Back when we were newbie writers, we might have assumed our goal would be to perfectly replicate our ideas in our readers’ brains. We might have thought readers should picture our settings and characters exactly as we do, hear precisely the same tones of voices, and grasp every nuance of our characters’ emotions that we imagined.
However, that assumption of thinking every detail is equally important to understanding and enjoying our story leads many writers down the path of overwriting. And unfortunately, just because we’ve since learned that assumption was wrong, our overwriting habits might remain.
Imagine if an author described a character traveling from a store to their home by listing every single action:
She inserted the key into the ignition. Turned the key. Waited for the engine to engage. Slipped the engine into reverse. Expertly maneuvered the car out of its parking spot…
Yeeks. Not only is that boring to read, but if nothing happened during the drive to create an obstacle or conflict or epiphany, that all should be deleted and replaced with a transition like:
Back home, she carried her shopping bags inside and…
(get to the point of the next scene, like finding her ex had broken in and was waiting for her)
Unfortunately, I’ve seen passages like that in stories, which is a type of overwriting known as giving too much stage direction. Readers don’t need to be told that a character reached out their hand to open the door; a character can simply open the door.
Other types of overwriting include:
- too-long or repetitive introspection
- irrelevant or poorly-timed information dumps
- meaningless details in descriptions
- emotionally overwrought passages of purple prose
Obviously, as in the example above, overwriting slows down our pacing, but it can create other issues as well, such as repeating ideas and adding redundant information, preventing subtext, and not leaving room for our readers’ imaginations.
Whatever the type of overwriting, the cause is usually the same: not trusting our readers (or ourselves).
Last time Christina Delay joined us, she shared her advice on how to include unique sensory details when describing our settings. Today, she’s here with five steps to break the overwriting habit.
Please welcome Christina Delay! *smile*
The Curse of the Overwriter
I used to belong to a select group of writers who loved words. Not just loved, but lurved.
We loved words so much, we used them in redundant plethora, searching through the thesaurus to find the right word to fit tone and genre and our all-important voice. We emphasized this word, expanding on it with mountainous detail and lyrical setting, adding drama at every turn, and over-reactions to every conflict, no matter how small.
In short, we were a club of overwriters. Once I began to learn more about writing craft, I realized the Overwriter’s Club was less of a club and more of a curse.
What is Overwriting?
Overwriting happens when an author steps into the story, bulldozing characters out of the way like a bully at recess. The author cares more about writing the most beautiful, heart-stopping line, than letting the story unfold and characters play.
Otherwise known as purple prose, writing too many details, or getting too deep in the weeds of your story, overwriting is something we’ve probably all done at some point.
If you overwrite a line or two, then revise and trim during edits, don’t worry. You’re probably safe from the curse.
But if you’ve self-trained that every word you write matters and more is always better than less…it’s time to face the truth.
You’ve been cursed.
The Overwriter’s Curse is, I believe, one of the most dangerous writing curses out there. Why? Because it’s often invisible to the author who has been cursed.
Overwriting causes hiccups in the story. It pulls the reader out of your scene and makes them remember that there is a real world surrounding them. A world that may include folding laundry or feeding kids.
We don’t want that.
Some of my favorite lines in earlier drafts of my WIP were overwritten lines. They were beautiful lines. Lines that, when I shared them out of context, got comments like OMG and NYT and Love this!
For example, this, from my young adult novel, Nocturne:
I stuffed the pain deep inside a fraying bag attached to my soul. Right between the one that overflowed with anger and the other that bulged with fear.
These lines had received rave reviews. And out of context, they ain’t so bad.
But in context…those shiny lines are revealed for what they truly are. A distraction.
But her words, her sympathy, slit tiny papercuts into everything I believed to be true.
I stuffed the pain deep inside a fraying bag attached to my soul. Right between the one that overflowed with anger and the other that bulged with fear. I sat down on the front steps and buried my face in my knees. The urge to work on my art had been snatched by a pair of talons and carried far away on shimmering wings.
Do you see how it’s too much? It halts the story. We don’t get to the action that comes next because I spent way too much time on my lovely metaphors. (I lurve metaphors.)
But her words, her sympathy, slit tiny papercuts into everything I believed to be true.
I sat on the front steps of Prospect Prep and buried my face in my knees. The urge to work on my art had been snatched by a pair of talons and carried far away on shimmering wings.
Now, we’ve got story movement. I got to keep one of my pretty lines. And then I got right back to the business of storytelling.
The Underlying Issue
Or rather, mistrust.
This happens in one of two ways. Or, in cases of the extremely cursed, both.
- First, the author mistrusts the reader to pick up on emotion, tone and mood through the subtle clues already woven into the story. (*waves hand and blushes*)
- Second, the author mistrusts his or herself to communicate to the reader what the emotion is during the scene. (*waves hand and blushes again*)
In the example above, did I need to go into the detail about the exact emotion my main character was feeling? Certainly not. The action did that for me.
Not only that, but leaving out the express telling of the emotion left a microscopic puzzle for the reader to solve. And if the reader is solving puzzle after puzzle in your story, you can bet they feel invested and connected to your characters and no amount of the dryer buzzing or the kids whining will pull them out.
Five Steps to Break the Curse
If any of the above sounds familiar to you, don’t panic! I was cured, you can be too.
- Ask a critique partner to flag any moment where they get pulled out of the story. As you read through their comments, you’ll begin retraining your brain to notice those moments as well.
- Look for large chunks of text, especially if that text is setting or introspection. Ask yourself these questions: What can you cut? What is redundant? What are you telling that you have already shown?
- Search for moments of action that are proceeded by moments of reflection. Quite often, that reflection should be cut or trimmed.
- Trust yourself and trust your reader. Your critique partners are there to tell you when the story doesn’t work. Once you’ve been through multiple critiques and drafts, learn to trust. You’ve got this. You don’t need the crutch of words to explain everything that’s going on under the surface.
- Finally, read. Read, read, read. But read with intention. Pick bestsellers from your genre and study how those authors communicate emotion, mood, and tone to the reader.
Follow these steps to retrain your brain and soon the overwriter’s curse will be a kicked habit, one both recognizable and avoidable in all your future manuscripts.
Christina Delay is the hostess of Cruising Writers and an award-winning author represented by Deidre Knight of The Knight Agency. When she’s not leading retreats, she’s dreaming up new destinations to take talented authors on or writing the stories of the imaginary people that live in her heart.
About Cruising Writers:
Join us in the beautiful Languedoc of Southern France this April and stay in a historic chateau with world-renown writing craft instructor Margie Lawson, NYC-based literary agent Louise Fury, Publisher Liz Pelletier with Entangled Publishing, Amazon bestselling author Shelley Adina, European Manager for Kobo Writing Life Camille Mofidi, and President of Literary Translations Athina Papa.
Thank you for another fantastic post, Christina! I love your point about how the problem is that we lack trust in our readers or in ourselves. That’s so true, especially as we first start writing.
Now, that I’m experienced, I can find and fix the issues easily, but my first drafts of big emotional turning points still tend toward one extreme or another. One time I might underwrite and fail to lead readers through the character’s emotional journey, and the next time I might overwrite with paragraphs all expressing the same ideas, as I search for the perfect wording.
As long as we can recognize our habits and fix them in editing, we’ll be fine. Our first draft is all about discovering our story, and we can worry later about adding or cutting as needed to reach the right balance for our story.
However, if we struggle with bad habits—especially if we can’t recognize them ourselves—hopefully Christina’s advice will get us back on track. No matter how beautiful our writing, overwriting can be a distraction for our story and our readers, but the right balance can keep our readers engaged with our story. *smile*
Have you seen overwriting in stories before? Can you think of other overwriting types that weren’t mentioned here? Have you struggled with overwriting? Do you have other tips to share? Do you have questions for Christina?Pin It