Two Signs of Overwriting and Why It’s a Problem

Often, when I read a submission from a newer writer or one who has just come out of a fiction class, I flag it for overwriting. What is overwriting? Basically, it’s a sense that the prose (and the writer behind it) is trying too hard to get their point across or impress the reader. Sometimes I wonder if people who overwrite are trying to live up to some idea of “fiction writer” that exists in their heads…a scribe who uses $10 words and milks every image and otherwise packs every sentence until it’s dragging and bloated. They want to make sure we get they’re a real writer. Sometimes this process is at the front of their mind, sometimes it happens without them realizing.

Here are the two types of overwriting that I see the most often:

Overwritten Images

Lots of overwriting lives in the images. Writers often see perfect images in prose — images that work well — and they try their hand at creating something comparable, not knowing that the key to most perfect images is a) simplicity and b) isolation. Or they hear that images are supposed to be an objective correlative (a parallel for emotion). Or they know to load images with meaning, so they do their best to create multiple layers with each description. Or they hear that words are supposed to be mimetic of the action they’re describing, so they really bring out the active verbs. These are all fine instincts and great fiction craft tips, but they could easily go awry. For example:

Cold starlight shattered across the inky black-velvet expanse of the searching night. The frozen air sliced the last of the warmth from Cassandra’s lungs as she choked in a sputtering breath.

Wow! Lot’s of tension there. Each verb is razor-sharp and engineered to convey drama: “shattered,” “sliced,” and “choked.” The stars and the night sky are hostile (“cold” and “searching”). Cassandra is obviously in a dark and unfriendly world.

But imagine if every sentence was like this. Or every image worked this hard. It would get downright exhausting to read. Which brings me to the next sign of overwriting…

Hitting the Reader Over the Head

Simplicity is the natural opposite of overwriting (I’m Team Simplicity, if anyone is wondering). Just as overwrought description is common in overwriting, it often goes hand in hand with its sister troll: hitting the reader over the head. In the example above, the world was hostile and cold. We got it. Redundancy is another way that a writer can hit their reader over the head.

This often happens when the writer thinks of not just one perfect image (their imagination is mightier than that!) but two or even three. Instead of opting for simplicity and choosing the one perfect image to convey what they mean, they go ahead and cram all three in. Let’s go back to poor Cassandra:

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 gossamer spiderweb. 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.

We get it! It’s still cold and now her jacket’s a broken mess. This writer (me) really wanted the reader to get Cassandra’s desperation, so they introduced us to the image of a drowning woman. Next, I really wanted you to get that the coat is insubstantial…cue spiderweb metaphor. Then, just for fun, I loved the noise of ice separating from the glacier and I wanted to toss it on the heap (plus, this reinforces that — news flash — it’s really cold out there…genius!).

One of these images would’ve been fine. Two is pushing it. Three, and then all the extra cold imagery heaped on top? That’s too much. Pick one image and make it do the work instead of piling on every single thing you can think of. If you’ll notice, overwriting stops action. We’ve had five sentences and only two (more like one and a half) pieces of information: it’s cold, and Cassandra’s jacket isn’t great, which relates back to the cold.

The Argument for Simplicity

Writers often get bored with the simple. A great example is the word “said.” To show off their chops (and their online thesaurus), they whip out all kinds of fancy “said” synonyms: “chortled,” “shrieked,” “argued.” Well, this is an amateur error because “said” blends in and it simply works. It doesn’t stop the action while the reader notices what a clever word you’re using, it keeps things flowing. Writers often think they’re saying something too simple, so they decide to jazz it up by going out of their way to say it differently.

This is where overwriting always swoops in. I understand it completely. Writers are chomping at the bit to write, to make up a new image, to really get their point across. But sometimes the simplest way of saying something — a way that’s still artful and expressive but also restrained — is the best. When you’re trying to show off in the prose, you lose sight of your real purpose: to tell a tale. When you’re trying to be understood through multiple images and repetition, you’re not giving your reader enough credit. Overwriting is all about trying too hard. Simplicity is all about letting the craft and the story speak for themselves.

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  1. Jackie Yeager’s avatar

    Great post, Mary! Thanks for the reminders. Time to go back through my manuscript and see if I’ve kept it simple!

  2. Catherine’s avatar

    I really like this article, thanks for posting. I have to say I’m guilty of thinking of different ways to write ‘said’. I think it comes from being at school when you were told not to repeat words too many times in a sentence or paragraph etc so I feel I’ve brought that with me along the writing journey and find it hard to keep writing said. But thanks for the advice and I’ll definitely use it going forward :)

  3. Cat Moleski’s avatar

    Thanks for tackling a confusing phrase. I can see now where in my WIP I’ve been overwriting.

  4. amychristineparker’s avatar

    I couldn’t agree more. Great post.

  5. Charlotte Abel’s avatar

    Thank you so much for this post! I sometimes feel pressured to be more “literary” when I’d rather just tell the story.

  6. Janice Heck’s avatar

    Well done. Purple prose is too funny!

  7. Melissa K’s avatar

    Thank you, Mary! I love the overwriting examples.

  8. MaryZ’s avatar

    At a conference crit, you told me I was trying too hard. True. Thanks.

  9. Michele’s avatar

    I’ve been following a thread on a writing forum about this very subject. You say it all so clearly. Thanks.

  10. Kristie’s avatar

    YEA Team Simplicity! :)

  11. kathleen duey’s avatar

    Hello!!! Hope your summer has been lovely. I see overwriting in many of the critiques I do, too. Well said. Nice examination of a common problem!

  12. Linda Austin’s avatar

    Excellent teaching article – so helpful to show concrete examples with explanations.

  13. Claire Dawn’s avatar

    I’m not a visual person, so I don’t have the description problem. Conversely, I’ll write a book with not one stroke of description if you’ll let me. lol

    I’m a big fan of story. I hate having to bog myself down thinking through big words or convoluted sentences or wading through long spiels with nothing going on. It’s a story, tell me what happened.

  14. Franziska Green’s avatar

    This post reminded me of the Bulwer-Lytton contest. This year’s winner was superbly bad:

    Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.

  15. Angie S.’s avatar

    I love when a post makes me laugh and learn at the same time! Well done. I also went back through my WIP and checked for overwriting.

  16. Heather Zenzen’s avatar

    Love this. My last manuscript I totally UNDERwrote. And my current piece? Opposite problem. I’m blaming it on the protag though. Such an overblown drama queen. I’ll go back in and teach her a lesson tomorrow. Yo, ONE metaphor is ENOUGH, Protag. Get a clue. We don’t need THREE to get your imagery. Jesus.

  17. Lesli’s avatar

    Wow. The opening of an old ms just cried out from the grave.
    Thank you for the illumination.

    Also, it takes a hell of a lot of pressure off. No longer hoping for lovely passages.

    Very grateful!

  18. Darshana’s avatar

    Thanks for the post. Really helpful. I am a beginning writer, but fall on the other end of the spectrum. My writing is overly simply and not descriptive enough in a succinct manner.

  19. Beth Hull’s avatar

    Laughing out loud at Franziska’s quote.

    The Team Simplicity thing had me chuckling, too.

    I tend to overwrite after I’ve already got the story down. It’s as if I’ve read my own words too many times, and just one extra little image here can’t hurt, can it?

    Oh yes, yes it can.

  20. Estee Wood’s avatar

    Hmm, it’s 79 degrees in my house, and yet I’m cold . . .

  21. Sheryl Gwyther’s avatar

    Love this post, Mary. Overwriting is something I have to be constantly aware of too!

    A wise writer gave me a good analogy for this problem. He said, ‘Sure, write your ‘writer’s copy’ first, then hone it to make the ‘reader’s copy’. Then it all made sense to me!

    It’s what I strive to do now. ;)

  22. MaDonna’s avatar

    Go Team Simplicity! ;)
    Thanks for a great post. I liked what Sheryl said about a “writer’s copy” and a “reader’s copy”….

  23. Julie Daines’s avatar

    Why are you such a genius?

  24. U.L. Harper’s avatar

    I like this article too. But nobody should be learning from it. This should be obvious stuff. I can’t read overwriting. I just put the book or story down. Almost immediately.

  25. Mima Tipper’s avatar

    Thanks for this clear, concise post, Mary. I suppose all new writers go through some kind of over-writing stage (me included hugely:) Over the course of my agency internship I did see many examples in the subs of the kind of over-writing you describe, and you’re right, they bring a story’s action to a dead stop. Another element of over-writing that drags a story down is when a writer uses too many stage directions to convey action. “Cut to the chase”–an overused phrase, but still some of the best writing advice I ever received.

  26. Michelle Cusolito’s avatar

    Mary,
    I read your blog faithfully but rarely comment. I just wanted to say thank you for all of the advice you offer to us so willingly. I’ve referred many people here.
    Thank you.
    Michelle

  27. margaret munoz’s avatar

    I am an over writer . I have never been to college but I had depression for two years and read ,read,read until I went to eat ,wash,or sleep. I never left the house except for food but refused to take drugs to impair my thought. I also do poetry ,maybe over imagery is useful there, what do you think?
    I am now ashamed of my blog, except ones I did for the newspapers where i had to write facts as succinct as possible. thank you so much as your the only teacher I’ve had. We need more of your teachings on these sites, if you ever happen by my blog in a few days look before and after and you will see the difference you have made. Thank god for scanning reading, thank you so much for taking the time to share invaluable niches to our blogs. xx mmg

  28. Angela Felsted’s avatar

    Love this post, and the irony is that it’s easy to see in other people’s writing, but so much harder to spot in your own.

  29. T. Crosby’s avatar

    The thing that makes me put a book down quicker than you spit, overwriting. Thank god my crit buddies are hackers. ;)

  30. Ian O'Neill’s avatar

    Loved it. Reminded me of what I should be avoiding and made me jump for joy to know I’m not alone on ‘said’.

    Cheers,
    Ian

  31. Dad Who Writes’s avatar

    Couldn’t agree more. You could think of images as being an echo on an Alpine mountainside (uh-oh – metaphor alert). One clear, ringing yodel can reverberate beautifully across the hillsides. Too many set off a bloody great avalanche that obliterates everything in its path.

    There’s post I need to write about the Imagists and Chinese poetry of the first millenium BCE that relates to this. Maybe this weekend.

  32. Adele Richards’s avatar

    I think I may be more inclined to under-writing. As a reader I find myself skipping through paragraphs of location description – yawn – I don’t need to know if we’re facing North or if the wall runs perpendicular to the lawn. I trust the author that if this affects the plot it makes sense. Having said that, I understand some people like to have a sense of where they are ‘in space’….and so shall force myself to put a bit more description in.

  33. Jackson MacKenzie’s avatar

    Thank you for this! To me, overwriting is the writer’s way of saying they don’t trust the reader’s imagination–so they do it all for you. Not fun!

  34. Charlotte’s avatar

    Thanks for the great post. I’m fully aware of my abilty to over write, which helps a lot towards solving the problem, but then I get comments that my stories progress too quickly. I don’t know how to slow it down without adding in more description. Any advice would be much appreciated! Thanks!

  35. Karen’s avatar

    Trying to create an image without overdoing it is tough. Thanks for showing how overwriting is overkill. Great examples!

  36. Timothy’s avatar

    I like that you didn’t go overboard with the simplicity rule. You kept “Cassandra” without making it “Sandy.” :)

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