A common problem for writers of narrative is overwriting. They work on a piece, edit, add more, read it again, out loud, and add a few more things. Overkill. The writing becomes so writerly it draws attention to itself and gets in the way of the story.
The raw authenticity evaporates in the translation to prose. There is enormous pressure on the unpublished writer to use the tools and conventions of literature, grammar, and language usage. And sometimes it sucks the life out of the idea.
When a writer is insecure about whether they are being clear, they often continue to muddy the waters further by adding more. More is not always better.
Simple, clear, direct language. Words and sentences your reader can understand. Don’t let the writing get in the way of your story. Adding adverbs or adjectives to your sentences won’t help.
Your most common sentence structure in narrative form has to do with what happens next. “Who did what to whom, how and why?” Subject-active verb-object. If you have complicated sentences or ideas to communicate, try to express them in this way to help your reader follow the action.
Let the reader draw their own inferences from what information you provide. Don’t tell the reader what to think or only give them your interpretations of raw data – provide the direct observations with concrete language.
How can you tell if you are overwriting?
Do you obsess over word choices? Have you introduced more than three new words to your already extensive vocabulary?
Is your writing ornate, poetic, symbolic, or metaphorical? Using obfuscating language, too many literary devices simultaneously, or simply writing in abstractions instead of gaining clarity on the story elements is another sign of overwriting.
Do you tell the reader what you are going to tell them? Then tell them? Then tell them what you told them? This style of writing gets boring quickly. The reader feels lectured at. The reader thinks the writer doesn’t trust them to pay attention or remember what the writer has already told them.
Foreshadowing is subtle. Spoilers are not foreshadowing. Flashbacks can be used effectively to convey backstory. But shifting back and forth in time to make post hoc reflections and observations about future events doesn’t work for readers because it gets confusing. And is often a result of overwriting. You want to add commentary. Or qualify your statement. Or add a side note. But don’t. It doesn’t belong there.
Assume your reader picks up the information and remembers it. The pacing drags when you restate the same information multiple times.
Give your reader more credit. Let them infer the meanings of things instead of hitting the reader over the head by telling them what things mean. Let your reader step into the narrator’s shoes and see, smell, hear, taste, and touch the action in your story.
Rule of thumb for writing narrative. When nothing happens, hurry up. When there is action, slow down and record the details. If you have ever been in a car accident, recall the moment of impact when everything slows down and the millions of details implant your memory. When action happens, it takes more pages. When you are reflecting or telling the reader what something means, move on. One sentence.
How do you remedy overwriting?
When you suspect you are overwriting you need professional editorial feedback. Someone who does not know you or your story. You may find this help in a writing class, workshop, conference, or from a professional developmental editor.
The simple remedy for overwriting is KISS. Keep it short, simple. Good writing is nearly invisible to the naked eye of the reader. The writing is not an impediment to comprehension. And an editor’s work should be, too. Writing is merely the container for the story. It needs a structure to hold it. It needs a firm foundation established in trust between the reader and author. The author needs to trust the reader comprehends and the reader needs to trust the author to give them what they need to know when they need to know it.
I see too many writers spend too much time belaboring over a manuscript without advancing the manuscript because they get caught up in overwriting. Coaching writers through the process of a finished piece for publication, I’ve watched this stage of overwriting. It’s painful and it is the least productive. Learn to let go and get feedback sooner rather than later. Overwriting sends your
project backwards instead of forwards toward publication.
If you suspect your work-in-progress may be verging on the overwritten, stop and get feedback. Ask whether you are being verbose, redundant, or boring? And be ready to listen to the critical feedback. Tightening your storyline and improving your pacing may be remedied by cutting instead of adding material.
Do you want an assessment of your writing sample to see if you’re overwriting? Contact us with 10 pages for an individual assessment and developmental edit with a one-hour phone or Skype consultation during December 2016 for $150. This special rate is only available through November 30.
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