Monday, January 18, 2010

Overwriting? How could I be overwriting? I don't overwrite.

Last Thursday my tutor told me she had discovered a problematic pattern in my writing: overwriting. So my assignment this week has been to cut enormously and mercilessly in order to gain more clarity and drive.

Sometimes people tell me things about my writing and it's like the light-bulb moment. Everything is clear and obvious. Other times... not so much and I just have to take it on faith that someone is right. Writing this week has been like that, a real struggle.

I started by cutting everything from the first four chapters of my novel that wasn't setting, dialogue or action. Mostly I cut internal thought and reflection, which my teacher thinks are the culprits. And she was right--when I cut all of that out, the writing was much clearer and faster.

Let me show you:

Cut passage:
The blue curtain shakes. I freeze. I hear something... someone. Someone's whispering.

My back goes all tingly. "Hello?" I call out. "Is anyone there? Do you know what smells?"

Original passage:
The blue curtain shakes. I freeze. Is something back there? My ears aren't nearly as good as my nose, but now I think I hear something... someone. Someone's whispering.

My back goes all tingly. I don't know why. What is there to be scared of? It's just a smell, right? Right. I should figure this out. "Hello?" I call out. "Is anyone there? Do you know what smells?"

Do you see the difference? I think it does help.

But I worry about what I'm sacrificing for this increased clarity. Do I give enough background information? My teacher reminds me that I should trust my readers to understand my text without spelling everything out. I also worry about voice. Part of the reason I kept a lot of overwriting in originally was because one of my narrators talks non-stop. I'm scared if I lose sentences, I lose his personality.

So I have spent the past week combing through every sentence of my first four chapters, trying to decide what is essential and what can be cut. A frustrating writing week--but hopefully one that will take me a step closer towards improving my writing.


  1. lol...first rule of journalism: everything is cuttable. Slash and burn.

  2. A good lesson, especially for us English lit, non-journalism types. I'm slashing and burning away!

    Quick update: I'm mostly done with my cuts and additions and of 5200 words, I'm now down to 3600. I cut around 1500 words, almost 1/3 of my text!

    Unfortunately my first thought after this discovery was, "Oh good, I can add more later!"

  3. I've definitely struggled with over-writing, especially when I write in first person. Luckily I have a critique partner who is really good at picking out unnecessary internal thought, so I make sure to send her my manuscripts first.

    I've noticed that especially in tense scenes, the focus should be on action, with very little internal thought. You're right that you run the risk of taking the voice away, but you can always add a little bit back in if you need to. Happy cutting!

  4. Yes, I totally agree, Anna, writing in first person makes my overwriting worse. I feel like I have to convey voice, as well as the character's every thought. Good to know I'm not the only one with this problem!

    I pulled several books off my shelves and discovered that the best authors don't have ANY internal thoughts in action scenes--definitely a learning experience!

  5. I think we all go through an overwriting stage before we learn to "slash and burn" as Anne stated. My other problem was long sentences with lots of commas and conjunctions. There is so much to learn about the craft of writing. Most people don't have a clue until they get seriously into writing, I know I didn't.

  6. Really interesting- and I liked your cut version much more. I think we sometimes freak out about getting all the info to our readers right away. Really, when I'm reading a book where the writing is confident, I trust that I'll get the info I need eventually. I guess whati'm saying is that early on, I sometimes felt like I had to info-dump so readers would know how complex and amazing my MC was - rather than trusting that my main character's actionsanddialog should really reveal most of it...

  7. Exactly, Catherine! So good to chat with writing people who understand how difficult this craft really is!

    Aw, thanks, Lee. I like the cut version better, too, but good to have outside affirmation! You're absolutely right about trusting the reader... I need to keep reminding myself of that.

  8. I also like the cut version better. I can still follow the action and I can still hear your character's unique voice. It made me feel better to hear an editor / writer who I admire state that she is an overwriter and cuts tons from her first draft. I tend to cut with each and every revision.
    Sometimes rather than slashing whole sections it is just a matter of finding one word that can replace an entire phrase. Or writing a short sentence. No in place of I can't believe this. This can't be happening.

    and so on

    It actually becomes fun to find those 'power words' that can stand in and chop other words out of a manuscript.

    Enjoy your revisions!

  9. One thing I do is a search on the word 'feel'. When I write my first draft I tend to spell out how the character is feeling. But so often that can be cut later on, because the feelings are shown in the action.

  10. Thanks, Angela! I think your one word theory is a good one. I need to search out for those words more often. My problem is that I'm both an overwriter AND an underwriter. My first drafts are incredibly brief and include no setting or details. So I have to add... but apparently I add way too much!

    Thanks, Keren. That's absolutely the problem, describing how a character is feeling as well as her actions. Unfortunately I think I've trained myself not to use the word feel--but still continue to keep the description! At least after this massive cut, I think I've become a lot better at searching out all the feelings and deleting them.


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