How to Avoid Over WritingMar 24, 2019
Been rejected by literary agents? You could be over-writing. Here’s how to avoid it!
The ailment of over-writing afflicts most first drafts. It is the writer’s common cold. It’s not just about an inflated word count; it’s in every aspect of the style and rhythm, and often creates what we call purple prose.
The result is your writing obscures the story, and agents can tell. You should have spent more time refining your prose. In short, you sent your work to literary agents too soon.
Treat your manuscript for this sickness before you share the novel with anyone. Those on a second draft and beyond should seize this advice firmly.
What do we mean by over writing?
If you’re writing a rollicking good yarn, a plot-driven story, then you’ll definitely want to avoid overwriting. You don’t want it to detract from ‘what next’. A chapter advances the character’s problem inexorably.
Over writing 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.
It can be hard to spot it in your own writing, but these are some things to look for in early drafts:
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.
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.
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!
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.
I don’t say adverbs are the devil’s work. But they are a symptom of the illness of over-writing.
We use them freely in conversation. When you’re writing fiction, that’s where they should be found; where they’d occur naturally in your dialogue.
But where you spot them in your prose, you will want to pare them back. It will make for a much more 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.
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.
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.
- Cut excessive adverbs and adjectives which add nothing or are not new. A descriptive word shouldn’t just be decorative.
- Cut the descriptive passages. Pinpoint the detail with bullet phrases.
- Trim your sentence lengths.
Here are some the average sentence lengths of some first chapters:
- A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman: 7.33
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling: 11.43
- Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean:12.52
- Disgrace by J.M. 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! It’s not ready for beta readers yet. 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 and self-edited the first one hundreds of times. The last one I wrote afresh just yesterday.
ProWritingAid was able to detect the overwrought, tense quality of prose trying a wee bit too hard. It’s hard for many writers to catch overwriting in their own work. ProWritingAid made it much easier.
Armed with this knowledge, 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, the editing and writing process 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. La 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. Personal preference counts, but we can’t give into every writerly impulse towards purple prose and figurative language. So I thought I’d go through their tools to fix these things and see what happened to the text.
Easy, there weren’t many. Let’s delete some of those not in dialogue.
Were there any that 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... It could be jarring for most readers.
One entirely repeated sentence
Gosh, gulp. Delete. I’d never have seen that for looking.
Let’s check those chime with my intentions for the ‘DNA’.
Attending to these was a real eye-opener.
They were a great way to arrange my prose to be more active and affecting. 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.
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 them 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 quickly had fewer words to tackle – I cut 600 from my first chapter. That’s a lot of extra words in one chapter! I’d been planning to trim my manuscript’s word count, 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 and applying that same idea to every chapter in the entire book, really eyeballing my 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. J.M. 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.
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.
And that can mean many things, but much of it is making the reader’s time worthwhile. They don’t want lengthy description, endless internal monologue or long paragraphs that demonstrate all the research you’ve done. They want a great story. Stop overwriting and get to the good bits!
Take the First Chapter of Disgrace, the Man Booker Winner by a Nobel Laureate
This is a helpful example to start with. 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. It will give you great tips, personalised to your story. It can help you retain your meaning and ideas through all your revisions, so none of the important parts are lost.
Crucially, it helps avoid writing that draws attention to the writer. With it, you can let your readers focus on the action of your story instead. There’s nothing like purple prose and overthought language to make even an action-packed plot feel sluggish.
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.
But first, you have to create the material. Get the plot down on paper, describing whatever your heart desires for the time being. Allow yourself to explore minor characters, give yourself a few weeks of free writing time to play with your first draft. Editing comes later (and when it does, you can read this great post on self-editing for fiction writers!).
Above all, don’t let fear of over writing ever mean you stop writing. Just get the words down!
Founder and Course Director at The Novelry
Louise Dean is the Booker Prize-listed, winner of The Betty Trask Prize, a finalist for the Costa Short Story Award 2021, author of four novels of literary fiction with a dark comedic twist. She has been longlisted for numerous other awards. Louise Dean founded The Novelry in 2017 to bring a new collegiate approach to the business of creating and writing novels and helping writers become published authors with mentoring from other published authors and professional editors. So much more than online creative writing courses, The Novelry offers writers the complete journey to get published.