Advice from a bestselling novelist helped me identify and tame my tendency to overwrite. I went on to land a two-book contract and an agent in the same banner day. My struggle with overwriting wasn’t over yet, though. Several rounds of edits from my publisher left me humbled and wiser. I explain in detail how I overcame my purple prose beasty and what you can do to conquer yours.
7 Ways to Avoid Overwriting
A sign bearing this quote by an unknown author hangs in my office, a powerful reminder that I write not to massage my mind but to be understood. I’ve had to learn this the hard way.
When Eric Wilson, a NY Times bestselling author, agreed to read the first chapter of an epic fantasy work-in-progress, I labored to make it stunning with awesome descriptions and catchy phrasing. Eric came back with the gentle remark that I am a good writer who doesn’t need to grandstand. Let the story shine through, he told me. After I got over my initial reaction to this comment, I reread my manuscript. Wouldn’t you know it, but he was right. I’d been showing off my skill with words rather than serving the story. I reworked DawnSinger, and it found a publisher.
I went over the manuscript a ‘last time’ before sending it to my publisher, hoping to avoid edits. One of my strengths as a writer, I am told, is the ability to bring settings to life for readers. Playing to this strength, I added even more description, having completely missed Eric’s advice that I needed to work on pacing. Back came my manuscript for the first round of edits with many of the descriptive passages I’d worked so hard to create either crossed out or marked for shortening. Through more rounds of edits than I’d care to admit to, I learned to carve away not only extraneous description, but everything that didn’t support the story.
When I edit I always confront that dreaded monster, Purple Prose. Over time I’ve cut that beasty down to size. Edits for Wayfarer, book two in my Tales of Faeraven trilogy, were lighter, and I believe they’ll be easier yet forDawnKing, book three. Eradicating my tendency to overwrite has developed my deep instinct for story, and anything that detracts annoys me as much as fingernails on a chalkboard.
The cure for overwriting is to focus on story.
I summed up my thoughts on the difference between storytelling and storycrafting for my agency’s blog, Wordserve Water Cooler in ‘Are You A Storyteller or Storycrafter?’ In this post I make the point that story always trumps craft. That’s not to say vivid descriptions and skillful phrasing aren’t important, but in the right places. Knowing where these are takes practice, humility, and the feedback of others. I can offer a few tips gleaned from my own experience, though.
How To Avoid Overwriting
1. Include your character in scene descriptions. I made the mistake of taking too literally the advice to treat your setting as a separate character. In every scene, describe the location as part of the point-of-view character’s experience. This will automatically cut out some tangents you might otherwise embark on.
2. Avoid excessive use of adverbs and adjectives. One sign of strong writing is that nouns and verbs pull their own weight and don’t need to be propped up with other words. Take the presence of an ‘ly’ word as a challenge to find a better verb or noun .
3. Avoid overuse of phrases using participles (words ending in ‘ing’). Strong sentences don’t need to lean on tacked-on phrases. However, it’s important to vary sentence structures, so eliminating participial phrases altogether isn’t necessary or desirable. Balance is the key here.
4. Be appropriate for your genre. Writers of fantasy or historical fiction often need to add a bit more description to convey foreign or bygone worlds. This doesn’t grant the writer a license to bog down readers in detail, though. One of the most important skills a writer can develop is the ability to convey a lot with an economy of words.
5. If you notice a string of little words in a sentence, chances are you can cut some of them or recast the sentence to avoid wordiness.
6. Let dialogue do its work. Pare beats or dialogue tags to those needed for clarity. Opinions vary on what is too little or too much, though. Watch for agreement in the feedback you receive. Where there is no agreement, trust your instinct as a storyteller.
7. Question every scene to make sure it needs to exist. Sometimes combining two scenes into one makes sense. If cutting a scene doesn’t impact the story, or if you can sum up an entire scene with a sentence elsewhere, your course is clear. Making cuts can help your pacing and decrease the likelihood readers will skip over passages. Readers who have not been slowed by extraneous passages will have more patience for your book overall.
Honing a strong sense of story can’t be taught, only refined. It can take time but is worth the effort. In a crowded marketplace a gifted storyteller stands apart.