Trouble with being passionate about words is we sometimes don't know when to rein in our passion. I admit that I'm guilty of this quite often. There are people in my life who do their best to stop me, and very grateful I am to them.
They are, in no particular order:
- my husband - "Shut up: you're banging on."
- my editor - "OTT" / "suggest omit?"
- my internal editor - "do you really need both those descriptions you're so horribly proud of? Would you consider killing one of the babies? No? Well, I'll do it for you and it won't be pretty."
Other kids are asleep, but Arabella and George are floating on moonbeams and diving into liquid worlds and sherbet dreams and the parts of their brains that are good with words become passionate about words and lo and behold, two hopeful writers are emerging.
Thing is, no one tells them to stop. No one tells them that just because an adjective is beautiful, five adjectives are not necessarily five times as beautiful. No one tells them that words are valuable, that they need to be chosen perfectly, that effort goes into the positioning of each word, and, crucially, its removal if it is not the absolute best one for the job.
So, grown-up now, Arabella and George begin to write novels. They write for themselves, because they must be true to their souls. They put everything into their oeuvres, their whole beings, all the power of language that they can muster. They read their work aloud to themselves, over and over again. They make themselves cry and shiver with the piercing anguish of their prose.
One day, they are ready to send their oeuvres off to publishers. They visit a well-known blog, called Help! I Need a Publisher! - though, in fact, they believe that they should really be on a blog called "Help! I'm a Publisher and I Really Need You, You Fabulous Writer!" And they follow all the stunning advice about covering letters and synopses and sample chapters and tailoring the submission properly to the right publisher. They don't even include any toffee, or glitter, or naked photos of themselves, though George is tempted because he has a kind of Byronic air of which he is more than faintly proud.
And they are rejected. Because you can bet your bottom dollar that their work is over-written. Thing is that A & G, potentially talented though they may be, are totally up themselves with the beauty of their prose and they have forgotten that this is not about them: it's about the story / work / book /reader. Of course, we must write from the heart and I would never advise selling out at the expense of the quality of your writing - though you may earn more if you do - but if you put yourself and the pleasure YOU derive from your own words above the work itself and the pleasure the reader will take from it then you may as well talk under water.
Help! How do I know if I'm doing this horrible over-writing thing?
So far, I've suggested a cause and a result, and you'll have gleaned something general about what over-writing is, but I haven't shown you how to spot it in your own work. It's easier to spot in others' work, because it's damned irritating. It's like seeing someone a bit over-dressed for the occasion - you know, when someone has just gone that little bit too far to show off the gorgeous legs and Manolo Blahniks when all we're doing is digging a ditch; or perhaps like wearing two diamond necklaces - very vulgar, dahling. It's showing off, preening, and no one responds well to it. When we find over-writing in someone else's work, we may mutter under our breath, "Ok, ok, you really fancy yourself, don't you?" and it gets in the way of the story that we were trying to read.
And this is the main point about over-writing: it gets in the way. It ends up hiding the true beauty underneath, covering it with glitz and frills.
So, on the basis that you are looking carefully at every word you use, because I know you are, here are the questions I think you should ask yourself when checking your work for over-writing. Ask yourself these things especially when it's a piece of description, high emotion, or when you are feeling particularly proud of yourself:
- have I paced the surrounding sentences so that this bit has enough space to work? So, if my gem is surrounded by loads of other gems, is it going to be noticed? No? So, bin some gems. Give the purple sentence some space. You can't see purple on a background of purple
- have I said the same thing twice? (I do this a lot. I even do it quite often.) Or if not exactly the same then is half my description more powerful than the other half?
- have I used three adjectives where one (or a different phrase altogether) would have worked harder and maybe ended up being more meaningful?
- is this in fact a bit of action where the reader doesn't want to be held back by description anyway? Will the reader be tempted to skip to the action?
- is this actually beautiful or is it in fact absurdly flowery? Am I being like a child who thinks that My Little Bride Pony is genuinely tasteful? Am I being greedy and deluded?
- if it is genuinely beautiful, is it in keeping with the rest of the work / section? Am I "in voice"?
- have I been guilty of "showing, not telling"? (This is often over-used as a crit - sometimes, telling is the right thing to do, but only if it's the right thing to do. I've written about it here and here.)
- have I overdone the adverbs? Especially in dialogue tags - eg. "she said, resignedly" (because it would be much better and more skilful if you showed in other ways that the person spoke resignedly - otherwise [think about it] the reader won't know how to read it until after reading it and getting to your adverb, by which time [if you're a crappy writer] the reader will have read it excitedly or poignantly or something quite differently.
- if I cut this paragraph by 25% would it be even better? (Yes, it would, trust me.)
I'm currently going through my next novel, Wasted, with my ruthless internal editor's hat on. The novel is done and dusted and my editor wants me to release it for copy-editing, but I'm convinced there are more things wrong with it. One of the things I'm looking for, because I tend to get carried away, is over-writing.
I thought I'd give you three extracts that I picked up and thought about at length:
1. "Their heads tell them that this is fake, ordinary, or has a boring explanation - Farantella is ill or messing around with them."There's an example of "the cliché of three": fake, ordinary, boring. I realised that ordinary and boring are too similar to be useful, so I changed it to, "Their heads tell them that this is fake, or has an ordinary explanation." No frills, no fancy stuff. No showing off.
2. "For they both feel it: that there is something heavy in the caravan, something thickening the air, a chill breath of strangeness."This one I haven't finished with. It feels over-written, though it occurs at a moment where I am wanting the reader to pause and savour the atmosphere. But it's that "cliché of three" again, and I'm not sure I'm happy. I'll have to think about it. It may get to stay. Or it may not. I'd rather think of something with one or two phrases, otherwise it looks as though I'm struggling to find the right phrase.
3. "Soon, but not very soon, disentangled but still with the blush of him hot on her skin, Jess goes into her house and smiles goodbye to Jack, standing there, watching her."This gets to stay. This baby lives. Jack and Jess are passionately in love and every touch is almost unbearably electric. I need to show this, even though I have not described their kiss. I am "showing" the effects of the kiss, the parting of their skin, rather than "telling" you about the kiss. (Frankly, showing and not telling with kissing is often preferable - the imagination can fill in the details without feeling as though the author is being a voyeur ...) So, I judge it not over-written but strong. You may disagree! Of course, all this is about context, and you haven't seen the contexts, but I wanted to show you a little of how I go about trying to be ruthless about over-writing. And sometimes failing.
Do remember that in the end you have to judge this yourself. Some genres require and tolerate greater or lesser levels of prose; different books and different topics require a different treatment.
For example, my first novel, Mondays are Red, is heavily loaded with description, which in a different context you might call over-writing. But it shows a boy waking from a coma, hugely disorientated and with an acquired and exaggerated version of the sensory condition, synaesthesia. So, you get pretty over-the-top description and a deliberately confusing multi-sensory layering - it's a book you either love or hate, depending on whether you can let yourself go with the strange descriptions. Whereas Wasted has whole pages with virtually no adjectives and adverbs at all, completely pared back, interspersed with the occasional sentence suddenly rich in description. The intention there is that you will notice the description much more starkly, because it will stand out.
It's that thing about not being able to see purple against a purple background.
But, whatever you're writing and whoever your reader, it is worth considering whether you can apply these adages to your work:
Less is often moreAnd finally, that old chestnut:
Flowery is not good - delicately floral is.
Over-writing is in the eye of the beholder - and you do care about your beholder
It requires much greater skill to say something in a few words than in many
If you apply that last one correctly you cannot be guilty of over-writing. It's the most important task of the internal editor: to ensure that every word works and earns its place.
Finally, finally, newbies to this blog, or people with duff memories like mine, may be wondering what Big Mistake 1 and Big Mistake 2 were. They were, respectively, Voice and Pace. And the greatest of these is voice.
Voice defines you and defines your book. It's the hardest thing to teach. Compared to voice, over-writing is a complete doddle. So, no excuses now and no pressure. Go and seek out your over-written passages and where you find them, cut them out. And watch how something much stronger appears.