Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Overwriting. What is it? Do you do it?

Do you overwrite?  Not sure?  Here are  two great articles to help you decide.

Overwriting?  Less is More

by Sally Carpenter

In the movie “Amadeus,” the king criticizes young Mozart’s music as having “Too many notes.” Many writers suffer from the malady of using “too many words” in an attempt to appear brilliant or literary. Too much decoration on a wall creates a cluttered look; likewise, overwriting buries the author’s message under mounds of verbal puff.

            My motto is “less is more.” A short, compact sentence is more effective than a excessive verbiage.

            Let’s look at some examples. What’s wrong with this sentence?

“Having finally earned her degree after going to classes for four years at State University, where her mother had also matriculated, Suzy packed her bags, rode on a bus, and got an apartment in the Big Apple to take acting classes, go to auditions and hopefully be cast in a play.”

            *What’s the point? The lengthy opening clause veers off in all directions.

*Is all of this information necessary? Does the reader need to know that Suzy’s mother also attended the college? Either delete this statement or save it for later pages.

*Avoid repetition. “Packed her bags,” “rode a bus” and “got an apartment” all pretty much say the same thing. Likewise, the intent of “acting classes,” “auditions” and “cast in a play” can be summarized into fewer words.

Here’s the same sentenced boiled down to the essentials: “After college graduation, Suzy hopped a bus for the Big Apple to pursue her dream of become a Broadway star.”

Short, sweet and to the point. The author’s message is clear.

Be stingy when describing scenery or objects. You’re giving snapshots, not selling real estate. Most readers won’t wade through detailed descriptions.

 The arson scene resembled the Gone With the Wind movie set after the burning of Atlanta.

This brief statement may be more effective than describing all the charred walls and burnt furniture.

 Here’s another example that requires first aid.

“Harold was unhappy. He crossed the room with a heavy tread, swinging his arms at his side. He grabbed the door knob, turned it and pulled, crossed the threshold and pulled the door shut behind him.”

*Show, don’t tell. Let the reader see the character’s emotion through dialogue and action.

*Condense a long description of action by using descriptive verbs.

Let’s try that again, letting Harold show his bad mood through his actions.

“Harold frowned. He stomped across the room, yanked opened the door and bolted from the room, slamming the door behind him.”

            Speaking of verbs, a frequent overwriting bugaboo involves adverbs.

            She whispered softly. He gently tiptoed. The girl ran quickly.

            Can a person whisper loudly or tiptoe roughly or run slowly? Most action verbs don’t require modification.

             Another good writing style is to let the action do the talking. A strong image is often more powerful than a lengthy string of dialogue.

            “I hate you!” she shouted. “You’ve betrayed me! The engagement is off! I’m canceling our wedding plans! I never want to see you again!”

            Instead of that speech, try this instead: She pulled the engagement ring off of her finger and threw it on the ground at her fiancé’s feet.

            More effective, more visual and less wordy. The reader can infer the woman’s emotion from her actions.

            Avoid needless verbal baggage through a careful selection of a few good words. Remember, less is more.

Sally Carpenter is native Hoosier now living in Southern California

She has a master’s degree in theater from Indiana State University. While in school two of her plays, “Star Collector” and “Common Ground,” were finalists in the American College Theater Festival One-Act Playwrighting Competition. “Common Ground” also earned a college creative writing award and “Star Collector” was produced in New York City.

Carpenter also has a master’s degree in theology and a black belt in tae kwon do. She’s worked as an actress, freelance writer, college writing instructor, theater critic, jail chaplain, and tour guide/page for a major movie studio. She’s now employed at a community newspaper.

Carpenter’ debut book, “The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper,” was nominated by Left Coast Crime for a Eureka! Award for best first mystery novel. She’s now writing the second book in the Sandy Fairfax Teen Idol mystery series, “The Sinister Sitcom Caper.”

She’s a member of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles Chapter. Contact her at

Overwriting?  Master the Right Words 
By Patti Brooks

A writer that falls prey to overwriting suffers from one or more of these character traits:

1. When a writer comes from a teaching or preaching background, he has been trained to do whatever it takes to get a point across. The Teacher/Preacher will say it, write it on the blackboard, get the students to recite it. A Teacher/Preacher stands in front of a classroom or congregation with the assurance that he has to say must be learned. This ingrained manner of communicating leads to overwriting.

A writer who works successfully with animals falls into the same trap. A Trainer/Teacher understands the advantages of being repetitive and consistent in teaching animals acceptable behavior.

2. Now, a Parent, usually with multiple kids, has to repeat himself to get things done. "Pick up your socks, eat your vegetables, chew with your mouth shut," etc. How many times do you suppose the average parent recites these house rules in a week? A Parent put his feet on the floor in the morning committed to getting across to the kids that these things must be mastered and this is how this house is run, etc. And, kids, you will learn it by gosh or by golly.

3. How about a writer with a spouse that makes the mistake of not listening the first – or third–time? Do you think overwriting is another word for nagging?

4. In this mix is the writer who thinks his readers are too dense to get the point by saying it just once. I believe it is the fiction writer’s primary job to create a page-turning entertaining work. The book reading public not only has thousands of books to choose from, but when the going gets boring, it’s way too easy to set the book aside and reach for the TV control.

I think it’s important to note, that all of us fiction writers need to accept that it doesn’t make any difference what a given reader thinks our books are about. Give a reader the opportunity to form his own opinion. What is important is that the reader enjoyed it sufficiently to look for the next book by that author. Run the experiment. Ask four people who have read your book what they think it’s about. (For this experiment to work, you must ask readers separately so they don’t build upon what one another say.) My money’s on four very different responses.

5. Let’s consider the writer that is very taken by his writing and feels he has come up with several ways to write a given sentence and they are both so wonderful that he includes both.

6. Then there is the Victorian writer who feels an adjective/adverb-bare sentence is just not right.

He proudly shows off his knowledge of the Thesaurus. And if one adj/adv is good, certainly two or more are superior. That writing is akin to all the fanciful fret work on Victorian era houses. Do you suppose the Victorian writer has a fear of the naked verb? Certainly people of the Victorian era clothed themselves from top to bottom and then some.

Avoid overwriting by taking the time to choose the right words to convey the thought and adjectives will become almost superfluous.

Master choosing the right words to convey the thought and I guarantee saying it only once will be powerful – and will allow the reader to eagerly move on and not get bored with "this isn’t going anywhere."

Patti Brooks is a writer who sold her first article to a national magazine at age 16. She has published 500+ articles for trade magazines, and general interest newspapers and magazines like "Goodhousekeeping."

Patti is a rider who got her first horse at age 13. She has competed in shows and distance riding where she has accumulated 3,000 miles of competition. Patti, with her husband Bob, have raised over 100 Morgan Horses on their farm in Connecticut. She has served as president of several equine associations and has been inducted into the American Morgan Horse Assn's Hall of Fame.

In order to devote more time to Writing and Riding, Patti recently stepped down from her Realtor position as Marketing Mgr of a firm that markets horse farms in Connecticut.

Patti teaches a fiction writing class at a community college. Her work is included in anthologies. Her grasp of writing something worth reading as well as marketing has made her a popular participant on literary panels and discussion groups.


Toni Leland said...

Excellent advice, Patti, and nice article. Thanks!

Lesley A. Diehl said...

It's good to be reminded every now and then of common overwriting mistakes. And your blog came at jsutthe right time as I'm doing some editing on my manuscript. Thanks. Great examples.

Patricia Gligor said...

Great post! I'm seriously considering printing it and posting it on my bulletin board as a reminder.

Cora said...

Great tips for editing. Needed advice. Thanks.

marta chausée said...

Great articles, Sally and Patti. Thank you. Today, we must be terse. No one wants to be word bombed. Life is too hectic. "Incoming" pelts us daily from too many sources.

What about this? People who underwrite. I am often accused of this-- in particular, of not developing characters and conflict with as much complexity and tension as needed. I also tend to underpaint (in oils).

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Marta Chausée

Donnell said...

Sally and Patti did a wonderful job, didn't they? Marta, underwriting. Hmmm, yes, I suppose that could be a manuscript in which readers didn't feel they got to know the characters.

Lois Winston did a wonderful article for us about Writing Tight. What I suspect is you're talking about a manuscript in which the story feels undeveloped.

Hmmm. An interesting topic for yet another day. Thanks for stopping by and giving your thoughts.

Larissa Reinhart Hoffman said...

Great posts that compliment each other!

Marja said...

Sally and Patti, Great posts. I enjoyed the examples you gave, Sally. It's way too easy to overwrite, so these are good reminders. Thanks!

Sunny Frazier said...

Journalists who switch to fiction writing are ahead of the game. We know how to write tight.

For the rest, practice with short stories. Try your hand at flash fiction and see how much you cut to hit 500 words and still have a complete story! To the bone, people!

Donnell said...

Love this, Sunny. So true.

Eileen Obser said...

Really great advice, Sally and Patti. Sally, I'm saving this in my "teaching" Word file. So much overwriting out there in the world. I'm sure I'm guilty, too. Like Lesley, this blog -- and Patti's -- are great to have nearby at editing time.

Kat Hinkson said...

Great post. Great way to demonstrate "Show, don't tell." I'm not a short story author, but I do practice every once in a while.

Polly said...

I'm editing a book I wrote in 2002, and, boy, I can't believe I wrote some of those sentences. Overwriting would be a good description. For that reason, it's taking me longer to finish. I grateful for one thing. I actually can tell the difference. That's a good thing, right?

Donnell said...

Oh, yes, Polly, if you couldn't see room for improvement, that's when we send in the overwriting police

Sally Carpenter said...

Thanks for all the kind comments. I work at a newspaper. I often have to trim a piece to make it fit in the space, so I'm used to looking for the "meat" and cutting sentences to the bone. Newspapers also use short paragraphs for quick, easy reading. Loooong paragraphs in a novel make my eyes glaze over.
Sally Carpenter

Donnell said...

Sally, I love both yours and Patti's advice. I'm with you too on long narrative passages. I'll stop reading.

I worked for newspapers so maybe there's something to that. Every line needs to be a hook, not just an occasional good sentence.

Augie said...

Sally this was a great post...too many it. Augie

Also, loved the comments from Sunny and the others.

Jude Kinza Van Houtte said...

I love this blog. There is so much advice, and also so many things to learn. Recently I have been writing a story for a competition and I have been using your blog to help me with it. I like your saying "more is less" and I have been using it a lot. Thanks for all of your advice.
If you would like to you can visit my blog: , or my classes blog:
Jude Van Houtte
Ross Intermediate
Palmerston North
New Zealand

Leslie Ann aka LA said...

Great Posts that compliment each other and bring home the point. I learn best by examples.

Perfect timing for me as I'm starting new books.

These are posts to keep. That's Sally and Patti for being with us and Donnell for bringing them here.

Happy New Year, ~LA of the scribes.