Overwriting—taking a heavy-handed, overly elaborate approach to writing prose—is a phase many writers go through. Though using lots of flourish and abandon may seem brilliant during the creative writing process, at Writer’s Relief we know the final results can sometimes strike readers as ostentatious and, well, overdone. In short, overwriting is overkill.
But…is overwriting always a bad thing? Is there a way to self-edit overwriting problems out of a story and make the prose less “purple”? How does a writer even know if he or she is guilty of overwriting?
Here Are 8 Signs That You Might Be Overwriting
Your characters are muttering, sighing, and exclaiming. Most of the time, the simple attribution of said (as in he/she said) is sufficient to allow readers to move easily through prose. People tend to get tripped up on overly descriptive attributions like “he muttered” or “she rejoiced.”
Editors are speaking in code about your work. If you find that editors, critique partners, and other readers are using any of the following phrases to describe your writing, then you might want to consider that overwriting could be an issue for you:
- Your writing needs to be tightened up.
- The pacing moves too slowly.
- This scene/passage/chapter drags.
- The description goes on too long.
- Find a way to move the action along more quickly.
Read more: The Author’s Unofficial Guide To Critique Translation.
You think word count restrictions are unrealistic. If you’re routinely submitting overlong short stories or you believe word count guidelines shouldn’t apply to you, then you might be guilty of overwriting.
Editing makes your writing longer, not shorter. Many professional writers use their first draft to write whatever comes to mind—to explore without restriction or self-censorship. Then, they create a second draft by mining the raw material of the first draft, identifying what to keep and what to let go. If you find that your long first draft gets even longer after editing, you could be “writing too hard.”
You’re using ginormous words, forcing readers to break out their dictionaries. Word lovers naturally adore obscure, archaic, and esoteric vocabulary. But most readers tend to feel excluded (and befuddled) by uncommon words. And when your readers have to stop and look something up in order to understand what’s happening in your writing, it breaks the flow. Use unfamiliar words with care.
You’re painstakingly crafting long, elaborate, florid, scrolling sentences that pile on a LOT of ideas. If your sentences wind with serpentine languor through a dense jungle of ideas—before finally dwindling to a sluggish stop—then you might be asking too much of your prose (and way too much of your readers). Long paragraphs can also be symptomatic of overwriting.
You really, really enjoy bedazzling metaphors and showstopping imagery. Writing that is oversaturated with metaphor and imagery is a bit like walking into a baroque-style room—there’s just too much going on to appreciate any one thing at all. Plus, fancy (or reaching) metaphors can actually backfire: Instead of inviting readers deeper into the world of the story, they jerk them right out of it—forcing them to stop thinking about the emotion/action and to think about the words instead.
There’s an overabundance of adjectives. Instead of choosing one precise adjective, overwriters will load them into sentences by the shovelful—and basically lessen the effectiveness of all of them.
Overwriting: The Fine Line Between Effective Description And Total Overkill
Good description is like an arrow that’s drawn back to precise tension, aimed by the author, and let fly straight into the bull’s-eye. Readers don’t even notice its effectiveness until it’s deep in the target.
Overwritten description is the opposite—a helter-skelter dump of untargeted bombs dropped en masse in hopes that something will hit the mark. Readers are left bewildered, overwhelmed by shock-and-awe tactics that leave them feeling dumfounded but not necessarily impressed.
However, the difference between overwriting and efficient writing is not always clear. What reads like “overwriting” in one instance might be perfectly effective in another. Plus, while some readers might cringe at a particularly purple description, others find themselves basking in the warm, lovely glow of a world illuminated for them in a new, unexpected way.
The only way to know if you’re writing too much, not enough, or just the right amount is to look at your writing with self-awareness and objectivity.
Four Examples Of Overwriting
Here are four paragraphs that are arguably overzealous, overdone, and overwritten. Take a moment to reflect on your feelings about the writing styles.
Overwriting Example Number One
The following is a passage from The French Revolution: A History (1837) by Thomas Carlyle, as quoted by Bill Bryson in his book At Home. At the time, the book was one of the most ardently admired works of prose in its day. Fans included Oscar Wilde and Charles Dickens. That said, today the work is often derided for its wildly baroque style. Here, the author introduces us to the inventor of the guillotine:
And where the Doctor Guillotin, whom we hoped to behold one other time? If not here, the Doctor should be here, and we see him with the eye of prophecy: for indeed the Parisian Deputies are all a little late. Singular Guillotin, respectable practitioner; doomed by a satiric density to the strangest immortal glory that ever kept obscure mortal from the resting-place, the bosom of oblivion! [sic]
What makes this an example of overwriting: The writer seems more concerned with being lofty than being coherent. Lots of words, not a lot of meaning.
Overwriting Example Number Two
These examples of overwriting were purposely penned by Writer’s Relief staffers (and it was way too much fun):
He walked down a street that was as dark as the soot of the fires burning in hell, and lit only by the smudgy pinpricks of murky orange streetlights shining through the wispy, scrolling, meandering gray fog. At this time of night, the streets were quiet and still as death—the lack of sound as opaque and uniform as the blackness itself. When he occasionally heard some small distant sound—such as a caterwauling squabble between alley cats, or some abrupt and unnerving shout uttered by an unseen voice—the sound was muffled, dark, and full of loneliness. It was the kind of night that gave a guy the creeps.
What makes this an example of overwriting: There’s actually a lot of repetition in this paragraph. The author bangs so hard on the point that the street is both dark and creepy that the reader feels beaten about the head. All right! We get it! It’s dark, it’s creepy! Move on! And then, in the last line, the author makes a “summarizing” statement that essentially explains everything that was just said—in case the reader really didn’t get it.
Overwriting Example Number Three
“Dis is da best day of my whole wife!” the little girl exclaimed happily, clutching the new kitten to her chest and beaming with excited elation. “I’m gonna call you sweetie cos you’re da sweetest wittle fing ever!”
Kara smiled beatifically at her daughter, stroked the little girl’s hair with loving appreciation, and bussed a kiss on her daughter’s forehead. The sun was shining and the wind was whispering gently through the trees, the light turning her daughter’s hair into a heavenly halo. The little kitten dug its tiny claws into the girl’s sweater, as if clinging to hold on at all costs, and she thought how fitting that it would do something like that at a time like this. “But this is just temporarily, darling. The kitten is only staying with us for a few weeks. Then he will be going to live on Aunt Emmy’s farm in order to chase away the mice and rats that live in the barn.”
The little girl’s smile jerked into a pout faster than the blink of an eye. A cloud passed before the sun, and Kara felt a chill pass over her skin. “No! Mama, no!” she bemoaned loudly. “Dis is my wittle kitty.”
What makes this an example of overwriting: Along with lots of sneaky repetition and overwrought imagery (that calls too much attention to itself in a clumsy way), this passage is dragged down by heavy-handed description that slows down the pacing. Plus, the daughter’s cloying dialogue is almost painful to read.
Overwriting Example Number Four
They were weary and fatigued, the trail long, the hours grueling, the endlessness overwhelming them with its vast impossibility—distances beyond fathoming. To cope, they jettisoned their minds away from the walking, the trudging, the slogging, and instead tried to distract themselves with ebullient songs and by reliving exuberant reminiscences of easier times. Crepuscular creatures crooned a haunting, hair-raising chorus of spine-chilling wildness, calling eerily and implying the possibility of Darwinian violence.
What makes this an example of overwriting: This paragraph takes a “more-is-more” approach. It uses adjectives galore—including words like weary and slogging, which are not typically used in everyday conversation. When too many embellishments are jammed into a single sentence, the actual meaning of the sentence is obscured.
6 Easy Self-Edits That Can Immediately Correct Common Symptoms Of Overwriting
Your first (or even second) draft is not the time to worry about whether or not you are overwriting. Use your early drafts to explore your ideas—then turn to the editing process to scrutinize your prose for overwrought language.
Cut excessive adverbs. Often, verbs that are augmented with adverbs can be swapped out for more efficient word choices. Instead of “she sat down dejectedly,” try “she slumped.” Instead of “he said excitedly,” just stick with “he said,” and let the excitement show in the character’s words.
Search your description for one or two good ideas, then let the rest go. Instead of including every descriptive image that crosses your mind, focus instead on the best ones. Ideas that stand alone stand out.
Take the mic away from characters with long speeches. Characters who go on (and on) might accidentally dilute the power of their own message with long-winded verbiage. If your character must get on a soapbox, remember: Often, less is more.
Don’t leave characters alone too long. Storytelling is often about juxtapositions that create conflict. If your character is sitting alone for hours (and pages) on end, waiting for the phone to ring, or mulling about what happened yesterday, you’re in an overwriting danger zone. Instead, dramatize a character’s inner turmoil through action, rather than asking readers to passively eavesdrop on a character’s rambling inner debate.
Weed out repetition. In our examples of overwriting, discerning readers will notice lots of repetition. That doesn’t always mean an obvious string of words all meaning the same thing. Instead, there is a repetition of intention—a single concept driven home again and again in different ways. Scour your own writing for inadvertent repetition, and leave only what is most effective.
Pay attention to intense emotion. If you personally feel very strongly about a given paragraph or scene—or if your characters are having very intense feelings—pay special attention to your word choices. Ask yourself: Am I getting the emotionality across with precision and control? Or is this going a bit too far?
Does It Really Matter If You’re Overwriting?
While many editors and literary agents aren’t keen on purple-y prose, it’s our feeling here at Writer’s Relief that you should never—as a writer—apologize for your own taste. Writing for the market can be a smart career move for some people; but for others, trying to write in a way that doesn’t feel natural takes the joy out of the creative process.
And here’s a secret: It is possible to be guilty of all the literary faux pas we’ve listed above—and still not be guilty of overwriting. Every author’s style is unique.
In the right circumstances, moments of high drama can be enhanced by elaborate prose. Certain genres (like historical romance, for example) welcome esoteric vocabulary words. Sometimes, the most colorful words are the right words.
As a writer, you get to choose the language that best suits your vision. Spend some time evaluating your writing, decide what you love (or don’t), and then revise to your personal tastes.
Writer, can you help? What are your thoughts on overwriting in today’s publishing marketplace? Is it something you see often?
I couldn’t disagree more about the “said” thing. I’ve been rereading lots of older books, from classics to pulp. Said is not enough in many cases. Describing the way someone said something could be critical to the state of mind of a character. It’s why we have so many words to describe “how” something was said.
I know it’s popular today to just use “said,” and many great authors like James Ellroy are proponents, but there have been literary agents, as of late, who have tired of the flat burst style of language used, and first person narrative. They are looking for the third person, beautiful prose to take them away to another place. Just as an all active verb story can be exhausting to read, sometimes we long to visualize the scenery, understand a little more about a character with some backstory.
Remember when using even “said” was verboten (another stupid trend) and people became lost in trying to figure who was speaking. I remember rereading five pages of a popular book several times to do just that. I finally gave up and traded the book in for Game of Thrones. Now, we’ve returned to saying “he/she said.” We must never fall into the trap of a trend. Trends are stupid. If we’re to be true wordsmiths, we must use words, the perfect word, even if it’s a difficult one.
Very helpful article!
I could relate to these problems. As an editor, I see my share of overwriting. Many times it shows up because the author does not give the reader credit for understanding what is being said, as noted in example #2. I see plenty of run-on sentences. A variety of sentence lengths makes reading easier and more enjoyable. I take out a lot of helper words: like, very, so, really, etc., as well as words that soften meaning: like, seems, perhaps, might, etc. Words that dance around are less easy to follow than a straighter path. Thank you for an informative article.
I find that some exciting programs help eliminate overwriting.
If Melville had listened to this advice, Moby Dick would have been a pamphlet.
A very interesting article. I am a writer, but also a book reviewer, so I see a lot of “fluff” words to detail things that aren’t so important to the story. Overwriting sometimes feels like words were just inserted in order to meet a word count. I also find that the word “said” is not used enough, yes, sometimes, you need to add “sighed”, “yelled” or some other descriptive word, but I’ve seen many cases where nothing was used, and it took pages of reading just to figure out who was talking. As a writer, my writing is more dialogue driven, so I have to keep track of who says what to who and how they say it. This article has a lot of great points that I’ll take with me.
I agree with the final comment. Repeated use of said puts all the onus on the dialogue to convey the whole meaning. Often this causes the very overwriting the article is trying to avoid. A strong introductory or closing exclamation, Amos derided, or Shirley described longingly, takes much of the weight off the narrative. That said, where the exchange is more mundane, leave it at said. No need to overdramatize what is not dramatic. “It’s four o’clock” he said, “have a seat she said.”