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  • Writer's picturePhil Parker

Writing 101: how to avoid overwriting

What is overwriting? Here are a few definitions you can find on the web:

  • Overwriting is what happens when you don’t recognize you’ve achieved your writing goal, so you just keep writing

  • Overwriting is a wordy writing style characterized by excessive detail, needless repetition, overwrought figures of speech, and/or convoluted sentence structures

  • Overwriting is the failure to make choices

  • According to the Oxford English Dictionary, overwriting is to ‘write too elaborately or ornately’.

You get the idea. There is a balance to be had in any writing. Too much detail and you risk losing your audience, the message, the sense of what you're writing. Too little and the same thing happens - your story may lack clarity, sense, the detail needed to engage and immerse your readers. It's like walking a tightrope.

How do you know if you've tipped that balance too far one way or the other? For me, the answer lies in that first bullet point; it's being ultra-clear about your writing goal and sticking to it. When you work with an editor their oft-repeated question is, "What are you trying to achieve here?" It suggests your goal isn't clear enough if they have to ask you! It should be obvious. This applies not just to a chapter, a paragraph - but to every sentence. It's not necessary to focus on this too much in your first draft - you're busy telling the story. It's in the second draft when you need to get ruthless and keep asking - have I fallen off the tightrope here?

In writing groups where I've participated I've found people who have been unaware of their overwriting. Often it comes down to:

  • Language that is complicated, overblown; you need a dictionary to find out what it means. As a writer they're proud of their extensive vocabulary but it can create a barrier for the reader

  • Long, elaborate, florid, scrolling sentences which contain too much information. Where the content ignores the need for understanding by the reader. By the end of the sentence the reader's forgotten how it started

  • Over-saturation of imagery, too many metaphors and similes - which displays the writer's skill but loses the reader's focus

  • Too much descriptive language, lists of adjectives and a reoccupation with adverbs.

Unless your goal is to write a literary masterpiece, keep it simple. Don't show off to your reader! Let the storytelling do that.

Curing overwriting requires you wielding the editor's red pen ruthlessly. Like this:

  • Cut excessive adverbs. Only use them when they achieve 'the goal'. Look at how I used ruthlessly just now. It defines the editorial process, wielding alone isn't enough. If I'd said, 'wielding the editor's pen to cut out what isn't required ruthlessly' - the adverb is now redundant. I'm making the same point twice

  • Select what needs to be described, use a couple of adjectives then move on. Not everything needs to be described, allow the reader to imagine some of it. Too much detail robs them of their imagination, it means you're controlling them

  • Keep dialogue pithy. Cut the long speeches. If there's lots of important information to be included, find other ways to communicate it. Long speeches belong on stage, in Shakespeare soliloquys

  • Don't allow your characters too much reflection. If they're ruminating about things to your reader, that internal monologue is no different to my previous point! Again, find other ways. You're breaking the rule of 'show, don't tell' this way

  • Avoid repetition. I don't mean avoiding the same word, avoid telling us something you've already said - but in a different way. Your reader isn't stupid, retelling information suggests they are. Repetition doesn’t create emphasis - that comes from new information

  • Keep emotion tight and precise. Too often we get carried away with dramatic events and characters overplay their reaction. Avoid overwriting by using the precise words to convey their emotions and the behaviour which displays them. Target the exact nature and cause of the emotion.

There are a couple of recurring features to this advice. First of all, we must avoid trying to show off as a writer. "Look how clever I am with my language, my stylish use of metaphor and my extensive vocabulary!" Readers aren't interested in how clever you are. They just want a story to be told without lots of embellishments.

Secondly, a writer needs to understand precisely what they're trying to achieve, on the micro and macro level. Each sentence needs a purpose and you must know exactly what it is. Not roughly. Exactly. In editing mode, from the second draft onwards, ask yourself - "What purpose does that sentence serve?" Then do the same with every paragraph. Then with every section or page.

Writing Task:

I was once given a writing exercise of creating a page of writing where (in review form in Word) I had to identify the purpose of every sentence I wrote. Such as: "Introduce Tom as kindly mentor." "Show Clare's irritable behaviour towards Andy." "Define the atmosphere around the kitchen table". I was then told to leave the document along for 2 days and then re-read it to assess if I'd achieved those goals. It's a great exercise, it teaches you precision. It stops you overwriting. Why not have a go yourself?


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