Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 2: Overwriting

mistakes writers make, overwriting, justine covington, eight ladies writingLast week, I introduced the five common mistakes writers make in their first few pages, which Chuck Wendig originally posted on his blog, terribleminds. He identified these mistakes after critiquing several writers’ WIPs while at the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference. I then applied #1: The First Page is Vital to my own WIP. You can read that here.

This week, I’m taking on #2: You’re Totally Overwriting.

If Chuck had read my WIP, he’d have said I’m overwriting. A few of the Eight Ladies have told me to tighten. So have agents/editors. Even my aunt, who has published some non-fiction and poetry, said my work would be better if I would take out the second sentence anytime I described something.

*Ouch*

But they’re right. In his post, Chuck said, “Words are what we read, not why we read.” In other words (haha), their purpose is to convey information. They’re not on the page for their sake alone. It’s the story we want, not just words.

He said we writers should stop overdescribing every little action our character takes. Do we need to know every minute action of taking a sip of coffee (repeatedly)? Perhaps only if they burn themselves (and it’s relevant to the story). Or they’re hiding a smile behind the mug (and it’s relevant to the story). He says description, metaphor, and flourishes of language are enhancements. We use them to serve mood. They “…are not the point of what you’re doing.” What we’re doing is telling a story.

He used some choice phrases that I think I should paste above my computer:

  • “Kill exposition”
  • “Do not build a wall of words”
  • “Stop overwriting”
  • “Trim description to the leanest of cuts”
  • “The conversation will deepen as the story grows”

Looking at my own WIP, there’s a lot of unnecessary junk there…too much exposition, to much description…just too much. Period.

Here’s a paragraph just a few away from my first…Susannah’s uncle has just remarked that things are a little different in what used to be her family’s home (just a teeny bit of sarcasm there) and this is her reaction to his comment:

Different? What had once been a comfortable and familiar home was now completely foreign to her. She had hoped to return to a sanctuary, a place where she could feel safe amid so much uncertainty, and where she could finally grieve over her parents’ deaths while she waited the few remaining weeks until she reached her majority. Instead, she had returned to a home she didn’t recognize. Her uncle had removed every shred of evidence that she or her parents had once lived there. The household staff who had watched her grow up — indeed, had helped raise her — were gone. All the things she had taken for granted when her parents were alive — family portraits, trinkets and knick-knacks her mother had brought from her homeland and treasured, even Susannah’s own possessions which she could not take with her to Jamaica — were gone.

There’s a lot of stuff there (not to mention words…143 of them). Indirect, descriptive stuff. But what does the reader really need to know?

  • Her parents are dead.
  • Her uncle has taken over her old home.
  • She’s waiting to inherit her money.
  • There is nothing of her old life left.

I could even argue that bullet #2 above isn’t really necessary, and at the beginning of the book, it probably isn’t, but it comes into play at the end, so I want to keep it.

If I use my aunt’s methodology of removing the second sentence of anything descriptive, I’d end up with something like this:

Different? What had once been a comfortable and familiar home was now completely foreign to her. She had returned to a home she didn’t recognize. The household staff who had watched her grow up — indeed, had helped raise her — were gone. All the things she had taken for granted when her parents were alive were gone.

It’s okay (and down to 56 words), but we’re missing some of the things that are important for the reader to know. There are also some choice things I’d like to leave in, like the knick-knacks she valued from her mother. So let’s try this paragraph again:

Different? Susannah recognized almost nothing. Gone were the family portraits, the beloved knick-knacks her mother had brought from her homeland, even Susannah’s personal possessions that she was unable to take to Jamaica.

It was clear to Susannah that the house now belonged to her uncle, not her parents, God rest their souls. She resolved to leave as soon as her money came through.

It’s better (and at 63 words). Definitely more direct and less wistful, so it does change the tone a bit, but I think that’s okay. I want folks to get a sense that Susannah is upset by the changes, but not that she’s got her hand to her forehead saying, “Woe is me,” which is how I think the original paragraph could be interpreted. I also broke this second take into two paragraphs, because the first is really her observations, whereas the second is her rationale and future plans. What do you think?

To recap:

  • Don’t overwrite
  • Trim, trim, trim
  • Stop overdescribing
  • Words are the delivery mechanism only; it’s the story readers want

What else do you think we writers could do to stop overwriting?

8 thoughts on “Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 2: Overwriting

  1. I like all the work you’re doing to tighten your exposition! Good for you. I know you’re not finished revising, and you’re not really asking for my advice, but I’ll just butt in here anyway. In your second paragraph, the “It is” beginning doesn’t have as much power as I think it could have. Could that be rephrased?

    I have a question about this paragraph, though—her parents are dead, so the house does belong to her uncle. I get that Susannah feels lost and dispossessed, and we know her uncle is a baddie, but this paragraph, taken out of context, doesn’t show to me that what he did is so terrible. Once he comes into possession of the house, changing it to suit his taste is what anybody would do. Is there a way to show more clearly that he’s evil? Of course, I’m looking at it out of context, so maybe that’s already clear.

    The last thing—we assume that Susannah feels angry, lost, dispossessed, or has some other emotion. She describes the objects that are missing, but her actual emotions aren’t shown. This would be a good place for them. Again, you may have done that in the preceding or following paragraphs. Taken out of context, though, this passage feels a little dry to me.

    In revising, one thing I have to remember is that something needs to be said only once. Readers will remember. So anything that circles back—out it has to go.

    The cutting that you did from the original is great. You’ve created a terrific example of what we all should be looking for. Keep up the good work!

    • Kay, you can butt in anytime you like!

      You’re right, her parents are dead, the house is his. However, something like a library (with books, which were still very expensive at the time) would typically be something that would remain intact. Or at least one would think so! Family portraits and the like would also be something one would expect to remain up, but he’s removed every trace of her parents. With Susannah coming back anxious about turning 21 and not having had any closure since the death of her parents (her uncle pretty much shipped her off to her sister as soon as her parents were in the ground), an unfamiliar house, with unfamiliar servants, is a bit more than she can take.

      To your point, there’s no emotional reaction here. Must work on that. I can’t remember offhand if I have her emotional reaction before/after. I’ll have to take a look at it in context.

      Thanks for your feedback, it’s excellent!

        • Oh, I wish. She’s very old, though, and not doing well health-wise. It was a bit of an ordeal for her to read my first four chapters and call me to talk about it. I’ll have to take her advice, which is probably one-time-only, and keep it in mind as I go through re-writes.

  2. I like the tighter version, Justine. It makes Susannah sound stronger. There’s definitely no suggestion of ‘oh woe’ in the rewrite.

    As you know, I have a tendency to under-describe. I’m spending much of my revision time trying to make sure I include enough information in my scenes 🙂

  3. Nice demonstration! Overwriting is great in a first draft (feels like you are getting something done, and also, the most overwritten bits are probably very important to you as the author). Then you stripped it down to the bare bones. Then you added back stuff that will help the reader feel closer to the character.

    I tend to underwrite, myself, so my draft process might look like this: write, overwrite and embellish, strip to the bare bones, then finally figure out what I need to make it work.

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