I love being a writer because there is always more to learn about the craft. And even if you do know something already, it never hurts to revisit the basics.
Today, Charlie Wilson from The Book Specialist gives us some tips on avoiding overwriting.
Whether you’re an aspiring fiction author or a seasoned novelist, overwriting is on your radar as an issue you need to fix before publication.
To overwrite, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is to ‘write too elaborately or ornately’.
Basically, you get a bit carried away being poetic and flowery, and the result is a writing style that draws attention.
‘What’s wrong with that?’ you may say. Nothing at all, if you’re writing a beautiful book – literary fiction, say, or a heart-wrenching romance (or you’ve got into a time machine and gone back a hundred years).
But the current trend in most genre fiction is to tell the story in simple terms, without ornamentation.
A character mostly said something; he didn’t cry it or lament it or bemoan it. He walked across the room, he didn’t meander across the sumptuous boudoir, each footfall cushioned by the velvety carpet.
Whether or not you agree with the modern-day preference for simple writing, it’s a fact. So if you want your novel to be well received by readers, you need to tackle overwriting. Here’s how.
Step 1: Overwrite to your heart’s content in the first draft
Notice that this article is about dealing with overwriting, not avoiding it, because you can’t avoid overwriting. The more books you write and then subsequently edit for overwriting, the less you overwrite – but most authors still overwrite to some degree when they’re in that magical (and of course highly poetic) writing flow that creates the first draft.
The first draft is all about getting the story down on paper, and you have to write the words that want to be written without fear of judgment. If you start worrying about overwriting at this stage, the words will dry up.
So lock your inner editor in a little box, and let the story flow onto the page. Right now, there’s no such thing as overwriting, only writing – and it feels brilliant.
Step 2: Take a breather
Once you’ve finished drafting your book to the point that you know you’re ready to shift into editing, step away from the computer/notebook! It takes some time to transition from fabulously creative artiste to serious, rigorous editor.
Either write something else for a few weeks, or (even better) allow yourself a total break from writing. If the thought of not writing for a while brings you out in a cold sweat, focus on researching your next novel or marketing an existing one.
Step 3: Read the book twice
The first time, you’ll be distracted by your emotional reaction – either a wondrous ‘Oh wow! I wrote this!’ or a dismal ‘Oh good grief. I wrote this?!’.
The second time, you’re ready to assess what you’ve written. As you read, consider the style and ask yourself: Is it over the top?
Don’t bother marking up overwriting; just get an overall sense of how big an issue it is in the book. Then, when you come to edit, you know whether to just tidy here and there, or carry out a large-scale overhaul of the style.
Step 4: Edit, edit, edit
Now’s the time to get really tough with yourself. Just because you got up at three a.m. to write a pretty paragraph that came into your head, doesn’t mean that pretty paragraph should be treasured if it’s overwritten.
As Stephen King put it in On Writing:
‘To write is human, to edit is divine.’
Go through the book line by line, looking for the following markers of overwriting:
- Language that shouts, ‘I have a dictionary and thesaurus and know how to use them’
- Dialogue in which characters aren’t speaking naturally, exactly as they would in real life
- Long sentences, long paragraphs, long chapters – an unusually long book for the genre
- Colorful and attention-grabbing imagery, especially if it keeps cropping up
- Multiple adjectives (one or none often works best)
- Multiple adverbs (one or none often works best)
Basically, question any writing that feeds your ego, making you pat yourself on the back and say, ‘Clever me! Look what I wrote.’ If in doubt, leave it out.
I advise doing this ‘overwriting audit’ separately, not as part of a structural edit or copy-edit. Focus only on overwriting and you stand the best possible chance of spotting all the instances you stray into an elaborate style.
Step 5: Get feedback
Offering your book up to others for feedback (which invariably feels like criticism) is hard. It’s especially hard when you invite feedback on overwriting. Being told that your character’s hair color changes in Chapter 5 is easier to take than being told that your denouement is so overwritten it’s silly.
Still, wouldn’t you rather know about that overwriting now rather than after publication?
Whether you work with a professional book editor or a team of beta readers, feedback on overwriting is invaluable. At this stage, you’ll either discover some overwriting you’ve missed, or you’ll find that you’ve successfully stripped out all the overwriting (hallelujah!).
A final caveat: remember that feedback needs to be impartial. You don’t need feedback from your mum, who’s super-proud of anything you create. You need feedback from people who know your genre and expect your book to measure up against the competition.
Step 6: Read the book one last time
Ideally, you take another breather before the final read (but of course production schedules rarely allow for such luxuries).
On this last read-through, relax. Try to read as a reader, not as the author. Go along with the story and believe in the characters. If any words or phrases jump out at you, drawing you away from the story world, jot them down and read on.
Go along with the story and believe in the characters. If any words or phrases jump out at you, drawing you away from the story world, jot them down and read on.
When you finish the book, go back and check those words or phrases. They may just be particularly fabulous parts of the book. They may be overwriting. Make a judgment call on each, and then…
Step 7: Let go!
There is such a thing as over-editing. Don’t make yourself miserable by endlessly tinkering and fretting about overwriting. When you feel like you’ve done all you can and want to do to your book, let go. Publish the book, with pride and confidence.
Then write the next book, happy in the knowledge that this time your writing will be even better.
Do you struggle with overwriting? Or have you conquered this part of the writing craft? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Charlie Wilson is a professional writer. For authors and publishers, she writes and edits books as The Book Specialist. For herself, she writes coming-of-age romance for young adults.