Ask the Editor Series, Q11
Q: My editor says I overwrite. What is overwriting and how can I know I’m doing it?
A1: Forwarding this question to the Department of Redundancy Department . . .
A2: This one isn’t complicated, and here are a few tricks to help you know what’s what.
Overwriting can come in many forms, so if you’ve been told you’re an overwriter, there are several ways you can check your manuscript to see if this is actually true, or if your editor is just jealous that you know more words than he does.
You may have heard the term “stage direction.” This is one form of overwriting. When you’re describing a scene, you need to find that balance of having enough detail without it becoming cumbersome.
If your hero knocks an intruder out with a baseball bat, for example, and your reader pulls up short and asks, “When did he get a baseball bat? Where did that come from?” then you’re probably guilty of not giving enough detail. But equally bad is something like this:
He looked in the corner of the room and saw a baseball bat and figured that might give him the courage he needed to confront whatever was making the noises downstairs. He walked over to the bat, bent over, picked it up, got a solid grip on it, and turned to go. He walked over to the door, turned the knob, opened the door, and peered out.
Tedious, isn’t it? By this point, I’m waiting for the author to type, “And then he breathed in. And then he breathed out. And in again. And took a step with his left foot. And then his right.”
If there’s a scene where a family is getting together for dinner, it’s enough to say that they sat at the table and began to eat. We don’t need to know that Shelly walked over to the table, pulled out the chair, sat, placed a napkin on her lap, and then reached for her fork.
You could list each action as a deliberate way of emphasizing each moment in the scene—let’s say Shelly has been told to hurry out the door, for example, but she’s defiantly performed the above steps to show that nobody is going to rush her anywhere—but otherwise, all that detail only bogs down the flow.
Redundant phrasing or actions
“He blinked his eyes.” “She nodded her head.” “He shrugged his shoulder.”
Well . . . what else are you going to blink if not your eyes? And how many people nod their ears instead of their head?
Writers do this type of thing all the time, and I don’t think it’s anything more dire than that nobody’s ever pointed it out to them. It’s not necessarily a lack of writing skill, certainly, because I’ve seen it in manuscripts that were decently written otherwise. I even catch myself doing it (the horror!) from time to time.
How many of us have said, when relaying a story to someone, “So I thought to myself, what should I do?” Of course you’re thinking to yourself. You can’t think to someone else, unless you’re communicating telepathically.
Too many descriptors
A third common way of overwriting is using more descriptors than the job calls for.
I get it—the grass was lush, green, soft, glossy, and sweet-smelling. But at some point, you have to accept that the reader will fill in the rest of it if you only tell them some of those details. If the grass is lush, we can assume it’s green and soft. If it were dry, we’d picture crackling brown bristles.
Using all the adjectives available is only topped by using loads of descriptors that actually mean the same thing, or close to the same thing. The desk was a solid, sturdy, substantial piece of furniture. You could use two (or even one) of those three adjectives, and no one will be asking, “But is it firm?”
So if anyone ever accuses you of overwriting, take a look through your MS, paragraph by paragraph if needed, and see if you’re writing what they should only be reading between the lines. Your work will be tighter for it, and your readers will appreciate the effort.
Happy writing! And feel free to submit your questions here so I can answer them in a future post.
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