What is Overwriting?

When I was just beginning, and someone in the business took a look at my writing, one of the comments was this: ‘Has a tendency to overwrite in places.’

I had no idea what overwriting was. I even wondered if overwriting meant it was too long…

It doesn’t. Here is the simplest example of overwriting:
“Hey!’ she shouted.

Here you actually have three ways telling you she was shouting:

  • the word ‘hey’,
  • the exclamation mark
  • the word ‘shouted’.

You really don’t need to say it three times.

Here’s a more complex example, which I just came across while re-writing:

‘Yes, I know. But he’s going to have it anyway. Seneschal, we’ve lost the Stormlord.’

‘You have what?’

Tallyman and the overman both jumped. The pen Tallyman was holding spun out of his hand. The overman dug a hole in his palmubra with his shaking fingers. Lord Taquar stood in the doorway. He had overheard the last sentence and his face was the colour of a dust cloud rolling across the Gibber.

It is actually quite clear from the context that Lord Taquar overheard the last sentence. So why tell the reader again? Overwriting.

There is an example of another form of overwriting, which I call the recap. It is sometimes hard to pick up, but it leaves the reader feeling that things have slowed down, and that nothing new is happening.
A common way of doing this is to have dialogue between characters – and then for the author to tell the reader what s/he ought to have got from that dialogue. Sometimes this is done by having one of the characters think about the dialogue afterwards – nothing wrong with that – but if they are not thinking anything that the reader didn’t pick up, why re-tell it? Don’t recap and don’t re-tell.

This sometimes is quite hard not to do: for example, if you have a crucial action scene, which is followed by one of the participants telling another character – who wasn’t there – about it. The conversation is necessary for the plot, so what do you do? Well, you could say something like:

Mary told John what had happened

but what if John’s reaction to what he is being told is essential? You can’t get away with a line like that.

Well, that is where your writing skills have to come into play. Perhaps you can have Mary’s re-telling written in such a way as to add more to the action scene as seen through her eyes. Perhaps you can make her retelling more entertaining by being a reflection of her character. You have to work it out. You just have to careful not to tell the reader the same things again and again – repetition is boring, and it is a beginner’s mistake to try to explain everything.

You sometimes hear writing advice something along the lines of:
You have to tell the reader everything twice before it sinks in…

I think this stems from author frustration when their readers complain, saying things like: ‘Why did she do that?’ when all the clues were there; or ‘He acted like a child!’ – when earlier on in the book it was mentioned that the character was in fact only twelve. Or ‘But how did that character get across the river when there was no bridge?’ – when in an earlier chapter, the same character had hidden a skiff on the riverbank.

Readers do miss things and then complain, but believe me, they will complain still more if an you tell them the same thing over and over.

Oddly enough, I find repetition one of the hardest things to get rid of when I am writing. Why?
Because I shift things around a lot – whole chapters sometimes, sometimes just a paragraph or a sentence or a line of dialogue. And keeping track of it all is tough.

Which is why good beta readers and copy editors are such valuable people.


What is Overwriting? — 1 Comment

  1. That was very interesting Glenda. It is something one can do all the time, not just writing novels. I am pretty sure I am guilty of it in my blog – I will have to watch out for it in future.

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