How Do You Stop Overwriting?Mar 24, 2019
The ailment of overwriting afflicts most first drafts. It is the writer's common cold. If you have been multiply rejected by literary agents, I can almost guarantee you suffer from this illness. Your writing obscured the story. You have probably sent out your work too soon.
You must treat your manuscript for this sickness before you share the novel with anyone. The advice which follows is to be taken lightly by those writing a first draft. You've got to get the material down by any means necessary and forgive it on first draft. But those on second draft and beyond should seize this advice firmly.
What do I mean by overwriting?
If you're writing a rollicking good yarn, a plot-driven story, then you won't want overwriting to detract from 'what next'. A chapter advances the character's problem inexorably.
Overwriting is a handbrake turn, or a slow tedious slide back down the hill. The reader-passenger is slamming their foot on their imaginary gas pedal, though there isn't one on their side, and meanwhile you're telling them all about the view and your early childhood memories.
- didactic prose - everything you know about a certain subject, philosophical, spiritual, political - which the reader didn't ask you about. A lecture thinly disguised. They can Google it if they're interested. They'd be reading about it in a non-fiction book if they were interested. Please drop it. Please. I'm begging you.
- borrowed manners - from 'Forsooth' through to 'He was one sick dude...'. trim it back and spare the blushes. You have to jig between what is spoken, or intended as a period or location nod, and what is received and 'taken as read'. A little goes a long way when it's in black and white on a page.
- blue skies - there are only so many ways to tell us about something we have all seen many times before.
- fear and trembling - too much inner-voice comes across as a pity-fest and is boring. Our sympathies are limited, we want to know what happens next. Avoid telling us how fearful he or she is.
- common phrases and set pieces - I shall be very happy if I never come across another heart pierced with ice-cold fear. Conventions often come with an adverb for free. There's also the fact that they grab the reader by the scruff of the neck to instruct them in the scene. Other words do this too, read on!
- buffoonery - I can't stand the following words which I'd even ban from middle-grade books as they are so pushy and clumsy; grin, chuckle, chortle, pout, wail, snigger.
- adverbs - I don't say adverbs are the devil's work. But they are a symptom of the illness of overwriting. We use them freely in conversation and that's where they should be found, where they'd occur naturally in speech, but where you spot them in your prose, you will want to pare them back for a clean and lucid reading experience.
“I never say ‘She says softly,' If it’s not already soft, you know, I have to leave a lot of space around it so a reader can hear that it’s soft.” Toni Morrison.
You need to get out of your own way and get on with the story.
"A reader reads a book. If it's a good book, he forgets himself. That's all a book has to do. When the reader can't forget himself and keeps having to think about the writer the whole time, the book is a failure." Herman Koch.
It's not that I am prescribing a formula for literature. Tools not Rules at The Novelry. It's that by getting a firm grasp on your material you begin to assess what's vital (as in important and lively) and what's not. These methods help you see the wood for the trees.
1. Pluck out stray adjectives and adverbs which add nothing or are not new.
2. Cut the descriptive passages. Pinpoint the detail with bullet phrases.
3. Trim your sentence lengths.
Here are some first chapter average sentence lengths:
- A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman - 7.33
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - 11.43
- Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean - 12.52
- Disgrace by JM Coetzee - 12.87
- Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - 14.03
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway - 15.16
- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens - 17.66
Do you have eyes, but fail to see?
It's not so easy is it? But you don't want to share that first draft with anyone! So what to do?
I ran my first and last chapters of my second draft of my current novel in progress through ProWritingAid.
I set it to 'Creative Writing' and 'UK English' and pressed play.
The last chapter scored far better for readability than the first chapter. This surprised me at first. I have re-written my first chapter hundreds of times. The last chapter I put together afresh just yesterday. ProWritingAid was able to detect the overwrought, tense quality of prose trying a wee bit too hard and I decided to relax that first chapter by forcible intervention!
Short sentence length. 10.7. I was gratified to see my authorial intentions had worked out. A nice short average sentence length was the game plan.
Low Reading Age. Fleish-Kincade Grade 3.9. This means a reader of 8-9 and up could tackle it. I was pleased to see the low reading age score. I have been trying to create a work that is touching, funny and unpretentious.
Readability Score - 86 out of 120 possible.
Reading Ages of Some Well-Known Books using the Flesch-Kincaid Scale:
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt 7.2
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 5.9
- The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway 4.2
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck 4.1
Using the Tools.
I knew that at about 82k total for my second draft, I would be looking to trim almost 10% in the third draft. I thought that might be tricky. But once I began going through the tools offered by ProWritingAid it all became very easy.
When it came to the 114 suggestions, I took a dim view at first. Style suggestions? But, no. This way of writing is my house style. Le Style de Maison. Le Maison de Ma Plume! I spurn your algorithms!
Sadly, even the oldest and ugliest of writers can be resistant to being schooled. But for a writer, pride is never good. So I thought I'd go through their tools to fix these things to see what happened to the text.
Adverbs - easy, there weren't many - let's delete some of those not in dialogue.
Dialogue tags which are not 'says' or 'said'. One or two slipped in. Delete.
Difficult to read paragraphs. Ah yes, I see what you mean.
Repeated sentence starts? What the Dickens is wrong with them. 8 sentences begin with "She". Let's switch it up a bit...
One entirely repeated sentence. Gosh, gulp. Delete. I'd never have seen that for looking.
Overused words - let's check those chime with my intentions for the 'DNA'.
Passive verbs - attending to these was a real eye-opener. I could see how I could arrange my prose to be more active and effecting by attending to these, and of all the tools I think was the one that enabled me to see the work more as an editor than a reader. A change of arrangement and tempo here and there made it far more lively.
Sticky sentences - I was uncertain about the removal of the conjunctions and 'filler' words we use in English to pace the development of thought in words. The paving slabs of the garden path. I was reluctant. ProWritingAid describes these as the sentences that ‘slow your reader down’. Paying forensic attention to these trimmed my word count and made me pay closer heed to what I was saying, the point of each phrase. A tough exercise, a brutal culling, but effective. I felt the prose was not only leaner but fresher.
My average sentence length went down to 10.4.
The 'issues' which remain - reduced by 30 - are items I have considered. It's important to be able to say that of your work before you share it.
As a bonus prize, by inspecting my work this way I cut 600 words from my first chapter. I'd been planning to trim my manuscript but wasn't sure where I'd be cutting. With this method, the work packs a better punch and nothing I consider important is lost, only improved. Along with the other factors to consider at third draft which I shared in last week's blog, I will be using this method on every chapter from here on out to eyeball that prose.
The Aftermath? Poetry.
With the filler much reduced, the story more muscular, I was able to go back in and flesh out what matters most to me, what I am really trying to say with more emotive force, the precision attached to unexpected images and objects.
You may have gathered I write in layers and over time. I am slow to see what I am writing and why, and also how. Of course, whether it will be any good, or succeed whatever that means, is another thing. One always has that fear. But I strengthen it with these layers and get closer to what I feel, and that's why I do it. I know no other way, and I gather other writers work in layers too as I show my writers in our online creative writing courses. JM Coetzee wrote 17 draft versions of Disgrace before the final version.
ProWritingAid gives a writer fresh eyes to see the work more clearly. By zooming in on the issues and proposing simplifications, you can reconsider the mechanics of your prose. A craftsman needs at some point to do that, and better before you've aired it than after.
'It's none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.' Ernest Hemingway.
We are blessed to live in an age where we have tools to see our writing as others see it, with insights to make our writing sing and dance on the page. You'd be foolish not to use them.
Work with humility and diligence behind the scenes and go out there looking smart. A good writer will do everything they can to communicate better, to form a deeper bond with their readers with a story that's simple and honest and true.
Take the First Chapter of Disgrace; the Man Booker Winner by a Nobel Laureate.
Here's your base. You have to know your sins to forgive them. You should know them intimately at third draft.
You should use ProWritingAid after the second draft, as a vital story-enhancing prose tonic.
This is from their manual.
'We would recommend using ProWritingAid once you have finished your first draft (either of part or whole of the document). It is not a tool you use as you are writing, but one you use after you have written something to improve it… Many professional authors use ProWritingAid before they send their work to their editor. It helps reduce the time and cost needed to edit a book by highlighting a lot of the quick wins allowing your editor to concentrate on more important stylistic and plot issues. While ProWritingAid will never replace a professional editor, it will help improve the quality of the end product.'
Happy writing folks.