Grunt Style Edits – Episode 3: Overwriting
While not an overly complex subject, overwriting is a common issue I come across in edits. However, it’s often invisible to the author, the words they use appearing as necessary to get the point of the sentence/scene across. Often, this isn’t the case.
What makes it worse is that overwriting is often subtle, a word or two that don’t add anything to the sentence yet feel perfectly at home there. Sometimes it adds redundancy, forcing a repetition of ideas, other times it simply attempts to clarify something the reader will understand without that addition. And that latter point (an attempt at clarity) is often what causes writers to overwrite, even if they don’t do it consciously. There is an inherent lack of trust in the reader’s ability to comprehend what is being written, thus the need to clarify the most minute of details. And while this isn’t done through a conscious sense of disregard for the reader, it’s simply an impression that’s been handed down to the author through their own experiences as a reader.
As overwriting is often seen as an acceptable quirk of writing, editors address it less often, less aggressively, as they do other editorial issues that are seen as more important to the welfare of the overall piece. Still, while overwriting is one of the least invasive sins of writing, it’s always good to incorporate the idea that leaner prose makes for a better reading experience.
One of the most egregious instances of overwriting is the phrase: thought to himself. This pops up all the time and should be obvious to writers that it makes no sense, yet there it is, over and over. Unless the story has telepaths, people capable of communicating through thought, the only possible person they can be thinking to is themselves. A such, the to himself part is blatant overwriting. It is unnecessary.
Less blatant, but still quite common, are the use of directional words such as up, down, above, below, etc. Many phrases/actions in our language have an innate understanding, which allows an author to limit directional words and cut them out unless absolutely necessary. For example: Bill looked up at the sky. This sentence is short and direct, no misunderstanding regarding what it portrays, yet it is overwritten because of the word up. The reader knows which direction the sky is and, barring Bill being upside down, we know when he’s looking at the sky that he’s looking up. Thus, the word can be removed without impacting the clarity of the sentence. Bill looked at the sky.
Another example of directional words is this: Bill knelt down. Again, understanding human positioning, the reader knows intuitively that the only way to kneel is down. As such, the word can be removed without negatively impacting the clarity of the sentence. Bill knelt.
Another common overwriting situation I see is the attempt at clarification, an author adding excess words in a misguided attempt to be as clear as possible. For example: Bill picked up the cup with his hand. The fact that he used his hand is obvious, again barring some circumstantial plot issue that the reader will already be aware of (say the guy only has feet) and thus, does not need clarification. We all pick up our mugs with our hands, again barring extenuating circumstances that would have been clear in the context of the story. As such, the addition of with his hand is overwriting.
Another example is this: Bill lifted his hat and put it on his head. While clear, it’s understood that Bill would have to lift his hat in order to put it on, and we understand where hats go normally, on heads. We get a clear image of what he did simply by stating he put the hat on. Readers understand the mechanics of putting on a hat and where it goes, thus all the extra clarification does nothing to help the sentence and only bumps the word count.
Another major issue with overwriting is blatant repetition of words in an effort at clarity. For example: The archer picked up his bow and pulled an arrow from his quiver. He drew back his bowstring. He nocked an arrow in the string on the bow. Then he fired the bow, the arrow flying.
While the example is a bit on the nose, it shows what is a common problem with repetition in order to build an image that’s clear. It mentions the words bow and arrow way more times than is necessary for comprehension. Way more. It would read better like this: The archer nocked an arrow and fired. Simple and effective. Since nearly every reader knows what an archer is, and by the point in the story where this particular archer appears, even those who might be clueless should now know that archers use bows to fire arrows. As such, there is no need for the endless repetition as to what the archer is doing or how he’s doing it. The reader understands the mechanics of the action, so leave it at that.
Repetition is something you want to avoid as often as possible as the reader can get weary of seeing the same words or phrases repeated over and over. Books that include the most minute mundane details of every action fall into this category. I see authors regularly add in superfluous details regarding things so minor as a character opening a door. For example: Bill went to the door. He grabbed the doorknob. He turned it, pulling on the door. The door opened and Bill went through the door. He shut the door behind him, the door thumping shut.
Again, while my example is blatant, it’s not drastically different from what I see on a regular basis. An author, attempting to build a scene, has his character doing what is necessary to get into the other room where the scene is meant to unfold. It seems to make sense, the character needing to get through the door, and we do this kind of stuff every day. However, it’s because we readers do this stuff all the time that it isn’t necessary to spell it out. We know how doors work. A simple Bill opened the door and went inside is sufficient to tell the reader what they need to know. We don’t need to know how the door was opened unless the opening of it is foreshadowing for something ahead. If not, then skip the mundane details and only tell the reader what they to know.
Other examples of overwriting are what I call fluff words. These are words such as: that, just, only, both, and most every ly adverb out there. You can almost always cut these words from the sentence and not impact its clarity. They’re like empty calories in your meal. They look good, add fluff, but they serve no purpose. Read your sentences that include these words and see where you can cut them out. It’ll happen most of the time. In the case of the ly adverbs, there is usually a better, more suitable word to replace it with or a more descriptive way of saying what you want to get across. (I’m not advocating getting rid of all ly adverbs, but be sure the word suits a purpose before you include it.)
Ultimately, overwriting is a byproduct of the world we live in, most every source of media, be it for entertainment or educational purposes, advertising, whatever, writes toward the common denominator in the population, overwriting par for the course. Still, while it’s the least of the literary sins out there, avoiding overwriting will tighten your prose and help you to create a stronger, better story and can help you cut words from a bloated story, sharpening the details.