Overwriting is a common problem for new writers. Even experienced writers can fall victim to the issue. It’s something, as a reader, that drives me nuts. It’s also something I’m guilty of needing friendly reminders about in my own early drafts.
Overwriting is defined as: a tendency to write too much, or too ornately.
A classic sign of overwriting is passages that read heavy, or require rereading to understand. It’s not something you want in your writing because those extra words obstruct the meaning, and lead to readers giving up or skimming. Overwriting can also read as stale or forced, like the writer is trying too hard.
Here are things I consider when I’m editing for overwriting:
Start Right: The beginning of a book is often the most overwritten part. Many writers draft the first chapter several times, and infodumps and too much backstory creep in during that process. Either these extra bits need to go or they can be reworked into other chapters as needed.
Trust the Reader: Readers are smart and they can remember what they read. Cutting out repetitions and leaving some aspects of the story to their imaginations is something all great writers do.
Dump the Drama Queens: When every emotional nuance of a character’s inner journey ends up on the page they can sound like melodramatic crazy people. Most real people have emotional filters, and so should characters.
Pull the Purple Prose: A well-placed new word is fun, even a touch of flowery language (if the character and the scene call for it) might work, but no one enjoys reading thesaurus vomit.
Watch the Jargon: When an unusual word is the only one that works, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s clear from the context, or it’s defined in simple language.
Curb the Metaphors: Prose should enhance the plot, not detract from it. Writers don’t need an overload of symbolism, alliteration and other prose devices to tell important stories. Emotions, characters and plot are just as important as prose. Well-placed metaphors are also more memorable.
Show, Don’t Tell: Common items need no explanations. If the character took his handgun out of a drawer and set it on his bedside table, we know the bedside table is next to the bed. Duh! (Yes, I have seen this happen.) I’ve also seen dining room tables put in dining rooms, and jeans made of fully described blue denim.
Use It or Lose It: I used a gun in the above example because of Anton Chekhov’s law: Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, it must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there. The only exception to Chekhov’s rule is when you intended to mislead, for example to create a red herring. I slightly disagree with Chekhov, I think the gun can be there for setting, but shouldn’t get any major description unless it’s going to come into play.
Keep the Dialogue Meaningful: If two characters shouted for five lines of dialogue, neither character needs to say “I’m upset.” Their actions tell us they’re upset. Much overwriting comes from unnecessary on-the-nose dialogue. This is also true of overly obvious dialogue tags.
Don’t Accessorize the Ordinary: Extra adjectives often expose weak sentences. Save word embellishments for the places where they can add value to the story instead of clutter.
Intrusive Narration: A narrator should work with the character dialogue and action, not replace or override it. This is often problematic when the author is breaking the fourth wall.
Remember the Reader: Think about the audience and genre and write with the ideal reader in mind. Some genres are more accepting of overwriting than others, but it still pays to keep the story tight.
To get rid of overwriting, cull ruthlessly. Never give the reader the opportunity to skim, or to wonder if they just read the same line written in a slightly different way. Overwritten stories are a clear symptom of a writer who can’t kill their darlings.
Do you ever overwrite? If so, please share your strategies in the comments.
27 thoughts on “12 Tips to avoid Overwriting”
Elmor Leonard says, “Don’t write the parts that readers skip.”
A great quote from a writer who never had a problem with overwriting. : ) Thanks for stopping by.
Just a question, I’m beginning to write a book yet it is my first attempt and I’m a noob. Ive been going over the first chapter repeatedly to make sure I have what I want but would it be a better idea to write the whole book as a draft then go back over it? Just trying to figure out the best way to tackle it as I don’t think I’m making progress because I’m always finding flaws in the first chapter or ways to improve add or take out, been 2 months and I know what I want but I haven’t a clue how to tackle it? Any help would be much appreciated 🙂
I don’t believe there is one perfect way to write a novel. I think everyone has their own method. You need to find what works for you and stick to it. I tend to power ahead until I have a first draft. What you’ve describe as your method sounds more like the way Heather writes. She wants each chapter perfect before she moves on to the next. If you don’t think you’re making progress, try something new for a while. Camp NaNoWriMo starts in a few days, you might want to give that a shot. It’s very word count motivating. Just don’t give up. Good luck!
Wow, this post really sparked a lot of debate!
I wouldn’t say “perfect.” I am by no means trying to achieve perfection before I move on to the next chapter. But the story must be solid. If pieces of the story aren’t working in the set up chapters, then, as Sharon commented below, I need to fix them before I move on because they’ll have ramifications throughout the whole novel. But that’s my process.
My suggestion would be to write your entire draft first and then put it away for a few days, weeks, even months so you can go over it with fresh eyes. This will help you see any sections of overwriting, glaring mistakes, continuity problems etc. Then it’s a case of edit, edit and edit. One is never enough as even the most experienced writers can often see things they want to see rather than what is actually written on the page because their brain knows what it expects to see rather than the silly typo or incorrect grammar used, e.g. they’re, their and there. If you can’t resist giving it a quick check as you go, I find that I write at least one chapter a day and then go back over that section in bed for any glaring errors but then I don’t touch that portion again until I’m finished the entire draft. Wishing you every success for a completed manuscript.
You can always correct overwriting in edits, but hopefully my tips will help people be aware of the common areas for overwriting. Catching it before it happens saves work down the road. However, I agree! Putting work aside so you can see it with fresh eyes is a great trick, and every writer should use it. Thanks for stopping by.
When I start a new book, I will stop writing new material after the first three chapters. I edit those chapters several times until I’m satisfied I’ve met all my set up points, that my hook is set and powerful, that I’ve done no “information dumps,” and that the chapters lead the story in the right direction. Then I write through to the end without editing until I’m done. I set the manuscript aside for a two or three weeks before editing.
This is just my strategy and it has saved me loads of time – I once spent weeks tweaking an entire book because I wrote through to the end and then discovered that the first chapters strayed off the plot path and skewed the rest of the book, and not in a good way.
Eventually you will find a way that works best for you and makes you most comfortable. There really IS no right or wrong way.
This is great idea! I think I’ll try this on my next project. If I know enough of the story, I write story synopsis, then a skeleton of the plot points. However, none of these are written in stone and I make notes on the printouts I have of these of any changes but I keep writing. The joy of discovering what happens next excites my muse.
Not having the beginning right and having to go back and edit is really tough. I’m willing to try a new technique if it can help streamline my process. Thanks again, Sharon!
Hi Tambra, Thank you for dropping by my blog. It’s always nice to see a writer find a tip or idea they can use to make their work stronger. That’s the whole reason Heather and I started Write On Sisters, and I love see you find a great idea from our comments section. : ) Heather is also a fan of getting the beginning just right before moving on. You never know what works best for you until you experiment. Good luck with your next project!
Thank you for including some tips for Ian’s comment. I think the issue in this case was rewriting the first chapters in an endless loop. Sometimes a writer just need to push on and see if the story has legs. Also the first chapter is the hardest, so coming back to it after the whole book is done works wonders for many writers. Hopefully, one of these suggestions helps Ian move ahead with the story. Thanks for stopping by!
Make sure you get’ then&than’ correct!
Then=next, than=comparison. The vowels help you remember which is which!
Hi Elli, Sorry about that. Just one of the many joys of being overextended, typos happen. Thanks for pointing this one out.
I would say, value your reader’s imagination is a big one for me. My overwriting tends to come from too much word painting. You don’t need to describe every fold in the table cloth, a sweating character doesn’t need a reader to know just how that shirt is clinging to them, etc. sometimes saying “an old pair of boots” creates all the symbology your writing needs.
Don’t get me wrong it can be cool to do it sometimes, but don’t do it all the time. I find word painting works well as a way to slow down the pace if you are wanting to build up a jump scare, or build tension. But as they say, sometimes “Less is more”
Hi Robbie, I agree with you. The reader needs to see the story, but they don’t need everything spelled out.
Great article, Robin. Particularly liked “Dump the Drama Queens”! It actually reminded me that over-writing the emotions or minute body twitches of the character after every bit of dialogue is one of my chief complaints when I beta a second draft for some writers. The characters seem so spastic, and it stalls the flow of the conversation. Great tips!
The headings were Heather’s idea. I considered “Death to Drama Queens” but pulled back at the last second. : )
I tend to hate melodramatic characters. It can work for the right story, but it’s not easy! I also hate characters who say how they “feel” all the time. It’s not realistic and it’s the worst type of telling.
Ha! Death to Drama Queens! I also dislike the constant telling of thoughts and feelings, though that means I tend to leave all that out in my 1st draft and have to go back and insert SOME internal monologue. Because, you know, I do write in the 1st person. 😉
Avoiding “thesaurus vomit” is among my favorite tips, Robin, thanks for a post worthy of a bookmark or even an import into Scrivener to have handy whenever writing!
Thanks, Jann! I’m considering making an info-graphic for these tips. Since a few people have called it a keeper, I guess I should get on that. Don’t tell anyone but Thesaurus Vomit is my middle name. : ( We all have a writer cross to bear.
Your secret is safe with me, Robin. I never write without having Thesaurus.com open on my Mac.
Thanks for the tips! I really liked, “Use it or lose it.” I’m working on Book 3 of my Artania series and realized that I mentioned knights that had disappeared. I’d better explain what happened to them or bring them back by the end of the book or the reader will have a big ? in his/her mind. I do love figurative language, though, if it’s done well. I think Dean Koontz is a master of using it to great effect. HIs metaphors are always relevant reminding the reader of the setting or suspense.
I think some writers know how to elevate a metaphor to greatness and other just use them as a crutch. Also when a good metaphor happens, it’s so tempting for some writers to add more, and more. And, well, more! I think including a few carefully selected metaphors increases the chances of the reader remembering one of them and loving it! But to each his own. Good luck with your knights. : )
Overwriting is one of my biggest weaknesses – if not, my #1 weakness – as a writer. But I don’t look at it as a bad thing. In fact, I feel better having too much to start with than having too little – because then I’d worry what I might be missing. I’m an editor / technical writer in my day job, so I’m used to correcting grammar / punctuation and looking for more concise or “fluid” ways of wording things. So I don’t mind throwing everything out there, then reviewing later drafts to see what needs to be condensed, tightened, or deleted. I guess that’s how I’ve managed to cut almost 17,000 words from my WIP. 😮
I’m emailing you later, I have a question about your guest post.
I’m all about stocking up the words in a first draft. I don’t think you can be a NaNoWriMo winner and not know how to power pages! But I also know that my first draft will suck. Looking for places to cut takes me a LONG…. time. I’m starting to think about how to save myself work as I approach new projects. Hopefully, I’m getting better each time.
My two worst habits: over-writing and redundancy! After I’ve gotten all the “must write” stuff out of my system, I go back over it and delete every word that isn’t needed to make a sentence or a paragraph clear. Result: Fewer words and cleaner writing. The words have to be written first; then I can do surgery!
Redundancy is a killer. I fall into that trap too. I’ve started using the highlighter function to mark up my drafts. That way I don’t plant the same piece of vital information twice without realizing it. I like how you’ve mentioned the “must write” aspect of getting overwriting out of your system. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.