I’ve read a fair amount of in-progress writing in my life—as an editor, as a student, as a friend to writers. And I’ve noticed that there is one mistake nearly all beginning writers make: they overwrite. They use five words where they ought to use two, or describe something in three sentences when they should only use one. Overwriting can be a big problem: it’s clunky; it’s sloppy; and heavy, overwrought passages can pull your reader out of an active moment they should be living alongside your characters. To be fair, overwriting is not a problem that is unique to beginning writers. To be even more fair, I admit that I do it constantly. And I graduated from a creative writing program! I write professionally! But more often than not, my first drafts are cluttered webs of linguistic junk.
There are all kinds of reasons why people overwrite, and I’m sure they’re different for everyone. One common reason, particularly for newer writers, is that they’re compelled to convey the same information several times in different ways in order feel confident that they’re getting their point across. Similarly, even more experienced writers will often pile on words and sentences in an attempt to locate the perfect way to express an idea. And there’s another, nearly universal reason why people overwrite: in the rush to get a thought out while you’ve still got hold of it, you’re usually not being careful with language.
So here’s the real difference between more experienced writers and those just beginning to work on their craft: those of us who have been writing for a while are simply better at correcting our own mistakes—up to a point, anyway. For most people, being a good writer is not about some magical ability to spit beautiful prose onto the page on your first try (though wouldn’t that be nice?). Rather, it’s about learning to fix the mechanical flaws in your writing to the greatest extent you can.
This is a skill that writers hone over the entire course of their careers. But a critical first step is to work with a good editor (like the ones we have at NYBE), learn from their suggestions and corrections, and apply those lessons to your own work. With that in mind, here are some tips on how to address common overwriting mistakes. Hopefully they’ll get you thinking!
1) Replace a long descriptive phrase with a specific term for what is being described.
“The tub in the bathroom” → “The bathtub”
“The table in the kitchen”→ “The kitchen table.”
“The glass window in the ceiling” → “The skylight.”
2) Make sure not to repeat previously stated information, or state things that are automatically implied by setting or context.
“I ladled out the soup in the kitchen of the apartment and brought it to my brother, who was sitting in the living room of the apartment” →
“I ladled out the soup in the kitchen and brought it to my brother, who sat in the living room.”
Notice how I removed both uses of the word “apartment.” Not only are they redundant, but since this sentence is pulled from a longer scene, location has previously been established.
3) Get rid of extra “little words” without sacrificing clarity or changing meaning.
“There is a courtyard in front of the entrance to the school and it is full of children.” →
“The courtyard in front of the school is full of children.”
Not only is the second sentence more concise, but there’s another subtle difference—by getting rid of phrases like “there is a,” or “and it,” or even “the entrance to,” I'm putting the reader directly into an active scene, rather than explaining the scene to them. When possible, get rid of all of those extra words that signal you are describing something, and present an image.
4) Watch for words, phrases, and sentences that describe identical things in different ways.
“The rising light of the sun was quickly brightening. Dawn was turning into morning.” →
“The dawn light brightened, giving way to morning.”
This is classic over-describing, as “the rising light of the sun” is inherently evoked by the concept of “dawn.” Furthermore, even within the first sentence there are redundancies: “rising light” means the same thing as “brightening.” Also, notice how much more vivid the corrected sentence feels. Using too many extra words dilutes the power and immediacy of the ones that really matter.
And here’s a slightly more complex example:
“She reluctantly handed over her purse, and nervously waited to have it placed back in her hands. She felt a rush of relief as the security guard finished his search handed it back to her.” →
“She was reluctant to hand over her purse, and felt a rush of relief as the security guard finished his search and placed it back into her hands.”
Here, we over-describe the character’s emotional state. Her reluctance to hand over the purse and relief when it is returned are more than adequate to imply her nervousness in the interim and general anxiety. Furthermore, the action of the security guard returning the purse is described twice—once as she anticipates it, and a second time as it’s actually performed.