No one knows better than I do the anguish of being an inveterate overwriter. Here are some of the ways my penchant manifests itself:
- Stacking up adjectives, sometimes without any particular point other than the love of words. One example at random from my Failed Novel: “By the time he pulled out once more onto 41, the Tamiami Trail, the sun had turned dusty red behind him, piecing out of the sky faint, ominously pendant, pink-tinted blooms of cloud.”
- Piling up metaphors and images until I end up with a bean soup of ingredients that don’t always play well together and end up siphoning reader attention away from characters and into the quagmire of the language itself. . . . Need I say more?
- Hunting obsessively in thesaurus.com for THE PERFECT WORD so as to avoid settling for what Mark Twain would have called “the lightning bug”—but ending up with a choice (often a verb) that is so far out there that writing groups suggest gently that I probably ought to settle for something a little less . . . well, I’m having to go to thesaurus.com to find THIS right word. “Arresting”? No, that’s not right. Disruptive? Intrusive, contentious, militant. . . . You get the point.
- Diving into long passages of introspection in which I explore the character’s relation to life, the universe, and everything from so many directions readers probably feel as if they’re inside a disco ball.
What a dangerous way to write! Here are some of the sad consequences of this indulgence:
- Too much verbiage, even the brilliant kind I am so clearly expert at, slows the story pace. Readers emerge from even a page or two exhausted, just wanting to move on—or quit.
- Too many details, descriptions, and distractions dilute important moments in a scene so that what should be on display gets lost in the window dressing. Scenes should have a structure that builds to the crucial turn, but overwriting drags out scenes so that every event, line of dialogue, metaphor, or action carries equal weight.
- The words themselves start demanding the focus that should go to the characters and their interactions.
- The backstory in introspection loses its force when not linked to the characters’ actual experiences in time. If we’re told in a long, over-filled expository paragraph on page 10, among seventy or so other details, that a character had a traumatic experience at age seven, by the time we see that trauma play out on page 100, we’ve forgotten its source. We don’t know about that trauma from being told it exists, but from seeing in the moment what it does.
I’ve seen writing group members defend some pretty egregious excess by insisting that what they’re writing is “literary,” a form in which the language itself becomes the focus rather than the “plot.” I guess there was a time when I retreated behind this rationale myself. But I’ve come to apply terms like “lazy” and “self-indulgent” to pile-it-up-on-the-page writing these days. I confess I’ve arrived at this judgment after seeing how some colleagues’ drafts exhaust me when they do all the things I tend to do.
So the moral here must be “Don’t Overwrite.” Followed by “10 Steps to Avoid Overwriting.” Right?
Umm, not quite.
Instead, I’m going to claim that, in its proper place, your tendency to do all the things I listed above (and more?) is a strength!
So: X Reasons to Love Your Curse.
Actually, there’s one real reason you should value your overwriting impulses: unlike your more verbally impoverished colleagues, you overwriters generate a lot of text! You never have to sit and try to “come up with” an image or a detail. You’ve already poured out a grand effusion of writerly stuff.
Experimentation! You know you’ll cut four-fifths of what you generate. So you can let the words wander. See where they lead. Mixed metaphor? No problem. It’ll get put to rights—or in its place—in the final cut.
Choice! Somewhere among all those words and sentences and images, there’s one that really produces that scintillating “this is it!” shiver. You just have to clear away the litter that keeps it from doing its job. And don’t throw out all the efforts that didn’t answer this particular need. They aren’t necessarily substandard or failed. They may work perfectly in the scene you’re writing next.
And although all that introspection may not work for your harried readers, it’s your way into your characters. You end up knowing them intimately, as you must if you and your readers are to willingly share their worlds for 99,000 words.
Same with world-building. Too many details? Even if you cut that street-by-street description, you still live in those alleyways and cul-de-sacs in your mind.
And who knows? Maybe you, more than your verbally limited colleagues, actually will one day produce a literary masterpiece. After all, it’s from the piling up of words, images, sentences, that the “voice” that commonly defines “literary” emerges.
The key, of course, is to actually do the CUTTING that converts your curse to a strength. I know how hard it is to hack out those lovely lines that flowed from that sacred font. I’ve found that I finally have to be told, indisputably, that X words have to go. Then it actually starts to become fun to watch how paragraphs firm up, cohere, how fast the lines race by and how hard they slice.
One painful but potentially useful exercise: take a particularly long, detail-and-event laden chapter, and vow to reduce it by one-half. Can’t do it? Try for one-third. Just to see what you get.
(Hmmm. Maybe I should do that with this post. . . . :D)
Do you have strategies that make your overwriting indulgences work for you?