A few weeks ago Miss Snark's First Victim had agent Nathan Bransford participate in one of her Secret Agent contests. If you're not familiar with the site, I suggest you go check it out. For those contests, she has people submit a snippet of their opening (250 words I believe), then she posts them for everyone to comment on, including a secret agent. Then after everything has been commented on, the agent is revealed and he or she picks a winner--often requesting pages.
So anyway, as I was reading through Mr. Bransford's comments, I saw a recurring theme in his feedback. On almost every other post it seemed, he was pointing out overwriting. In some of those instances, I could see it, in others I would have never picked up on it had he not pointed it out. So, it was really helpful to read through the posts. Then, of course, I became paranoid--am I overwriting?
Even though I'm wordy in a lot of things (including these posts), I tend to have the opposite problem and underwrite in my stories. I struggle sometimes with painting the scene or describing details because I want to jump right into the action or dialogue, forgetting that I need to let the reader know enough to ground them in the scene. But when I looked through my chapters, I still had moments where I got a little heavy handed on the wordage and needed to dial back.
So how do you spot overwriting?
- Too many adjectives and adverbs.
We already know adverbs are our nemesis, but dumping in tons of adjectives is a problem as well. Do not put in three adjectives when one will do just fine.
- Using fancy words when a simple one will do.
A lot of us can fall into this trap because most of us are vocabulary nerds. We enjoyed studying for the SAT because learning new and interesting words is awesome. That's why it's so hard to just use said when we could use pontificated. However, those words are distracting and pull your reader out of the story. If the simple word works, go with that one.
- Describing things as if you were a set designer
Long passages describing every detail of the room, setting, or what a person looks like/is wearing, etc. drive me nuts. I skim these. Tell me the pertinent details to give my imagination the building blocks to create the picture, then leave me to it. If you show me the ratty couch with holes in it, I'm good. I don't also need to know the pattern on the throw pillows.
- Simile and metaphor overload
A well-placed simile or metaphor can be a beautiful thing. A whole butt load of them littered all over the page, not so much. Let a brilliant metaphor or simile stand out on its own by not cluttering the sentences around it with more of the same. I recently read a book that overused similes so much that I actually stopped reading it--it was completely distracting.
This can happen within a sentence (ex. the young four-year old) or can be repeating information you've already told us (telling us the hero's eyes are blue every time you mention his eyes or describing the same house every time the heroine goes there.)
- Navel-gazing characters
Introspection is good, we want to know what's going on with the character. But passages and passages of navel-gazing will slow down your pace and earn eye rolls. Sprinkle the introspection in with action.
- Trying too hard
The easiest way to find overwriting is to look for those places where you thought you sounded "like a writer." Think of American Idol when Simon Cowell tells the contestant the performance was indulgent. Those are the performances where the person chose a song and gave a performance that they thought made them look "like a singer" instead of singing something that fit their voice and style.
Alright, hope that helps. Most editor articles I've read say that almost every manuscript can be cut by 10%, so get to trimming! :)
So are you guilty of overwriting? Do you ever have those moments where you think you've just written something very "writerly"? Which of these drives you crazy when you find them in books?