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ProWritingAid: A Cure for Overwriting

Louise Dean

Louise Dean

Author and Founder of The Novelry

Published Apr 02, 2019


Overwriting afflicts most first drafts; it's the writer's common cold. If you have been multiply rejected by literary agents, I can almost guarantee you suffer from this illness.

  1. What is Overwriting?
  2. Examples of Overwriting
  3. Treatments of Overwriting
  4. Enter ProWritingAid
  5. The Salient Reports
  6. The Finished Product

What is Overwriting?

If you're writing a plot-driven story, then you won't want overwriting to detract from what's next. Overwriting is a handbrake turn or a slow, tedious slide back down the hill. The reader-passenger is slamming their foot on their imaginary gas pedal, though there isn't one on their side, and meanwhile, you're telling them all about the view and your early childhood memories.

Examples of Overwriting

Didactic Prose

You cover everything you know about a certain subject, whether it's philosophical, spiritual, or political, even if the reader doesn't need to know it. A lecture, thinly disguised. They can Google it if they're interested. Please drop it. Please. I'm begging you.

Borrowed Manners

From "Forsooth" to "He was one sick dude," trim it back and spare the blushes. You must balance distinct voice with clear explanation. A little goes a long way when it's in black and white on a page.

Fear and Trembling

Avoid telling us how fearful he or she is. Too much inner-voice comes across as a pity-fest. It's boring. Our sympathies are limited—we want to know what happens next.

Common Phrases and Set Pieces

I shall be very happy if I never come across another heart pierced with ice-cold fear. Conventions often come with an adverb for free. They also grab the reader by the scruff and instruct them in the scene. Avoid doing so.

Overuse of Adverbs

I don't say adverbs are the devil's work. But they are a symptom of the illness of overwriting. We use them freely in conversation and that's where they should stay. When you spot them in your prose, pare them back for a clean and lucid reading experience.

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Treatments of Overwriting

First, pluck out stray adjectives and adverbs. Next, cut descriptive passages which don't offer any new information. Pinpoint the detail with bullet phrases. Finally, trim your sentence lengths.

This is especially useful information when starting a chapter. For example, here are some first chapter average sentence lengths:

  • A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman - 7.33
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling - 11.43
  • Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean - 12.52
  • Disgrace by JM Coetzee - 12.87
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - 14.03
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway - 15.16
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens - 17.66

Try staying toward the lower end to keep your readers interested.

Enter ProWritingAid

Do you have eyes but fail to see? You might need an extra pair to help you diagnose your overwriting. But what if you don't want to share that first draft with anyone? ProWritingAid can help!

For example, I ran the first and last chapters of my current novel-in-progress through ProWritingAid. The results were unexpected.

My last chapter scored far better for readability than my first. This surprised me. I have re-written my first chapter hundreds of times. The last chapter I put together afresh just yesterday. ProWritingAid detected the overwrought, tense quality of prose trying a wee bit too hard and I decided to relax that first chapter by forcible intervention!

The Salient Reports

Here is some of the feedback ProWritingAid gave on my work:

Sentence Length: My average sentence length came out at 10.7. I was gratified to see my authorial intentions had worked out. A nice short average sentence length was the game plan.

Readability Score: 86 out of 120 possible, with a Flesch-Kincaid reading grade of 3.9. This means eight-year-old readers and up can tackle it. I was pleased to see the low reading age score. I have been trying to create a work that is touching, funny, and unpretentious.

Passive Verbs: This was a real eye-opener. It showed me my work not just through the eyes of a writer, but as an editor. A change of arrangement and tempo here and there made my writing far more lively.

Sticky Sentences: I was reluctant to remove some words suggested by this report. I think of them as the paving slabs of the garden path. Yet ProWritingAid identified these words as sticky because they slow readers down. Fortunately, cutting these words lessened my word count and made me pay closer heed to the meaning of each sentence. A tough exercise, but effective. My prose felt fresher.

The Finished Product

With the filler reduced, my story became more muscular. I went back and fleshed out what matters most to me, what I am really trying to say with more emotive force.

ProWritingAid gives a writer fresh eyes to see their work more clearly. By zooming in on the issues and proposing simplifications, you can reconsider the mechanics of your prose.  A craftsman needs at some point to do that, and better before you've aired it than after.

We are blessed to live in an age when we have tools to see our writing as others see it, with insights to make our writing sing and dance on the page. You'd be foolish not to use them. Use ProWritingAid as a vital story-enhancing prose tonic.

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Louise Dean

Louise Dean

Author and Founder of The Novelry

Louise Dean is the founder of the online creative writing school The Novelry. She is the author of four novels and has been published globally by Penguin and Simon & Schuster amongst others. Louise Dean has won the Society of Authors Betty Trask Prize and Le Prince Maurice Prize, and been nominated for The Guardian First Book Prize, and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Literary Award. She is the author of novels ranging from literary fiction to historical and her books have been reviewed worldwide and featured on Oprah’s Book Club. From high-brow to low brow, Louise is known for her ‘dark and fearless’ comedic prose style and her warm encouragement of her writers as a teacher. She was formerly a tutor at the Arvon Foundation, was winner of 2016 IDPE best newcomer for independent development professionals in education.

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