The Purple Prose Dilemma

There’s something I touch upon a little in my book that I want to discuss it in more detail: melodrama, otherwise known as purple prose.

purple prose, melodramatic writing
If this is your protagonist’s reaction after stubbing his toe on a leaf, you might want to scour your manuscript for other instances of purple prose.

Examples of Purple Prose

Sometimes I’m cruising along in a story and I encounter melodramatic writing. It can happen in interiority, description, or the overall prose. Here are some examples:

My heart dashed into a million jagged pieces as thoughts of betrayal swirled like a thunderhead in my frazzled mind.

I cried out, my breath rasping, my voice desperately pleading, “No!”

He snapped his neck toward me, his eyes laser-beaming me with an intense glare. “Leave. Now.”

It’s actually quite tortuous for me to write this way. There’s not a whole lot that bothers me more in prose. Melodramatic writing works so hard to convey emotion that it goes completely over the top. You may be guilty of it if you’ve developed a finely tuned adjective thesaurus. Or if you have a lot of physical clichés when you’re describing emotions. Or if you’re taking great pains to describe a tone of voice.

My Issue with Melodramatic Writing

Purple prose is going above and beyond to hammer home a certain emotion. It almost always reads as false to me. Here’s my real issue with it. Real drama comes when a reaction matches the situation or stimulus. If I stub my toe, I swear a few times under my breath and walk it off. If my car rolls down the driveway and into the lake, I will swear…well, not a few times. But if I stub my toe and I’m on the ground, moaning and wailing and thrashing around, then the magnitude of reaction doesn’t match the situation.

Most of the time, when melodramatic writing strikes me as especially fake, it’s because of this disconnect. If a situation is not particularly intense because there’s not enough tension or the stakes aren’t high enough, but the writer is trying their best to make it seem intense: melodrama. Whenever you see a lot of purple prose coming to the party, you’re likely trying to create a mountain out of a molehill.

Creating Authentic Tension

But tension isn’t created with a lot of melodramatic writing. It’s created when a situation puts a character further away from what they want. So if that tension isn’t naturally there through how you’ve set up your characters and plot, you might find yourself (even if it’s subconsciously) compensating by tying on the window dressing of intense descriptions and heavy physicality. Instead, ask yourself if you’ve created adequate objectives for your character, and whether or not you’re frustrating them in an effective way.

Remember, your characters shouldn’t get to win that often. Struggle and frustrated desires are par for the course with a plot that’s going to really challenge your character. This is not the same thing as a superficial wound that sets your protagonist into a histrionic hissy fit. Where there’s intense emotion, there should be intense tension underlying it, and a real cause for concern that’s driving your character crazy. (Even if you have a really good set-up for a dramatic reaction, you may want to play it more reserved, to begin with. The sooner writers wean themselves off of purple prose, the better.)

Inauthenticity Alienates Young Readers

If you’re worried that maybe your more flamboyant writing style is coming across as purple prose instead of desirable tension/conflict, ask your critique partners if a scene ever starts to feel fake or over-the-top. This is a very serious issue. Despite teens and kids getting a bad rap for being melodramatic in their personal lives, they are also really good at sussing out what’s authentic and what isn’t. You don’t want a flare-up of dramatics to alienate the reader.

Invest in my fiction editing services and I’ll help you trim the purple prose from your manuscript so your story shines through.

Simple Writing vs Purple Prose

I often give clients notes about simple writing. It goes: “Saying something simple in a complicated way.” I know exactly why people do it. But it often has detrimental effects on that one holy grail of writing that people strive for, voice. Want more info on how to write clearly? Read on!

simple writing, how to write clearly
Do you feel like this when you’re writing a simple sentence? Dial it down a few notches and focus on the content, not the flourish.

Simple Writing vs Purple Prose

The sky is blue.
The heavens swirl with shades of the purest cerulean.

Yikes. I mean, sure, we want to be remembered for prose that has at least a little bit of flair because our unique authorial voices are what distinguish us from the other guy. At the same time, there’s a delicate balance between substance and style. If style trumps substance, often to the point where the substance is almost unrecognizable, you have a problem. The reader will be lost in your Baroque description and lose the meaning. And that’s not good for their overall focus and, as a result, involvement in your story.

Does simple writing like “The sky is blue” make me feel like a bit of an idiot? Sure. But sometimes the sky is blue and it needs to be described as blue and the simplest answer is the most difficult: just write “The sky is blue” and move on to developing character or plot.

Writer With a Capital W Syndrome

Why does simple writing bother us so much, as writers? Why do we have to twist ourselves into sentence pretzels and dive into the thesaurus to turn out a description that’s unlike any anyone has ever written?

I call this Writer With a Capital W syndrome. A writer’s trade is her vocabulary, natural voice, and ability to express herself. So writing “The sky is blue” feels like a total cop out. Instead we, especially those beginning writers out there, want to really strut our stuff and prove our worth. We lace the sentence with adjectives or adverbs, we choose really zippy verbs, we labor over every image to make sure that the reader is going to see exactly what we want them to see in their pretty little heads, so help us God. I imagine Writers With a Capital W have a lot of steam coming out of their ears after all that darn concentration.

Substance Over Style

The thing is, though, sometimes it’s okay to loosen the reigns a bit and let the scene we’re creating speak for itself. Our imagery and writing prowess doesn’t need to be on display every second. In fact, that demands a lot of the reader and tends to skew focus away from the story we’re telling. And that, at the end of the day, is the heart of it. Substance needs to trump style. Not all the time, but a lot.

If you’ve ever been accused of trying too hard, purple prose, overwriting, or not killing your darlings, listen up. There’s no shame in simple writing and focusing on how to write clearly. Let the content of the sentence, not the flair with which it is written, stand out. In fact, it may be a welcome break from all that wordsmithing!

Sealed with a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!),
Mary

Want to learn how to write clearly? Invest in my fiction editing services and I’ll help you trim the purple prose from your manuscript so your story shines through.

Descriptive Writing: Positive vs Negative

In descriptive writing, “negative description” doesn’t mean describing something nicely versus being mean. It’s more about how to best be direct when you’re writing description. Learning how to write clearly and directly is part of developing good writing skills.

descriptive writing, good writing skills
Good writing skills: Always strive to describe what IS rather than what ISN’T.

I think of a “positive” description as a description of something that IS. A “negative” description, then, attempts to describe what something isn’t.

Descriptive Writing in the Negative: Examples

Her purse didn’t hold the normal wallet/sunglasses/keys combination.

His smile didn’t invite you to sit down for a chat.
The garage was remarkable because it didn’t contain a vehicle.

You get my drift. Sometimes, like with the middle example, a negative description is an interesting, perhaps voice-y or sarcastic way of getting your point across. The guy in the example isn’t happy to see whoever, and it’s obvious, no matter that he’s trying to smile. I’d buy that.

The other descriptions, though, draw out the narrative because they are roundabout. Instead of revealing just what’s in the purse (a gun, say) or garage (alien laboratory, perhaps), we’re first told: “What you’re expecting to be in this purse or garage is, in fact, not in this garage.”

Good Writing Skills: Be Direct

Well, yeah. If a gun is in the purse or an alien laboratory is in the garage, the reader will immediately know that this isn’t Grandma’s purse or Dad’s garage. So that part can remain implied, as all of our purse- and garage-related illusions are about to shatter.

Long story short, the negative description can sometimes be interesting. Sometimes, though, it’s more direct and less redundant to cut to the chase, cut out negative description, and describe what IS rather than what ISN’T.

Struggling with descriptive writing and voice? Turn to me for fiction editing.

Tips to Trim Telling in Writing

Lately, I have been noticing that descriptions of looks and voices tend to leave me underwhelmed in fiction, because they amount to telling in writing. You know the ones, and you probably all have them in your manuscripts: the withering glances, the pointed glares, the exasperated grumblings, the strained, tense utterances… All of these add color and emotion to characters, usually in scene. Let’s look a little closer at telling vs showing in these instances.

telling in writing, telling vs showing
Looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. In writing, use action and context clues to convey an emotion without spelling it out.

Some Things Are Better In Life Or On The Screen

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, that means various looks and glances are the ultimate body language. And tone can wildly alter the meaning of a conversation. Have you ever said something innocent via text message or email, only to have your recipient completely take it the wrong way? You may have been thinking the offending chat in a silly tone of voice, but it probably came off as snarky or passive-aggressive to the reader. That conversation usually ends in, “Ugh, it’s so hard to do nuance via text/email/IM!”

The adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind. Some things are simply too intricate to lend themselves well to word-based description. And I’m starting to think that looks and tone of voice are better left for interpersonal interaction and the film or TV medium. As humans, we can usually “read” the emotions of another by interpreting body language, gesture, tone, or a certain “look” your partner has. When you try to put this on the page, you’re taking the energy and movement out of it, which also saps the life and usually amounts to telling in writing.

Don’t Take Shortcuts

Of course, the less you rely on describing looks and tone of voice — which boils down to telling in writing — the harder your job as a writer becomes. You can no longer take the usual shortcut of “she glared in his direction” to express her displeasure. You must now have her perform an action which communicates her dark mood, or she must say something in dialogue (the star of scene, after all) that clues the reader in to what’s really going on. Same with tone of voice.

For Example…

“We’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said in a menacing tone.

This is a shortcut. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s still a shortcut. Why? When we’re thinking about telling vs showing, you want to put the menace in WHAT is being said, not HOW it’s being said. This is great practice when you want to achieve tighter, more economical writing. By leaning on tone description, you don’t really need to think, “Hmm, how do I convey true menace without telling everyone there’s menace?” I would then argue that your voice muscle doesn’t get built up as much as it could.

Trim Out Telling in Writing

Instead, if you write…

“Oh yes, tomorrow morning.” He cracked his knuckles, one by one. “We’ll see you then.”

…you can mix in a little action, you cut the dialogue in half with the tag so that you generate a little suspense, and you inject a little voice with the “oh yes.” The information doesn’t change, but maybe the overall mood does — and in the telling vs showing struggle, showing wins out. Using something like this and context clues (I would imagine the reader is picking up on the fact that something gnarly is about to go down tomorrow morning), you can convey menace without once saying the word. You flip telling in writing to showing, which will always tighten up your manuscript.

Awareness, Not Elimination

Avoiding all look and voice tone descriptions is an impossible task. This is such a common and accepted part of contemporary writing that most people will never break the habit. All I’m asking is that you become more aware of it. Maybe take 10% of your look/voice descriptions and turn them into something else, something that’s a better fit for the text-based medium, and not so much a visual tool. For more tips on tightening up your character interactions, check out my post on expository dialogue.

Hire my editing services and I’ll help you trim out instances of telling in writing.

Writing Voice and Building a Lexicon

Great manuscripts create their own writing voice, dictionaries, and lexicons, in a way.

writing voice, slang, lexicon, dictionary, word choice, creative writing, narrative voice, developing voice in writing
Writing voice means having specific words and ways of speaking become a natural part of your manuscript.

This is pretty commonplace in fantasy, where you rack up terms, place names, slang, and other words that are part of complex novel world building. Many fantasy series, in fact, have their own affiliated or “unofficial” encyclopedias published once the series runs out and a publisher senses that there is still money in ‘dem dere hills to be made from fans.

Building Inside Jokes With Your Reader

Developing a voice in writing that includes special words, repeating images, inside jokes and the like serves to bring readers further into your world because they feel like a member of an exclusive club.

But non-fantasy novels can have this inclusive, worldbuilding effect, too. One of the best examples I can think of has been stuck in my head because we’ve randomly named our GPS voice “Patty.” Relevant? Hardly. Stick with me for a minute, though, because it’s about to get more random. The only thing I can think of when I hear the name “Patty” is Tina Fey.

I have her and her book BOSSYPANTS on the brain often, actually, because I have played the excellent audiobook of her reading it on no less than three road trips. If you’ve read BOSSYPANTS, you may remember an episode from her summer theatre days where her melodramatic friend throws himself a coming-out party, a “gay-but.”

To the apparent surprise of his girlfriend. Whose name is Patty, and who has a face that resembles a scone. That’s a funny enough detail in and of itself. But what does Tina Fey, an expert at turns of phrase and building inside jokes, if you’ve seen 30 Rock, do next? She keeps elaborating on Patty’s sconelike face shape in several iterations throughout the story. My favorite is when she calls her “Sconeface Patty.”

Each time it’s mentioned, not only do we laugh harder, because it’s always an unexpected riff on what we’re already expecting, but we feel closer to the story because we get it. We’re right there in it.

Writing Voice and Word Choice

Creating a lexicon is especially important when you’re working on two elements: a sense of place, and a sense of writing voice. If your novel’s setting has a quarry in it where everyone goes to make out, you can invent your own shorthand, just like you would in real life. “We drove past Makeout Mountain to hit up the Dairy Queen” will become familiar to your readers as they try to picture your small town.

Keep mentioning it to make those streets and country roads feel intimate. You’re creating a place out of thin air, after all. You need to give it some grip. And once something is established, think of ways to refer to it that bring the reader into the fold.

In terms of developing voice in writing, different characters should have distinct ways of talking. That involves turns of phrase, images, words, etc. that will create their own lexicons for each character. Don’t take this to a caricature place, though. Just like you’d never want a dialect to completely take over what the character is saying, don’t layer on catch-phrases and weird slang too thick.

But think about rhythm, word choice, way of describing something. I don’t think Tina Fey would’ve settled for “Sconeface Patty” if she’d genuinely liked the girl, for example. Think of how your characters describe good things, bad things, things when they’re in a good mood, things when they’re feeling annoyed, on and on and on.

Your goal with a book is to draw in your reader. One way of doing that is to get them in on the joke of your very own lexicon.

Developing voice in writing is an elusive concept to grasp. With me as your developmental editor, we’ll be able to drill right into it and take yours to the next level.

Explaining the Joke in Writing

Explaining the joke in writing is so tempting. Everyone knows the feeling of loving a joke so much yet having it fall flat. Then, instead of accepting defeat, explaining to everyone how the joke works and why it’s so brilliant. If you’re me, you might also strongly imply that your audience is somehow deficient for failing to laugh.

If any of you have heard me speak or taken one of my middle grade or young adult webinars, you may remember the lame Twilight vampire/”high stakes” joke that I try and shoehorn in every time. It has met with a tepid response from Idaho to Japan but I keep on trying because, well, I’m convinced that one day I’ll fall upon the perfect audience that will get it.

explaining the joke in writing, humor writing, obvious humor in writing, writing voice, writing humor, theme writing, writing imagery, explanatory writing
Do you get it? I mean, really get it? Because the joke is…

Explaining the Joke in Writing Is Unnecessary

If you’re in the “explaining the joke in writing” boat with me, we all need a wake-up call. Sometimes a bit of cleverness or specificity doesn’t have the payoff you’re seeking. This doesn’t just apply to jokes, of course. I see this explanatory writing phenomenon at work especially in people’s imagery.

An example from the actual literary canon  (rather that some stupid made-up thing that I wrote last minute) that has always bothered me: “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich. This has literally vexed me FOR OVER A DECADE.

Adrienne Rich is a wonderful poet, may she rest in peace. And this is poem reproduced widely in many school texts and taught all over the place, which is a testament to her talent. But the work itself is rather–please excuse the obvious pun–heavy-handed. I’ve included a link so you can read it, above.

Uncle’s wedding band is heavy on Aunt Jennifer’s hand. Her hands are ringed with ordeals she was mastered by. She’s desperately stitching a bunch of tigers. The tigers are not afraid of any men. The tigers are free, ironically, while Aunt Jennifer is caged. Etc. etc. etc.

Avoid Redundancy in Writing

Here Rich is explaining the joke in writing, so to speak, over and over again, in case you didn’t get it the first three times. She’s writing theme with a heavy touch to make sure you know exactly where she’s going with the poem. In this case, I can let it go (I guess!) because the image works with the story that the poet is telling. Wedding bands, hands, etc. all tie into the symbolism of a woman feeling trapped in a marriage.

There are times when writers are just as insistent about images, however, and the image isn’t successful to begin with, like my lame vampire joke. This is something to watch out for in your own work. If you catch yourself dipping into explanatory writing, you may be picking either the wrong image or something so specific that it’s not going to be  resonant enough.

Avoid Heavy-Handed Imagery

Some less-than-graceful examples would be these stupid made-up things that I’m writing last minute:

The sound of the children’s laughter bounced down the hallway like a tin can full of quarters bouncing down a concrete staircase.

It was her turn to go up and give the science presentation. Nerves shot up Nellie’s spine like that feeling she always got when breaking down a cardboard box and feeling the brown paper surfaces rasping against one another.

These are not successful images to me. The first one is off because the two things being compared have very little connecting them. The writer may have once heard the perfect tin can full of quarters and it could make total sense to her to compare it to children’s laughter, but it’s more likely that the link exists only in her head.

The same idea goes for the second image, and here it’s like the writer is trying very hard to describe exactly what this type of nervousness feels like but it’s too specific to have that frisson of recognition or universality. I happen to hate anything the results from pieces of cardboard touching one another, but that’s me, and my personal biases may not belong in the scene about Nellie’s science presentation.

Aim for Organic Humor and Imagery

The examples convey a feeling of jamming a square peg in a round hole. The writer is working hard, but it’s coming across as heavy-handed. Sweat is blooming on her brow. She really wants you to get it — hence the explanatory writing. Oftentimes, though, the best images, jokes, turns of phrase, etc. are more simple and organic than that. Keep an eye out for instances where you might be explaining the joke in writing at the expense of your true meaning and goal in the moment.

Also, a round of applause to Bethanie Murguia, whose SNIPPET THE EARLY RISER was reviewed in the New York Times yesterday!

Are you working hard and not getting anywhere in your writing? Maybe you’re working too hard. Hire me as your developmental editor, and I can help you decide where to best apply your creative energy.

The Writing Craft and Writing a Good Sentence

The sentence is the smallest unit of thought in a novel, and I’ve been finding myself giving more and more sentence-related notes on writing craft lately. Writing a good sentence is clearly flummoxing a lot of writers. I’ll do a lot more talking about this in the near future, but I did want to prime you all to start thinking hard about your sentences by sharing an article I read a while ago. (The author is Christopher R. Beha, and the essay is here.)

writing craft, fiction craft, novel craft, sentence craft, writing a good sentence
Put all the fancy stuff aside. The key to writing a good sentence is writing simply.

Writing Craft vs. Overwriting

This essay may be old news to some, and it’s a bit long, but it’s still an excellent and thought-provoking read. I urge all of you to go through this and give it a lot of thought.

One of my favorite sentences from it:

You don’t develop a style by writing sentences that have no purpose other than to be stylish, sentences that seek to be self-contained works of art.

A-MEN! This ties into my ideas about overwriting, and writing good sentences by writing simply. One of my favorite notes to give to editorial clients is, “You’re saying something simple in a complicated way.

Meditate on that truism of the writing craft for a moment. Is style more important to you as a writer, or is substance? It’s always easy to tell which writers prioritize flash and making a good impression, over the ones who tend to put a premium on clarity.

Remember, writing a good sentence is, above all, about communication. Your first consideration should always be, am I getting across? The fancy stuff, more often than not, just gets in the way.

I work wither writers all the time as a book editor to hone their writing voice and develop their writing craft. If you’re ready to take the next step in your journey toward writing a good sentence (which is all there is to it, really), let’s talk.

POV in Writing: Avoid the Impartial Observer

A POV in writing that I see occasionally is a protagonist who’s a loner or  intellectual. They observe the action of the story from a distance as an impartial observer without getting too involved. We all know these types of wallflowers and, as writers, I’m guessing some of you fit this description perfectly. That’s what writers and shy kids do, they observe. While this is perfect in real life, it doesn’t work well for fiction. That’s not to say that your characters all need to be gregarious and outgoing, and you shouldn’t do away with characters who take pleasure in simply looking at the world.

pov in writing, impartial observer
If your protagonist is more of a camera than an active participant, liven them up with emotion and interiority.

But your POV in writing can’t simply be a video camera or a set of eyes. Your protagonist must participate in the novel and in the action, because the reader really only learns about them when they reach out and do something. They can think all they want, or talk all they want, but it’s not until they interact with the world that you’ve created that you’re living up to the show don’t tell rule.

The other concern with this type of character is that the impartial observer sometimes relays what’s in front of them in a dry, emotionless way. This is what I mean by my “video camera” comment, above. A piece of technology records the action without adding any of its own stamp (unless it’s Instagram and has all those nifty filters!). A POV in writing that records observations but doesn’t comment or react is about as useless as a nondescript point-and-shoot.

Effective POV in Writing Requires Interiority

Interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) is your best friend here. So if a character is not taking action, give them plenty of internal reaction to keep the reader connected to and invested in their experience. Still waters should run deep. Same goes for if you’re writing an aloof or mysterious POV–it’s very easy for readers who feel distanced from their protagonist to click off. You want to avoid this at all costs.

Writing Shy Characters

So if you want to do a shy character who doesn’t interact much, that is your creative choice, but you should be extra careful to make them a) a participant, not just an observer, and b) a colorful narrator of the story, not just a video camera. Force them into the action and, when they’re hanging back and looking, give them real narrative presence that injects events with voice and character and emotion. Otherwise, your wallflower could be just any old person, relaying a story in a detached, cold, and clinical way. Nobody wants that. So keep these things in mind when working with this type of character.

When you invest in my manuscript critique service, I’ll help you strengthen your main character’s POV.

Picture Book Alliteration

Picture book alliteration always annoys. Just kidding! Well, not always, but it’s getting there. Why? Because this is such a common technique that amateur writers use, so the overall quality is lacking. I’ve been thinking a lot about alliteration picture books recently, after working with a lot of picture book clients. Here are some more nuanced thoughts on the topic.

alliteration in picture books, alliteration writing, alliterative writing, alliteration, alliteration children's books, alliteration kid's books
The best picture books are fresh and vibrant, and alliteration dates a manuscript.

Picture Book Alliteration Is Overdone

This post isn’t inspired by any one picture book manuscript from that batch (so don’t worry, students, I’m not talking about one of you in particular)…and that’s the problem. One of my growing pet peeves about picture book writers (and their imaginations) is alliteration. You’ll often find alliteration in rhyming picture books.

Gosh, I have a lot of pet peeves, I know. But I sit here and read manuscripts all day. That’s what I do. Tens of thousands of them. And so I see a lot of common trends and writer mistakes that I know you don’t because you don’t read nearly as many different potential books as I do. It’s an issue of context.

A lot of people seem to think that the bulk of their characterizing work or word choice craft in picture books comes down to alliterating. And that’s it. Just name him Sammy Skunk and kick up your feet because your work here is done! Right? Not quite. And “Sammy Skunk skips smilingly down the springtime sage-speckled slope” is all you have to do in order to nail that pesky concept of voice! Right? Again…not really.

Alliteration Doesn’t Add As Much As You Think to a Picture Book Manuscript

But more and more, I get alliteration picture book submissions that lean way too heavily on alliteration in order to “accomplish” (so thinks their author) both character and voice. It’s a lot like rhyme. A lot of writers remember rhyme in picture books, so they think they have to write in rhyme. A lot of writers see picture book alliteration on the shelves, so they alliterate. Both cause scribes to contort themselves into a type of sentence pretzel of unnatural language.

In rhyme, writers adopt an almost Victorian syntax in order to make sure they end on the right word. In alliteration picture books, word order also tends to sound unnatural because you’re letting the first letter dictate your word choice. This blog post has a terrible opening line. “Alliteration always annoys.” Nobody talks like that! It doesn’t sound organic! But I had to in order to shoehorn some alliteration in there, and the writers in my slush perpetrate a lot worse in order to stay consistent at the expense of meaning.

So instead of lending you a coveted voice, picture book alliteration makes you sound contrived in most cases. And if I see another cutesy alliterative character name, I will scream. Aim for more sophistication in your writing, especially for the picture book audience. That will set you way, way, way above and beyond the rest of the slush.

Picture books are some of my favorite manuscripts to work on. If you’re using alliteration (or other cliché techniques) but suspect you could do better, hire me as your picture book editor. We’ll figure out your unique writing voice.

Overwriting in Writing Voice and Why It’s a Problem

Often, when I see writing voice 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. It’s a chronic inability to kill your darlings. 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.

overwriting and writing voice, how to write good fiction, overwriting, overwrought writing, kill your darlings
Dramatic scenes, high emotion, and moody setting are main traps for overwrought writing.

There are two types of overwriting that I see the most often.

Overwriting in Images

Lots of overwrought writing 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). Maybe 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, or maybe Team Kill Your Darlings,  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.

Simplicity in Writing Voice

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 overwrought writing. 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. A lot of room to kill your darlings here.

Developing Your Writing Voice

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.

Voice can be extremely tricky when learning to write fiction. Hire me to do developmental editing on your writing voice.