Overwriting is such a common problem that I decided to devote today’s blog post to what it is and how to recognize and correct it.
What is overwriting?
According to Richard Nordquist, overwriting is: “a wordy writing style characterized by excessive detail, needless repetition, overwrought figures of speech, and/or convoluted sentence structures.”
Purple prose is a more derogatory term used to describe overwriting in its most extreme form. Such prose is seen most often in the work of newer writers trying too hard to make an impression. Discerning readers find this style irritating. Fortunately, there are questions writers can ask that, when answered in the affirmative, signal overwriting and/or purple prose.
Is it likely that the person reading the passage will have to pull out a dictionary?
A skillful writer introduces less common words in a way that readers can figure out the meaning from the context. Readers like learning new words, but the wise writer doesn’t bombard readers with too many unfamiliar words at once.
She suffered from hyperperistalsis of the gastric mucosa.
The previous sentence might be suitable for a medical journal, but in fiction, use common words.
She had an upset stomach.
Does a phrase draw attention to itself and not what’s happening in the story?
In carelessly written love scenes, the euphemisms chosen to describe body parts often cause laughter. For example, check out “Purple Prose and Bad Sex” by Liz Fredericks, and read the part about the manly acorns and wiry thatch. Enough said.
Could a phrase be shortened without losing any meaning?
Sue sat on the bed in the bedroom.
Beds are usually in the bedroom. Don’t state the obvious.
Sue sat on the bed.
Does the writing sound too old-fashioned or formal?
She accepted the dinner invitation with much gratification.
Opt for clarity.
She smiled and accepted the dinner invitation.
Could the writing be described as flowery?
The classic example of this is the first sentence of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
A writing contest was inspired by this long sentence. Writers deliberately compose bad sentences that begin imaginary novels. Save wordy sentences for the contest.
Does the writing contain redundant words or phrases?
For any constituents endowed with even half a brain, this perpetual blather amounts to nothing more than mendacious prevarication.
In addition to other issues with the previous sentence, the phrase “mendacious prevarication” is redundant.
Everyone knows that politicians lie.
Does the dialogue contain redundancies?
“You are so mean!” Jenna shouted. “I’ve never met anyone as nasty as you before. You are nothing but a bully. I don’t know how you can live with yourself.”
Each line after the first in the example above takes something away from the preceding line. Pick the best way to convey the character’s thoughts.
“I don’t know how you can live with yourself!” Jenna stomped out of the room.
To have another character repeat what Jenna said in a different scene would be equally wrong. The readers already know what was said, and they don’t want to read the same thing twice.
“You told Misty that you didn’t know how she could live with herself?” Jill asked.
“I heard what happened with Misty.” Jill shook her head.
Are adverbs used inappropriately?
She pouted sadly when she learned of her grade on the math test.
Readers will assume that most people are unhappy if they’re pouting.
She pouted when she learned of her grade on the math test.
As a rule, minimize the use of adverbs.
Are multiple adjectives used when one would do?
Sue’s long, lovely, flaxen hair cascaded past her shapely, round, heaving breasts.
This is excessive, and the language isn’t tasteful.
Sue’s flaxen hair cascaded past her shapely bodice.
Are a character’s actions described in too much detail?
Lisa fumbled with her keys and unlocked the door. She turned the knob slowly and walked inside. Her fingers slid up the wall until she found the light switch, and then she turned on the light. She remembered a piece of chocolate cake that she’d put in the refrigerator and bolted to the kitchen.
Such detailed descriptions are tedious to read. When writing a thriller, an author might describe a character’s actions in detail before something exciting happens, but the reader will feel let down if nothing significant takes place after such a big build-up.
Lisa hurried inside and bolted to the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator door and spotted a lone slice of chocolate cake. Yummy!
The revised example provides only the necessary information.
Are distracting dialogue tags used?
Most of the time, use “said” (or “asked”). On rare occasions, a different dialogue tag might work, but it should never draw attention to itself in a way that removes the focus from the dialogue. Think of using dialogue tags the way a chef uses cayenne pepper.
“I can’t believe you painted the walls purple,” Kelly expostulated.
In this example, the word “expostulated” draws attention to itself.
“I can’t believe you painted the walls purple.” Kelly rolled her eyes and walked out of the room.
In the revision, the emphasis remains on the action in the story, rather than the unusual word.
Does the writing lack clarity?
She cast her oceanic eyes downward to gaze upon the enchanting denizens of the deep as they flitted about the aqueous realm.
Writers who try too hard, in a misguided attempt to sound literary, often confuse readers. Use plain English.
Her eyes widened as she looked down at the irresistible fish swimming in the pond.
The revised version is clear and easy to understand.
Are similes and metaphors used inappropriately?
Clement C. Moore makes extensive use of similes and metaphors in his Christmas poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” but most of the time, similes and metaphors should be used sparingly. Avoid clichés. Click here for some examples of bad similes and metaphors from student essays. For some excellent examples of similes and metaphors, see Pablo Neruda’s “Sonnet XI.”
Is the dialogue so wordy or filled with backstory that it sounds unnatural?
“As you know, Kelly,” Erin said, “Mrs. Smith found a baby boy on her doorstep many years ago and adopted him as her own. Do you remember when you told me about it? You said that he had a very rare blood type.”
The snippet above is an example of reader feeder dialogue. The characters relay information they both already know for the benefit of the reader. In natural dialogue, when both characters know something, they reveal less.
“I hope Mrs. Smith can find a blood donor for her son,” Erin said.
Are descriptions excessive?
The candy, red and white in color and round in shape, smelled very much like peppermint. Wrapped in a clear wrapper, each piece was about an inch in diameter and had the hardness of a candy cane. About fifty pieces of candy filled the sparkling crystal bowl. A sign above the bowl said “one per person,” but Katy slipped two pieces into the pocket of her ragged wool coat.
Lengthy descriptions are tedious to read. Give the reader only the pertinent details.
The ball-shaped red and white candy in the crystal bowl smelled like peppermint. A sign above the bowl said “one per person,” but Katy slipped two pieces into the pocket of her ragged wool coat.
Are there any long lists of items?
She wore a warm winter coat, boots, hat, earmuffs, scarf, gloves, long underwear, and wool socks.
Readers tend to skim over long lists of items, and in most cases, it’s best to summarize.
She wore a European goose down jacket complete with accessories suitable for an Arctic snowstorm.
Does the writing contain unnecessary clutter?
Some writers pad their writing with unneeded words to make their word counts higher.
Due to the fact that she overslept, she missed the bus.
Because she overslept, she missed the bus.
In the revised version, a single word replaces five words. Not everyone wants to adapt Hemingway’s writing style, but writers should refrain from deliberately padding phrases.
Many of the examples above have more than one problem. Even the best writers make some of the errors described above. That’s why good writers use editors.
Until next time,
Write something you love! — Joanne