cj Sez: Overwriting is a problem for new writers, and even experienced writers fall victim to the problem. It’s definitely something I’m guilty of in my early drafts. I recently came across some help and thought Lyrical Pens visitors might be interested as well.
What is overwriting, you ask? Overwriting can be defined as verbosity—a tendency to write too much and/or too flowery. (According to Google, “If a speech or writing style is flowery, it uses too many complicated words or phrases in an attempt to sound skillful.” Sounds a bit like academia to me.) Plain and simple writing is not only okay, it’s easier to read and understand.
A few ways to avoid overwriting:
Start your story where the action is. The beginning of a book is often the most overwritten part. When info dumps and backstory creep into the first chapter, readers (ergo agents) most often put down a book after reading the first few pages, sometimes before the end of the first chapter. Much of the backstory dumps are a result of the author’s newly created history for the character. These are things the author needs to know to create realistic personalities. Readers don’t need to see these facts on the page. They will discern the info either from bits of dialogue or character responses. If the extra pieces of info are important to the story, they can be reworked into later chapters as needed. If they are not important…
Trust your reader’s intelligence. Watch the repetitions. Don’t say the same thing three different ways. Readers really can remember what they read.
Well-placed metaphors are memorable, and too many metaphors, no matter how clever, are distracting. Symbolism, alliteration and other prose devices don’t tell stories. Emotions, characters and plot do.
Don’t over-describe the action. I call those unneeded action details “stage direction.” For example: “John walked across the room, stuck the key in the lock, opened the door, and walked into the hallway.” All that is needed might be, “John left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.” Readers will understand the rest of the action. PS: Be judicious in your use of adverbs and adjectives.
Don’t over-describe the scene. Yes, scene and a sense of place are vital to the story, but don’t put something into the scene that has no relevance to the story. Describing a character’s office or living room in detail is only important to the degree that it describes the personality of the character. There's an old trope credited to author/playwright Anton Chekhov, that applies to writing. In a letter to a friend in 1889, Chekhov wrote, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it. I believe the exception would be if an item is a red herring.
Dialogue is not conversation. Dialogue is conversation concentrated. Brief. Always with the story in mind. To quote a recent piece I read: “If two characters shout for several lines of dialogue, neither character needs to say ‘I’m upset.’ Their actions will tell the reader they’re upset.” That’s the familiar Show Don’t Tell rule, though I don’t really understand how the reader will know those two characters are shouting unless you use the dreaded exclamation point, which some famous authors advise have a one- or two-per-book limit. Along that same vein, strong dialogue does not need to be supported by tags such as sneered and roared. Disruptive dialogue tags can distract the reader from the actual dialogue. “Said” and “asked” may be boring, but they help the pacing by being “invisible” to the reader.
To get rid of overwriting, edit mercilessly. Grit your teeth, take a deep breath, and kill your darlings. Okay, save them in a file for future ideas, but delete them from the story.
Do you tend to over-write? Let us know how you handle the purple prose.
Note: I’ve just registered for the Alabama Writers’ Conclave 2016 conference. It’s being held July 15-17 this year in Birmingham, AL. Check it out: http://www.alabamawritersconclave.org/
Okay, you-all guys keep on keeping on, and I’ll try to do the same.
PS: If you’d like to do a guest post on Lyrical Pens to market a new book, drop me a line at email@example.com I can offer topic suggestions, a questionnaire, or you can write on a topic of your choice. Caveat: This site is definitely PG 13.
PPS: The "toons" are from Facebook.
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