Thursday, May 30, 2013

Going Overboard (and a Self-Editing Life Preserver)

Hello, from the land of rivers, hobby farming, and rapidly warming weather...

I'm writing again! (Well, re-writing would probably be more accurate). And it's fun. But as I settled down at the keyboard last week, surrounded by notes, outlines, and freshly envisioned scenes, I found myself tapping away and falling into the old trap:


Ah, yes, the scourge of the writer who knows what they're doing, but is feeling insecure, or trying too hard, or not trusting their skills to engage the reader. Or...or...or...

I've been here before and will no doubt head down this dark road again. My only comfort is that I critique for a lot of talented writers, and I know I'm not the only one who suffers the affliction. But there was a time when I received critique notes to this effect and wasn't always sure what they meant. So here are a few tips to help you identify if you're overworking your words:


1. Too many adverbs, adjectives and modifiers

The most straightforward version of overwriting comes in simply using too many words to describe - especially feelings or common objects. The writer is attempting to add magic to the story. The problem with this approach is that it needlessly slows the pace of the read - so actually has the opposite of the desired effect.

SOLUTION: An outright seek and destroy mission. Remove words ending in "ly" and those lists of three adjectives in a row. Or three actions to imply a feeling. They just plain aren't necessary. If your story isn't grabbing attention without them, the excess words won't help.

2. Extensive metaphors, similes, and analogies

It's the detailed comparison to a sunset to describe the hero's hair, or a multi-sensorial image of the dirty dog bowl... Whatever it is, it forces the reader to focus on the words you're using, or an Image that has little to do with the actual story. It stops the reader from falling into the character's skin and seeing through their eyes. It's especially deadly (and especially common) in the opening pages of a novel. Impatient readers won't keep reading.

SOLUTION: Use a metaphor of three words or less, or just delete it altogether. As with the above, if your story isn't grabbing the reader without them, then the problem is with the story, not the effusive mental images you're painting.

3. Overly-complicated plotting

This one's harder to spot on your own, but it's common in stories that hinge on a reveal of the past. Rather than grounding the reader in the world, the author is feeling unsure of their ability to engage the reader's curiosity, so employ overly-action-based scenes, or convoluted clues and foreshadowing.

SOLUTION: You'll probably need a solid critique from an experienced novelist if you're prone to this. But first self-editing efforts should focus on identifying plot-points that answered the question "what would be really cool?" Or "how can I lay a false trail?" Foreshadowing is subtle and generally doesn't require it's own scenes. Scenes that are designed solely to get the reader's blood pumping are essentially pointless. Your goal should be tension, not sweat. (Trust me, when you get that balance right, the sweat will happen on its own).

I hope this is helpful. In all these situations, and more, the main problem is our propensity as writers to discredit our own abilities. But when you're feeling that way, pull out your favorite book. Look a how the author paints the picture - the minimal descriptive words, and usually simple plotting.

Remember, the thing that really pulls a reader into a story is first empathy with the main character(s), then sensory information that allow them to feel like they're really in your world. It isn't complicated. Just...interesting. Readers want to be a fly on the wall. Not an ant getting stomped underfoot.

Your Turn: Any tips for identifying overwriting, or solving it?

1 comment:

  1. I think maybe I have the opposite problem! Although I do use a few too many adverbs, mostly I tend to leave out descriptions, and I certainly don't have any metaphors!

    I like writing that doesn't get in the way of the story, that blends into the background and fades away until I don't even notice it. I try to write that way too, though of course, I sometimes need a little help to make sure I achieve this.