Saying too much

Writers, whether experienced or new, frequently come across this problem. It’s easily done, I’m sure we’ve all been guilty of doing it. What is it? Overwriting. In this post, we’ll take a look at how to identify and remove instances of overwriting from your manuscript.

What, exactly, is overwriting? Well, look at this frog. What colour is it? Green. How would you describe this frog? It’s a green frog.

However, when we’re writing, it’s so easy to slip into overwriting. The frog was green in colour.

Overwriting happens whenever you have superfluous words, unnecessary or accidental repetition or specific details followed by more generic ones. In the frog example, we don’t need the words in colour because green is a colour and, while it could mean the frog was environmentally conscious, the context is clear.

Why does it happen? There are lots of ways we can slip into overwriting.

Setting word count targets for the session is a great motivational tool. But if it becomes to demanding for you, little fillers like this are easy ways to build the word count. It’s not your word count, it’s make your words count.

Sometimes we can feel it is a way of being more literary. To use words and phrases that perhaps make us sound grander or we feel give our writing more weight and more gravitas.

But most of the time, it’s purely accidental. We’re in the flow of writing, it pops into our head and through to our hands and it’s done! We’ve overwritten and we don’t realise we’re doing it.

It’s just more words … what’s the big deal?

It can destroy the reader’s experience. If you are overly descriptive you are stopping the reader from engaging with your world, from using their imagination and maybe even leaving some readers feeling patronised.

One of the biggest causes of overwriting has to be the adverb. I’ve spoken about one specific adverb, suddenly, in this blog post. But other adverbs cause issues too.

Look at the following sentences. Can you justify the adverb use in these sentences?

  • He ran away quickly from the editor.
  • She whispered quietly in his ear.
  • They banged the pots and pans together noisily.

These were quite simple examples and, I’m sure in your own writing, you may be using far more complex sentences. But the principle remains: are the verbs doing enough? Are the adverbs just getting in the way? Chances are, if you have a strong enough verb, then you don’t need an adverb as well.

Of course, you might need an adverb to highlight something or to modify your verb to make sense to your reader. A character might need to whisper loudly if another character needs to hear, for example.

Specific verbs can help us get away from overwriting. As can being specific in other areas. But it’s important to remember, if you’re being specific, you don’t need the generic also.

When I learnt to fly, I flew Cessna 152 aircraft. Do you need the word aircraft in that sentence? No. It is clear from the context of the sentence that we are talking about aircraft.

Of course, context is always key. If your readers know from the context of your writing what the specific is referring to, use the specific. If you are aiming at a more general readership, use more generalised language.

Overwriting is easily done while writing. But the good news is, it’s easy to spot too. A focussed self-edit is going to spot these instances easily and, for the ones left behind, your copyeditor will pick them out for you.

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Join 4,423 other followers

Your Ko-fi donations help my blogging and allow me to produce free resources for writers and editors.

Published by Nick Taylor | Editor & Proofreader

Editor, proofreader and writer. Available for hire!

6 thoughts on “Saying too much

  1. I participate in a weekly 99-word flash fiction challenge which has helped me so much in not only cutting out unnecessary words, but also whole redundant sentences and paragraphs. I’ve been amazed at how much my writing has changed since taking part.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a weekly challenge hosted by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch blog and is open to anyone, Nick. A prompt is published every Friday. This week’s challenge finishes today. I’ve just published my entry on my blog. Charli rounds up all entries and publishes them every Thursday. Lots of writers take part every week.

        Here’s the link to this week’s challenge.

        https://carrotranch.com/2021/01/15/january-14-flash-fiction-challenge-2/

        I hope you’ll join us when you can.

        Liked by 1 person

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