Thursday, 7 April 2011


I've been mulling over over-writing quite a bit recently. Partly because I've been doing talks and workshops with the title, "What's Wrong With your Manuscript?" and partly because I keep seeing over-writing in the manuscripts that come my way via my Pen2Publication consultancy.

What do I mean by over-writing? Well, I've written about it before but I've recently developed a new name for it: Trying Too Hard To Sound Like a Writer.

I've also written about it fairly extensively in Write to be Published, and I thought I'd give you a little snippet from that:
Some genres and contexts require and tolerate more poetic bits. Some books and voices differ similarly. If you’ve read lots of books in your genre, you can more easily judge what is right for your book. But, whatever your genre, you will almost certainly do yourself a favour by toning down at least some parts, and then your best bits will stand out even better. You can’t see purple against a purple background.

Mark Twain’s words, written in 1880, bear repeating: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

He’s wrong, actually: it’s not hard at all. Be tough with yourself and your writing will benefit. If in doubt, cut it out. My preferred weapon is a machete. It’s remarkably therapeutic.
But which ones? Here are some tips:
  • Particularly avoid the repetitious and over-easy adjective+noun adjective+noun adjective+noun format
  • And adjectives that were incredibly easy for you to think of - consider whether that's because they are clich├ęs
  • When you see a pair of adjectives together, consider whether one of them is better - omit the weaker one
  • Be wary of adjectives that sound too flowery for the context or the character or the voice
  • If you are particularly proud of one, consdier whether you're being too proud and showing off - if it's not right for the reader, axe it.
I've got more examples of how some of you are guilty of Trying Too Hard To Sound Like a Writer. And I will be back with them soon, but meanwhile: get axing.


catdownunder said...

Aye, aye ma-am - but removal of cat hairs is an extremely painful process!

The Staff Wielder said...

Good point... It can be easy to get over excited with this kid of thing...

Anonymous said...

This is something I have been struggling with. My writing tutor complains about it long and hard (oops, double adjective combo) but I didn't see her point until I recently came across a novel which shall remain nameless. It had all the faults you list, plus similies on almost every page. Its extremely irritating and gets in the way of the story. The thing I'm not able to work out is how the novel won a literary prize!

Nicola Morgan said...

Helen, indeed, these faults can be found in published novels! It's fair to say that there are ways of using adjectives very richly - it's not about the number of them but a) the choice and b) the way they are woven into the text cleverly, rather than simply being scattered recklessly. It's fair also to say that it's something of a style thing, and modern style tends to be leaner.

Kristin said...

I'm glad you've posted this. Ever since your workshop last month I've been finding quite a few instances of this in my tome, and often I'll overwrite the same idea in three sentences. (In case my reader is an idiot and needs hand-holding.)

Instead of scolding myself I'm trying to delight in the idea that I am a damn better writer than I was 18 months ago when I finished the first draft. Part of that is because of your help, so thanks. (The list of What Not To Do is especially apropos!)

Sarah Allen said...

This is very sage advice. I'm still in the first draft stages, but keeping this in mind will help me have less to do in the future editing stages :) Thanks for the reminder!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Claire King said...

I particularly like this "Be wary of adjectives that sound too flowery for the context or the character or the voice"
I do think that for a book or a voice the author should choose a 'palette' of vocabulary that is the best and most pleasing fit, rather than do the equivalent of throwing every kind of hue and shade onto the canvass.

Angela Barton said...

Yes this is something I have been guilty of in the past. I loved my similies and adjectives and sprinkled them generously into my novel!! That was three years ago when I'd just decided I had a story to tell.

Since then I've read, attended workshops, edited, entered competitions, joined two writing groups, edited, tweet to other authors, (@angebarton) started a blog, and edited some more.

After a lot of listening, learning and deleting, I was delighted to be approached by a London-based agent who offered to represent me.

So thank you to people like you, who help and encourage new writers to write professionally and share your knowledge of the industry.

Anne A said...

I've found a good trick for me is to go ahead and delete the adjective in revision, even if I think I want it. I re-read the sentence, and if it seems "lacking" I try to think of a more descriptive noun. Only if that fails do I put the adjective back in. I've axed many an adjective, and used more variable vocabulary, this way.

Mike said...

Glad to see you're pointing the finger at adjectives rather than the poor old adverb.

I've always found the often-repeated advice that all adverbs come from hell to be puzzling as it ignores flowery adjectives and, arguably, as there are more nouns than verbs, it's easier to pick the precise noun more than the most apposite verb.