Writing Advice #16: Overwriting

Let’s talk about overwriting.

Henry David Thoreau once famously said, “Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” I think he was talking about his recipe for boiled woodchuck, but that’s not the point right now.

Writers — especially NEW writers; especially YOUNG writers — often make the mistake of thinking that the more words they use, the bigger their words, the more complicated their sentences, the better their writing. They think more complexity automatically equals better writing. And there are roughly ten billion examples of wonderful classic writing that employs complicated language, which serves to make new writers think that they should, can, or must do the same.

Please. Spare us all.

Look, even tried-and-true veteran writers fall prey to this. Hell, my editor has been known to scrawl “OTT” (for “over the top”) in the margins of my manuscripts more than once.

It’s a really easy trap to fall into. You fall in love with the sound of your own words and you forget to be clear and concise.

And then some jackass like me comes along and tells you to simplify and you overcompensate and go too far in the other direction.

You need to strike a balance. Here’s how.

You should always strive for simplicity and economy of language. This does NOT mean that you should only use small words or simple sentence structure. Far from it! What it means is that every word and sentence should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t belong on the page.

How can you tell if your story is drastically overwritten? Well, look through it. Do you spend pages and pages on details and/or characters that may be interesting, but which have absolutely no central purpose to the overriding narrative? Well, then in that case, you’ve overwritten.

One place writers tend to make this mistake is in the setting. They spend pages and pages describing the setting, causing the reader to think (naturally) that the setting is very important. But it isn’t. It’s just that you’ve overwritten it and, thereby, given it more importance than it deserves. You don’t need to give me every last plant in the greenhouse or every last book in the library. Just say, “The greenhouse was an explosion of color and lush humidity” and move on…unless there is a specific detail that matters or is symbolically important and/or allegorically loaded.

Overwriting goes beyond the setting, though. It has to do with the very structure of your prose.

“Go away,” Scampy yelled with impatience. “I don’t need you anymore. I won’t be tormented by your presence.” He gave another of his disgusted frowns.
John ignored his angry comments. He was going to stay right here.

There is just an enormous amount wrong with this. First of all, notice that the phrase “with impatience” is not (or should not be) necessary at all. Scampy is yelling, after all. From the context of the conversation and his specific words, we should know that he’s impatient without you driving it home. Worse, though, the same concept is repeated over and over. When you write, you need to think of what it is you are trying to get across to the reader. In this snippet, you want to communicate Scampy’s anguish and rage. But we get too much of it, repeatedly throughout the first paragraph and then again in the second, just in case we missed the idea the first five times.

That second paragraph, like a sledge hammer: “John ignored his angry comments.” There’s no reason to call them “angry comments!” It’s like you’re trying to make sure the reader realizes that Scampy’s angry, but… Come on! A reader has to have gotten the point by now.

A possible rewrite might look like this:

Scampy had flushed red by now. “Go away! Stop tormenting me!”
John stood his ground. He wouldn’t give in.

This still gets across Scampy’s anger. And yes, sure, absolutely — there will be times when you’ll WANT that repetition because it makes a point. What I’m telling you now is that you RESERVE those things for the moments when it matters. They have more impact that way.

But probably my favorite examples of overwriting come when a writer attempts to invest a normal, everyday action with some sort of greater import by describing it in overwrought terms. For example:

Scampy extended his arm and a single finger, then crooked his finger, gesturing to John.

Um, really? How about just “Scampy beckoned to John?” Much nicer, no?

I like this, too:

Her eyes filled with water. Tears streamed down her face.

Er, unless there’s some incredibly important reason for us to see her eyes fill up first and THEN witness the actual dropping of the tears, there’s nothing wrong with a simple, “She cried.”

Think of how people ACTUALLY think and speak. When you talk to a friend, does he say, “I was so embarrassed that my blood rushed to my cheeks, tinting my skin red” or does he just say, “I blushed.”

Save the big words and the long, complicated sentences for your big scenes and your long, complicated ideas. Not every scene or action needs the star treatment. Some of them are just extras, doing their jobs, picking up a quick paycheck to help move things along. And that’s FINE. That’s the way it should be.

Your homework this week: Time to embarrass yourselves! Pick an example of overwriting FROM YOUR OWN WORK and post it, along with a simpler rewrite.

Yes, I realize that this is mortifying, but trust me — it’s good for the soul.

Those of you brave enough to do this will be entered into a drawing to win a Kyra minimate. If only one person does it, that person automatically wins the figure. Wouldn’t you rather there be some competition?

(Sorry, the contest is long over!)

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)

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