A couple weeks ago I discussed the concept of overwriting, the use of needless words in your writing. Having known about overwriting for years, it seemed like basic stuff to me. So I was stunned by how many of you told me you’d never thought about it before. I was even more stunned when I asked Twitter what to blog about today and RedParrot told me she’d like me to talk more about overwriting.
My goal has always been to help you become better writers, and since there’s high demand for advice on this topic, I thought I’d discuss a few more examples of overwriting to give you a better feel for it.
Last time we discussed overwriting I gave you a handful of specific words/details that can be left out of your work. Today I’m going to show you how to cut overwriting by showing the editing process I’ve used on one of my own stories.
To do this, I’ve grabbed the first paragraph from one of my currently-in-editing stories, Brothers.
When my father sent my thirteen-year-old brother to live with the Byrnes, I was jealous. I’d only ever been allowed out of the city twice, both times with my parents and a hundred armed guards to attend a wedding. Of course they were training Andre to be a Noble Slayer—the elites of our army, whose job is to kill the undead—while they taught me to be a king, but back then, I would’ve done anything to switch places. At least a Slayer had some freedom. They could walk down the hall, even out of the castle, without anybody watching.
When my father sent my thirteen-year-old brother to live with the Byrnes, I was jealous. I’d only ever been outside Moon Spire twice, both times with my parents and their guards to attend a wedding. They were training Andre to be a Noble Slayer—the elites of our army—while they taught me to be a king, but back then, I would’ve done anything to switch places. At least a Slayer had freedom. They could leave the castle without anybody watching.
You’ll notice that the original paragraph is five lines, whereas the edited paragraph is four. How did I achieve this? When I could turn two words into one–such as turning ‘out of’ into ‘outside’–I did so. By removing the word ‘some’ from the second last sentence, not only did I shorten the sentence, but I made it stronger. Too many words weakens the sentence and distracts the reader from the point you’re trying to make.
I also took out some of the details because they’re not important to the story. This story has little to do with the Slayers, so it’s not necessary for the reader to know that they battle undead. When Jacob says he was jealous of Slayers for their freedom, saying they could leave the castle without anybody watching is enough. We don’t need any more details to know how constricted Jacob feels within the life he’s been given as heir to the kingdom.
If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that not all my changes shorten the work. In the second sentence I traded “the city” in for “Moon Spire”, which is still two words. Why did I do this? Because “Moon Spire” is more specific. It gives you a better idea of where you are–a specific city rather than just any city–and doesn’t use any extra words. Being specific gives your readers a better feel for your setting and characters, and is more important than shortening your sentences.
Applying this to your own work
To eliminate overwriting from your manuscript, start by looking for places where two words can be shortened to one. This includes contractions, but it also includes things like changing ‘next to’ into ‘beside’.
Once you’ve found all the places where you can turn two words into one, start looking for extra words and phrases. Words like just, very, some, and most words that end in -ly can be cut from your manuscript to make it stronger. Remove these from your manuscript whenever possible. Keep them only when removing them alters the sentence beyond recognition.
Even after you’re familiar with the concept of overwriting and you’ve ruthlessly cut unnecessary words and phrases out of a dozen manuscript, you’ll find that you still end up overwriting. That’s fine. Everyone does it. No writer is perfect, and that’s why nobody should ever send out a first draft. Your job is not to make sure everything’s perfect–it’s to make sure that you only send out the best possible work.
Where have you found instances of overwriting in your work?
I don’t often discuss the technical side of writing in depth, but after reading the self-published works that inspired last Monday’s post, I’ve decided to discuss the biggest problem I’ve seen in these novels: overwriting.
What is overwriting? There are two ways authors overwrite: with excessive details, and with particularly wordy phrasing. Even a perfectly spelled piece with flawless grammar can be made frustrating if the author overwrites them. It makes a book frustrating to read and in today’s fast paced society, most readers will walk away. I’m particularly forgiving of this if the story captivates me, but enough of it will make even me gash my teeth.
So today I’d like to discuss some of the things that can–and should–be cut from your writing whenever possible to make it easy reading.
Let’s start with the details:
1. Characters brushing their teeth. Or combing their hair, or getting dressed in the morning. These things should only be included if they’re used to add depth or move the story forward. For instance, if your character notices a giant bruise developing on their face while they’re brushing their teeth in the morning, that’s a good use of the scene. In fantasy settings, often the nobles have servants to dress them, and these scenes can be used for gossip with the servants to great effect. George R. R. Martin uses this technique often to pass information between characters.
2. Details of your setting that don’t matter to the plot. Festivals, events, street names and other details of your setting should only be mentioned if they’re important to your story. If you’ve spent hours creating your location or done months of research it can be tempting to include all the details, but that will bog the story down. Include only what is necessary to the plot. People don’t pick up a novel expecting a detailed tour of the city or town in question. They want a story, not a tourist guide. Some detail helps them enjoy the story. Too much irritates even the most patient reader.
3. Most flashbacks. There’s often a more efficient way to mention past events, and flashbacks should only be used when absolutely necessary. Unless you’re doing a story intentionally that starts at the end and shows you how the character got there, the best way to give readers a feel for the important parts of your character’s past is to mention them briefly and then expand on them bit by bit later. Make it a gradual thing rather than a flashback or a long winded explanation, and you’ll keep the reader’s interest more easily.
And some words that can almost always be left out:
1. Just. It seems like an innocent word, but while it doesn’t ruin your grammar, it’s often redundant. Think about these sentences:
He was just a little bit taller than me.
She lived just around the corner from the scene of the crime.
In both sentences just is grammatically correct, but does it need to be there? Consider these sentences:
He was a little bit taller than me.
She lived around the corner from the scene of the crime.
The sentences are now a little bit stronger and shorter without having changed meaning. Getting rid of ‘just’ might not seem like a big deal, but once they’re gone, you’ll see a big difference.
2. Then. This is one I’ve been ripping mercilessly from my manuscripts. Sure, there are occasions where it’s essential, but often it’s unnecessary, particularly when used after the word ‘and’. Consider these sentences:
And then she kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and then held it in front of her defensively.
Now look at these:
She kicked the door.
She grabbed the hammer and held it in front of her defensively.
Which sentences do you think are stronger? In the end, ‘then’ is just another word bogging down your work. Cut it whenever you can, especially when you see it after ‘and’.
3. Very. This is another unnecessary word. Take a look at these sentences:
The mansion was very big.
She was very angry.
Now consider these:
The mansion was massive.
She was furious.
By eliminating very and using stronger words, I’ve made these sentences shorter and more visual. Look for this word in your work and delete it whenever possible. Be ruthless. There’s almost always a better way to emphasize something than using the word ‘very’.
Exercise: Pull out a story/project you haven’t looked at a while and a highlighter. Highlight every excessive detail and every instance of just or very that you see within the first three pages. Count them, and then find ways to get rid of them. Remember that overwriting doesn’t make you a bad writer–almost all of us do it in our first few drafts. Editing may be painful, but it gives your work the best chance possible for success.
Just for fun, post how many instances of overwriting you found in your first three pages. For each reader who does, I’ll look through one of my old projects and count the instances of overwriting. Let’s compare numbers!