Have you ever read a piece that explains every detail down to the smallest minutia? Where you find yourself skimming or skipping ahead to the action? I’ve seen movies that spend too long on backstory or unimportant details, too. Both make me want to say, “get on with the story!” What you’re reading/seeing is overwriting.
It can be like this picture which is so cluttered, you’re not sure where to focus. Readers like white space on the page.
So how do you avoid overwriting? Watch out for the following:
Excessive adjectives and adverbs. Use stronger nouns and stronger verbs and many of these descriptive words become unnecessary.
Filler words usually don’t add to the story and can become especially annoying. Sometimes this happens when a writer is trying to make dialogue “just like the real thing.” No one wants to read a recording of a conversation with the falters, sidetracks, filler words, and repetition for enjoyment.
Explaining too much. Technical, historical, and political descriptions can bog down writing. In an effort to be accurate, we can over explain.
In dialogue, if it looks like a lecture versus a conversation, it’s probably overwritten.
In an action scene, repeated details often slow down the action. If the description directly impacts the character, go for it. Otherwise, don’t. Say we have a person in a boat in a storm. Repeatedly describing the clouds above them or the specifications of the boat doesn’t take the reader far. However, we do want to know the wave flings them against the rail. The pain when a rib cracks. The gasping for air the moment the water recedes. The taste of salt. The roar of the wind.
Mary Kole says this about overwriting, “Basically, it’s a sense that the prose (and the writer behind it) is trying too hard to get their point across or impress the reader.” This can be telling the reader the same thing over and over and over, which makes me want to say, “I got it the first time.” Or it can be lots of big words that are simply too fancy. It can also include convoluted sentence structure that gets the reader lost. This kind of writing is often called “purple prose.”
In this post, “Avoid Overwriting – Subtle is More Sophisticated,” Jodie Renner mentions “extreme reactions and over-the-top emotions” as overwriting. That makes me think of Anne of Green Gables and her teacher chewing her out for all her exclamation points. 🙂
When I’m editing/critiquing a manuscript and see overwriting, I find myself writing “too much” or “tighten.” A writer may be modeling their prose on older styles of writing, but we need to remember the modern audience usually wants something that moves more quickly.
The Literary Lab has some fun examples of overwriting on this blog post.
I also gave examples here.