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:
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.