Overwriting can plague the writer who is trying too hard to make readers know, feel or think a certain way. Writers do tend to be passionate about getting their points across—as they should be. But when writing goes beyond ultraviolet into purple prose, readers wind up frustrated and confused.
Writing Tip for Today: Why does overwriting sink prose, and what can be done to correct it?
Too Many Lazy Words
Overwriting can bog down your prose by overcrowding your landscape with words that beat around the meaning bush. The more words/sentences a writer uses to describe an idea or an action, the harder it becomes for readers to understand or imagine the point or reason for the description.
Several kinds of “overwriting words” come to mind. First, those pesky “ly” adverbs add little meaning when compared to a strong active verb. Nouns which are embellished with general words such as very, little, big or really don’t add much either. And when words I call “smoking materials” (abstract, formal or blanket terms) describe everyday objects, the word count shoots upward but comprehension suffers.
Consider the following sentences: “Suddenly, lightning struck!!! It was so loud and noisy, Debby screamed and lost hand control of her drinking glass, spilling it and shattering it on the Italian stone table.”
The rewrite: “Without warning, lightning struck. Debby screamed and dropped her glass, which shattered on the Italia stone table.” Notice how the rewrite uses fewer words but conveys the same actions. Suddenly is melodramatic, as is the use of exclamation points. Everyone knows a lightning strike is loud and noisy. Lost hand control is abstract and stiff, like calling a cigarette “smoking materials.”
So what’s wrong with a little variety? Saying “hand control” instead of dropping zooms out the camera and gives readers the feeling they’re reading an academic paper rather than an intimate story. In fiction, it’s important to help readers feel as close as possible to the story. Overwriting by using stiff or formal words removes the close bond with your readers and puts them in a more distant “Info only” space.
When you write, keep in mind your narrator’s age, education and regional influences. While the Professor might speak in formal or abstract ways, a child, a teen or a grandmother will have different vocabularies. Staying consistent with your characters increases your readers’ capacity to suspend disbelief.
Likewise, a construction worker from Alabama won’t think or speak the way a surfer from SoCal does. When you write, remember that everything on the page (not only the dialogue) should reflect your POV character’s way of thinking and feeling. Overwriting tends to remove readers from this unique way your character thinks and tells the story. Stay consistent with your POV character’s attitudes even in the narration.
Free Your Readers
Overwriting is an attempt to control the mental pictures and the meaning of what happens in the story. By confusing readers with excess words or switching to a more formal tone, readers will likely also subconsciously resent this much control.
Allow readers to imagine the story details in any way they choose. Don’t worry that your readers might not understand that your character has green eyes or that she has to turn off the coffeemaker before she leaves for work. Readers will assume daily rituals and imagine the details they need to experience the story. Readers enjoy discovering story clues or details without being forced to imagine the story in a narrow way.
Less really is more, so don’t worry about your readers getting the same picture you intend. Instead, work to use strong specific verbs and particular nouns. Let each word carry as much weight as possible. And filter every word through your POV character’s mind. Draft with as many words as you need to rough out a scene. In revision, though, challenge every word or phrase to maximize their meanings. Trim out excess descriptions, actions and sift for a tone that matches your POV character. By cutting out overwriting, your readers will thank you for clear and effective prose instead.