The king and queen are having a disagreement:

The queen entered the room, wearing a gown of the finest silk dyed royal scarlet hanging in graceful folds along the fertile curves of her body. Embroidery of gold thread decorated the hem and sleeves. The flash of gold, rubies and sapphires on her fingers matched the flash of her eyes.”

Though this passage isn’t terrible (I had no idea how hard it is to purposely write badly. That only seems to happen when I’m trying to write well.) It is overwritten. The purpose of the scene is to dramatize a confrontation between the king and queen. As such, it doesn’t work as well. It isn’t likely the king is going to be impressed by the richness of her robe or her rings. He will be preoccupied with their upcoming argument.

Instead of serving the purposes of the scene, the writer is showing off his ability to string words together. He is being a WRITER.

Another frequent symptom of overwriting can be found in dialogue, especially the attributions. Nothing marks the rookie writer like a piece of fiction filled with dialogue punctuated by attributions like “she inquired,” “he stated,” “she mused,” and “he insisted.” While the novice writer thinks this is clever and creative, adding another layer of characterization, the experienced writer knows that the sole purpose of attribution is to make sure the reader knows who is speaking. If the speaker is clear from the situation, no attribution at all is required.

With attribution, as in many aspects of writing, less is often the more valuable. Using fancy or creative attributions turns into more of an exercise in the writer’s vocabulary than anything else. Again, it shows the writer trying to be a WRITER.

A third overwriting mistake novice writers often make can be summed up as underestimating the intelligence of their audience. Because of this underestimation (or the underestimation of their own writing ability) they don’t think the reader understands what they are trying to say so they repeat it over and over again, figuratively beating the reader over the head with the idea.

I, myself, made this mistake in an early version of my upcoming novel. In the opening segments, my protagonist was running late for work because of an accident on the freeway. After the third or fourth time I mentioned it, one of my beta readers left a note in the margin: “Okay. Everybody’s running late. We get it.”

Message received. I edited the references to the circumstances out.

Another example, courtesy of Mary Kole, who writes a very nice blog about writing for children.

She grasped her cloak like a drowning woman grabbing a slippery lifeline. Her fingers scratched for the moth-worn fabric but it pulled apart like a gossamer web. A tattered seam split down Cassandra’s side as she hugged the coat to herself, the noise like ice crumbling from a glacier, and the gape let in a stab of steel cold night.”

At first glance, the author does everything right. The verbs are all strong and active. The images are precise and creative. However, together, the passage is too much. Like the reader commented about my traffic accident situation earlier: okay. We get it. It’s really cold and her coat sucks. She doesn’t need to beat us over the head with it.

What seems to have happened is the writer didn’t just come up with an image she liked, she created three. But rather than choosing the best one, she decided to use them all. It is too much of a good thing. She overwrites.

These days, I try to avoid the same mistakes I’ve made in the past. If I am going to miss the mark with my writing (of course the object is always to be perfect) I am going to consciously underwrite. If anything, the work is going to be enigmatic.

A rose is a rose.”
Gertrude Stein


2 thoughts on “Signs of Overwriting

  1. It’s so true that many of us over-write, when we only need subtle hints. I learned in my writing group that embellishment should never overshadow action or the movement of the story. A great and thought-provoking post.


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