Tuesday, February 17

Avoid Overwriting – Subtle is More Sophisticated

By Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker

Part of the How They Do It Series

Please help me welcome our newest Fiction University Faculty member, Jodie Renner. She joins us today to share some tips on how to avoid overwriting. Look for her regular monthly articles with the Indie Author Series on Thursdays. (And don't forget to check out the contest on her blog for one of 15 writing and marketing books)

Jodie Renner is a freelance editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Fire up Your Fiction, Writing a Killer Thriller, and Captivate Your Readers. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. When she’s not reading or editing compelling fiction, Jodie enjoys combining her two other passions, photography and traveling.

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Take it away Jodie...

Overwriting or over-the-top writing, where it’s obvious the writer is trying way too hard to impress,can give an impression of lack of self-confidence and can scream “amateur” to industry professionals and discerning readers.

The novice writer prone to overwriting might take a basic idea, image, or action and keep adding more fancy descriptive words until the bloated passage has grown way out of proportion to its importance to the story as a whole.

Overwriting can be irritating, as all those extra words or flashy bling-bling get in the way of the story we are trying to read. Readers start skimming to get back to the character and her intriguing problems.

What exactly is overwriting?

What are some of the signs that signal a forced effort and lack of confidence on the part of the writer?

According to writing guru Richard Nordquist, overwriting is “a wordy writing style characterized by excessive detail, needless repetition, overwrought figures of speech, and/or convoluted sentence structures.”

Overwriting, in its extreme, is also described as flowery writing or purple prose. The Oxford English Dictionary says purple prose is writing that is “too elaborate or ornate.”

Some signs of overwriting include:

Too much description, too many extravagant words, too many adjectives and adverbs, extreme reactions and over-the-top emotions, too much detailed introspection, wordiness in general, and repetition of words and concepts.

Why is overwriting a problem?

Not only can overwriting seem saccharine sweet or oily rich, but any of the above tendencies often stop the action, slow down pacing, and interrupt the forward flow of the story.

As Strunk and White say in The Elements of Style, “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.”

Readers want to get immersed in a great story, and overwriting detracts from their experience and can be irritating enough to invite negative reviews.

Fortunately, unlike a serious plot problem or boring characters, overwriting can be reined in through some judicious cutting and revisions. It’s all about paring down any overdone passages until you’re left with only the words your story needs for the optimal impact, imagery, and tone you’re after.

How do we recognize and correct the problem of overwriting in our manuscripts?

Overwriting can be an exaggerated passage or scene, or it can be a cluttered paragraph or even an overly wordy sentence where fewer direct, to-the-point words would be much more effective. Weeding is especially important in mundane scenes, where every little detail won’t be of interest to most readers.

Here’s an example of overwriting in an ordinary scene, which cries out for a good decluttering:
She put the kettle on to boil, opened the cupboard, scanned her varieties of teas, chose a box of Earl Grey, pulled out a teabag, dropped it in the teapot, and added the boiling water. While it steeped, she took a fresh-baked carrot cake out of the refrigerator, sliced it, and arranged some pieces on a fancy plate.

Boiled down to its essence, it becomes something like:
She made a pot of Earl Grey tea and served that with fresh-baked carrot cake.

All that extra detail in the first version is really not necessary; it just slows down the pacing and can be quite boring to most readers. Often, less is more.

More examples of overwriting:

“That’s not true and you know it!” Norman walked angrily across the moss-green thickly carpeted floor of his sunlit corner office, ignoring the shelves of well-worn books that lined the walls as he picked up the brass-framed sepia-toned photo that adorned the top of the mahogany desk that had been his father’s and grandfather’s. “Here’s the proof!”

“That’s not true and you know it!” Norman crossed his office and picked up a framed photo from his desk. “Here’s the proof!”

“That’s not true and you know it!” Norman strode to his desk and snatched up a framed photo. “Here’s the proof!”

And here’s another example, disguised from an author submission I received several years ago:
Hunched over the leather-covered steering wheel of his roadster, Harold Edmundson tore his weary eyes from the serpentine shadowed road ahead to glance at the round dashboard clock; it was twenty minutes to ten.

He had barely moved an inch from the rigid driving position throughout the three-hour motorway journey, and now his tall, lean, muscular physique was craving release from its confinement in the metal cage of the sports car. In a deft movement of his tan leather gloved hand, he unfurled the black bow tie and unbuttoned the starched white collar. He massaged his stiff neck, tense shoulders, and aching back against the cream leather seat and stretched out his numbed arms against the wheel.

The windscreen wipers labored like a pair of frenzied metronomes to clear his vision for what lay ahead of him, but this landscape was indelibly marked in his mind. He could readily anticipate its twists and turns and trickeries as he had charted this dénouement in his dreams, day and night, for years.

Perhaps you’d like to write an “after” example of this one in the comments below?

And here’s an example of purple prose in a romance:
He gazed at her waves of daffodil-colored tresses tumbling over her alabaster skin, framing her heart-shaped face, her smooth neck and ample breasts a portrait of haunting beauty. He devoured the image before him: the sparkling azure eyes with lush lashes, the glossy cupid bow beseeching his kiss, the graceful contours of her neck and shoulders that led his gaze down to the fulsome orbs and inflamed buds of her breasts.

Overcome with the need to touch her, he stroked her silken hair and caressed her downy skin. He covered her rosebud lips with his and kissed her, first tenderly then ravenously, capturing her tongue in his, drawing her in to him.

Most readers will find this kind of extreme writing laughable.

Just as rich foods and ultra-sweet desserts can be satisfying and enjoyable in small quantities, too much will make us feel ill; rich descriptive passages (but not to the extreme of the last example!) can work well in certain instances that warrant them. But they should be used sparingly, only where the situation warrants, and should be surrounded by sparser text for relief and to emphasize their significance.

One of the most important skills a writer can develop is the ability to convey a lot with an economy of words. It’s all about trimming the fat to allow readers room to breathe and a chance to grasp the essence of your meaning, then they can fill in any details themselves. Also, readers don’t want to be bludgeoned over the head with exaggerated reactions and emotions that dictate to them how to feel. They want to decide for themselves how they’re going to react to what’s going on in your story.

Concrete tips for dealing with overwritten passages or purple prose:

Focus on the actual story – the struggles of the character to survive or reach her goal.

Revisit any lengthy descriptions. Your depictions of scenes and people should be filtered through your character’s viewpoint, and only elements that are relevant to the scene and their experience of the moment should be included. Leave extensive descriptions of scenery for travelogues.

Similarly, keep descriptions of characters to a minimum. Paint with broad brushstrokes, highlighting physical attributes that affect their character or personality or life, and let readers fill in the unimportant details.

Cut back on lengthy introspective moments where the story gets pushed aside and stalls out.

Cut back on literary devices like metaphors, similes, alliteration and other figurative language that distract the reader and scream, “Aren’t I clever?” Use them judiciously, in more leisurely, thoughtful scenes.

Don’t overdo or belabor character emotional reactions.
Understated is often more powerful. Make sure your character reactions and feelings aren’t exaggerated in relation to the actual event.

Don’t over explain or say the same thing in two or three different ways. Trust the readers to get it the first time.

“Kill your darlings” – those lovely passages you’ve slaved over and love, but that just don’t fit in this story for one reason or other. Cut them here and save them in a file called “extras” or “for future use” or whatever.

Don’t have nonstop intense action. Give your readers a breather from time to time. If your powerful words and scenes are going to get a chance to have the desired effect on the reader, they need time to work before the next intense scene. Even in thrillers, the hero needs an opportunity to catch his breath and work out his next step.

Specific tips:

Avoid excessive use of adjectives and especially adverbs. (To flag adverbs, do a search for –ly words.)Instead, search for strong, precise nouns and verbs.

Replace distracting dialogue tags like “he chortled” and “she reiterated” with “he said” and “she said.”

Replace esoteric, conspicuous, or abstract words with concrete, exact words that readers will immediately associate with the imagery and mood you’re trying to convey.

Pare down any wordiness or overblown language in dialogue. If a character goes on for more than about three sentences, break it up. Also, people don’t tend to speak in complete, well-constructed sentences, especially in casual conversation.

Make every word count. Go through your manuscript paragraph by paragraph, word by word, and ask yourself if every word is contributing to the mood and driving the story forward. If not, cut it. Ideally, many words, especially descriptions of characters and setting, should do double duty – they should also enhance the characterization, tone, and mood.

Lean language is especially important for tense scenes or anywhere you want fast pacing.
Don’t commit the beginners’ faux-pas of describing the scenery while the character is running for her life!

But, of course, don’t go to the other extreme and make your writing too stark, laconic, or clinical. You do want to bring your characters and scenes to life for the readers, and that entails describing the surroundings and showing character reactions. Just be sure not to cross over into purple prose, and remember – story trumps all.

So don’t muddy the waters – let your story shine through. Get out your red pen or click on the delete button and get rid of all extraneous description, over-the-top language, and anything else that doesn’t support the story. The most important task of the revising and editing process is to ensure that every word is just the right one for that spot.

Write directly, and just tell the story. Strive for clarity and a forward momentum.

About Captivate Your Readers: An Editor's Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction

This third guide to writing compelling fiction by sought-after editor and award-winning author Jodie Renner provides concrete advice for captivating readers and immersing them in your story world.

It’s all about engaging readers through the use of techniques such as using deep point of view, showing instead of telling, avoiding author intrusions, writing dialogue that’s real and riveting, and basically letting the characters tell the story.

Today’s readers want to put aside their cares and chores and lose themselves in an absorbing story. This book shows you how to provide the emotional involvement and immediacy readers crave in fiction.

As William Faulkner advised one of his fiction-writing classes, “...get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says.”

So don’t impose your preconceived ideas on the character – you risk making him do things he just wouldn’t do. Know your characters really well and the rest will naturally follow. This book provides techniques for making sure your characters stay unique, charismatic and authentic.

And like her other writing guides, the format of this one is also reader-friendly, designed for busy writers, with text broken up by subheadings, examples, and lists, and plenty of concrete tips.


  1. Good examples. I guess a good test is if your eyes glaze over as you are reading, it's overwritten. So, easy to see in others. :) The trick is teaching our brains to read our writing just as it it written.

    1. So true about when our eyes glaze over, Southpaw! Now if we could only use that same critical detachment when editing our own work! I find changing the font, printing it up, and reading it in a different location (preferably not at home) all help.

  2. Thanks for inviting me back to guest post on your highly respected blog, Janice, and I'm thrilled to be on your faculty for the indie stream! :-)

  3. Such a great article! For beginners like me, the difference between building an 'atmosphere' of a scene and overwriting can be quite blurred, so examples are a huge help. I definitely use too many adverbs, and my sentences are usually too long. This is hard to avoid since, to me at least, most prose where sentences are short feels very 'clipped' and unpleasant to read.

    I rewrote the first example and managed to slash the word-count by one third, though now I can see it could still stand being much, much shorter. Does anybody else care to try? Let's see how concise we can get! :)

    Harold Edmundson tore his eyes off the road to glance at the clock; it was twenty to then. After the three hours of confinement inside the sports car, his hands have almost merged with the leather of the steering wheel.
    With his left hand, he loosened his bow tie and unbuttoned the collar. Straightening himself, he massaged the cramps in his neck, back, and shoulders.
    The wipers barely kept up with clearing off the view ahead, but for Harold, the curves of the road hid no surprises. It was the same as the route he had dreamed about for years, every day and every night.

    1. Great job, Anon! Maybe just "After three hours driving the sports car,..." Then I'm sure you meant to write "his hands had" And actually, does it matter which hand he used to loosen his tie? And do we need to specify "with his hand"? Readers will assume he's using his hand to loosen his tie, so something like "He loosened his bow tie..."

      Thanks for your contribution - it's a big improvement over the original! :-)

  4. Loved this article, Will be bookmarking for future reference. The one item that really struck me is saying the same thing two or three different ways. Guilty.

  5. I love reading all of this great information on how I can work to improve my writing. Being a newbie and feeling insecure at writing a novel this was tremendously helpful!! Thanks so much..cheers!

  6. Jodie, I'm killing my darlings right now! Yes, it's painful at first, but I don't mind once I see that the story is better for it. Plus, I keep those nuggets in a separate document in case I ever want them back (of course I never go back and get them). Thanks for the wonderful advice!

  7. Just found this in my in-box. Great stuff! Passed it along to my writers' group.