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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.