Editing Yourself: Over-writing and what to do about it

Pottery_WheelI have a confession to make: I’m a chronic over-writer. In fact, unless you are one of those very few people who do almost all your editing while you are writing the first draft, you do too. There isn’t anything wrong with over-writing. It’s a mistake to think that you can leave it as is. And this is a sin I do find a lot of new writers (and many old ones, too) commit.

To put it simply, over-writing is using too many words, and not the right ones. Or it is mistrusting language not to do its job or mistrusting your own use of words. Sometimes you’re too damn anxious to get your point across. Sometimes over-writing happens because you’re attempting to describe something complex and nuanced and you take a number of runs at it. So over-writing is very much part of the process of writing: it’s fertile, it allows you to play with the way you get things across, but it’s not okay to dump that onto a reader. This is where thinking poetically is very helpful. Poets often aren’t good at constructing a plot, or characters, but they are excellent at using language carefully and strategically, and we can learn a lot from them. I will get to an example of this in a minute, but first I want identify some of the common places where overwriting happens. I want to make it clear that this isn’t something you should ever be thinking about in your first draft. This is the test to which you should put a piece of writing once the first draft is written.

To be pedantic, let’s define what they are. Adjectives are words used to modify nouns. I’m not saying they’re bad. We need them often, to be precise about what qualities the noun has. ‘A soft bed’ informs the reader that the bed has the quality of being soft, not hard. But before you settle on the phrase, consider if there is a noun that will allow you to dispense with the adjective. Could you use nest, or cocoon? Could you use a noun that implies both bed and soft? Or could you use an adjective that did more work for you? Something that added more meaning to the phrase? A cosy bed? Cosy is an adjective that is going to imply soft, if we’re talking about beds, because hard ones aren’t cosy at all but, more than that, it’s also going to add a sense of rightness and belongingness to the phrase. Or what about ‘hard edge of the table’? Have you ever met a soft one? The hard here is simply not needed. Same with ‘a big gulp of coffee’ or ‘a big gulp of air’? A gulp IS a large amount of liquid or air taken down at once. You don’t need the ‘big’.

I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged on this one before, but I’m going to do it again because I read far, far too many erotic stories where someone ‘lightly brushes his fingers over her skin’. For some reason, I really overreact when I hit phrases like this. ‘Brushes’ implies light, soft strokes. You don’t need the lightly. Same with ‘whispered softly.’ A whisper is soft. You only need to use an adverb when you want to use the verb in an unexpected way, i.e. ‘he whispered viciously (hoarsely, harshly, gratingly).

The room was empty. There was no one there.
Yeah, don’t laugh. I’ve read this. And we all do this sort of thing while we’re writing a first draft. It’s the ‘circling around’ I spoke of earlier.

She screamed and screamed until her throat was raw.
I think I may have actually written this one. What’s with the ‘and screamed‘? I guess I wanted you to know she really did do a lot of screaming, but the modifying phrase ‘until her throat was raw‘ does the job.

He wept. The tears rolled down his cheeks.
I’m absolutely certain I’ve written this. It’s stupid. And either sentence is so much more powerful on its own than the two combined. More isn’t better. More gums up the writing for the reader.

Erotic description:
One of the acknowledged problems for anyone writing erotica is that, although English offers us a wealth of options when it comes to many nouns and verbs, it isn’t particularly generous when it comes to sexual vocabulary. There is no other word for a kiss. Consequently, we do need adjectives and adverbs to fine tune the meaning. What kind of a kiss was it? Languid, intense, rough, studied, thoughtless, hungry? Sometimes, I try to do without it. She pressed her closed lips to his navel, his hip, his thigh. All the while watching his cock creep to life.

As much as the ‘again and again’ problem is giggle-worthy, it’s also important to recognize that repetition is a powerful form of rhetoric. Where would Churchill or Martin Luther King Jr. have been without it? We’re back at poetics: not what the words mean, but what impact may be had from they way they are used. Repetition can reveal character, it can deepen the immersive experience of a written description. And, as speakers, we repeat ourselves when we talk. It can signal indecision, insecurity, anxiety, desperation. It can alert us to a character at the edge of language, where it fails to be enough. Here repetition informs us, not of the meaning in the words, but of their inadequacy. This becomes an issue of a writer’s honour. Are you being lazy or are you making a conscious choice?

Evil words:
I call them evil, because they sneak into my writing all the time and I don’t notice I’m doing it. Some are common to many writers and some are highly individual. My evil words are just, really and even: I’ve (just) right this minute done a word search through this post and found five instances of ‘just’ that didn’t need to be there at all. WriteDivas has a lovely list of over-used and unnecessary words, as well as some examples of cliches and pat phrases. A good way to brutally edit your work is to take each of those words and phrases, and do a search for them in your document. You’re not going to want to delete every instance of the word ‘really,’ but at least 80% of them go. The 20% that you make a conscious choice to keep is the birth of your style as a writer.

Style is really one of the hardest things to define in writing. It is a combination of so many aspects of writing that, like porn, it comes under the ‘I know it when I see it’ headings. But what it isn’t is accidental. It might start off as accident, but by the time you get to call it style, you’ve recognized what you’re doing and made a conscious decision to keep on doing it. This is why it usually takes writers many years and a good deal of experimentation to acquire a ‘style’ of their own.

I bring this up because there are excellent reasons to completely disregard everything I’ve said above, in the right circumstances. When you, as a writer, judge the circumstance to be right to consciously over-write, then you are making a stylistic decision. That’s fine. Just don’t over-write because you were too lazy to edit.

Poetry as an aspirational exemplar for prose writers:
I’m going to offer you the second stanza of the poem “Men” by Maya Angelou. Her language is gorgeous and fierce. There is repetition, there are adjectives and adverbs, but they are all used consciously, to produce a powerful effect.

One day they hold you in the
Palms of their hands, gentle, as if you
Were the last raw egg in the world. Then
They tighten up. Just a little. The
First squeeze is nice. A quick hug.
Soft into your defenselessness. A little
More. The hurt begins. Wrench out a
Smile that slides around the fear. When the
Air disappears,
Your mind pops, exploding fiercely, briefly,
Like the head of a kitchen match. Shattered.
It is your juice
That runs down their legs. Staining their shoes.
When the earth rights itself again,
And taste tries to return to the tongue,
Your body has slammed shut. Forever.
No keys exist.

Metaphor and simile:
The last thing I’d like to point out is that sometimes correcting your over-writing means writing more, not less. Notice in the stanza of the poem above, Angelou is opting to use similes and metaphors instead of resorting to adjectives or adverbs to deepen meaning. And it is so much more vivid.

One day they hold you in the
Palms of their hands, gentle, as if you
Were the last raw egg in the world.

The simile of the ‘last raw egg in the world’ is just so much more powerful than writing ‘he held me gently.’ True, she’s using more words, but she forces you to imagine exactly how precious, how breakable the last raw egg in the world might be.

Your mind pops, exploding fiercely, briefly,
Like the head of a kitchen match. Shattered.

Here we have adverbs galore, but it resolves into the simile of ‘the head of a kitchen match’ bursting into flame. It is a brilliant and terrible piece of imagery. Erotic, incandescent and also destructive.

It is your juice
That runs down their legs. Staining their shoes.

And here is the metaphor to end all metaphors. It’s just so fucking clever and so fertile. You probably recognize the allusion to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Lemon Song’ but they stole it from Robert Johnson and Arthur McKay. She’s appropriating the phallocentric metaphor of ‘squeezing lemons’ and juxtaposing it. Your juice, in this poem, is more than sexual body fluid: it is hurt and pride and hope and wasted love. And those stained shoes, in the next stanza, just keep on walking by.

My point in deconstructing that last piece of poetry is to remind you that even in prose, if getting rid of your adjectives and adverbs and redundant words is frustrating you, try building a metaphor or simile to get the meaning across instead. It’s almost always stronger writing.

Over-writing is only a problem when you don’t recognize it as an early stage of the writing process. Think of writing as trowing pottery on a wheel or sculpting. The first task is to shape it roughly and explore the possibilities that material has to offer. At this point, it’s important to have too much of whatever it is. You want enough to be able to go to the next stage, which is to judiciously refine it into a final version.

I meet so many first time writers that believe they can sit down and write something brilliant in a single sitting. It’s certainly possible to do it, but very unlikely. Be prepared to approach your work in three stages. Write it out in as full a way as you can and let it sit for a while. Go back with an eye to purging it of over-writing – get rid of all the repetitions, redundancies, cliches, memes, etc. Then let it sit a while longer. Finally, revisit it for a final proof reading and an eye to adding back the things that will make up your unique style.

Question from one of my students: “Isn’t there a quicker way to do this?”

My answer: “No.”

  15 comments for “Editing Yourself: Over-writing and what to do about it

  1. January 2, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Excellent points, and it’s made me want to go back to everything I’ve written and desaturate it because I KNOW that I do this. 😀

  2. ST
    January 2, 2014 at 10:32 pm

    I would never call myself too wordy, but I do have a problem of writing – often times stream of consciousness – and posting without a read through. I really need to keep The Elements of Style on my desk.

  3. January 2, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    Ugh! Thank you for the reminders! I’m getting better at eliminating adverbs (at least the ones even I recognize as unnecessary), and I crawl over my work several times looking for “just,” “really,” and “that.”

    A tip I was given by a beta reader of mine is to try not to use the word “it” so much. I can’t completely avoid using “it” but I can tell a difference in the strength of a sentence when I can.

  4. AE Lawless
    January 3, 2014 at 2:15 am

    Yup. Guilty of all of them on the first pass. The more writing you do, the more you learn how to cut this stuff in the editing process but I think for most of us it’s a never ending struggle. Personally I find the hardest to do is backing off on the descriptions. Sometimes it’s hard to decide when less is more and when more is more. Also, sometimes I just *like* being wordy.

    The other thing is identifying those pesky phrases with seriously unnecessary words (like seriously in this sentence, jesus) that are just part of normal dialect for a lot of people. When you’re used to hearing certain phrases over and over again in every day life, some of them start to become hard to identify. It oftentimes takes a real dedication to snuffing them out and someone to hit you over the back of the head an point them out the first time. 😀

  5. January 3, 2014 at 6:29 am

    JUST. I write just and I say just. All the time. It means nothing! Sometimes I’ll catch myself and exchange it with ‘simply’ but it is still so unnecessary! Thanks for this – I’m all about this.

  6. TFP
    January 3, 2014 at 7:41 am

    Interesting and helpful article, some make it look so very easy but its definitely not!

  7. Jen
    January 4, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Fabulous article–the kind of article all writers should read after they’ve written their first draft and before they start their edits.

  8. January 5, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Thank you for writing this – probably a post I will come back to reading again and again, because I’m prone to forgetting about this sort of thing.

  9. January 7, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Great article! I scour my writing for forms of “to be” as they are my evil words. Good advice here and something to bookmark to re-read in a month or so to remind myself again about those adjectives. Thanks!

  10. Everett Marx
    January 29, 2014 at 2:15 am

    I write songs as well as fiction and think in voices. I only keep reading things whose voice compels me on. It may be silly or stark, nervous or adamant, but I want the voice to keep sounding like I want a good song to keep sounding. Most of my stories being with a voice talking. (When I was in college, I prepared for exams by pretending to be the professor giving a review and taking questions from the class. I would riff on what I knew and what seemed plausible in light of that and often caught the tail end of memorable lines tumbling out of my mouth as I improvised in this way.)

  11. June 29, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    Incisive article, RG. You describe common issues for the self-editing writer so succinctly. Hmmm… over-writing erotic description? Me? Never. Inspired by this article, I just took “swinging” out of the phrase “Keeping my motions to the rhythm of a hypnotic [swinging] pendulum” out of my WIP. 🙂 If the metaphor is a pendulum described in motion, pobably don’t need swinging. Yup …

    Lovely analysis of metaphor and simile via the Angelou poem (which gave me goose-bumps).


  12. Brantwijn
    April 3, 2016 at 8:59 pm

    Exceptional points, and something all writers really must consider. Learning to recognize and refine one’s work this way is a sign, I think, of the difference between a hobbyist and a professional in the craft.

  13. April 3, 2016 at 11:25 pm

    Thank you for this! It’s amazing how many of these basic rules we writers forget (over and over again, in fact…. see, repetition!). I happen to be a fan of florid writing, rich with words – yes, even poor benighted adverbs, which we always told to chuck – but what a pleasure it is to read a piece of crisp, sparse, perfectly edited writing. I shall continue to strive for it!

    Using Maya Angelou’s example was spot-on. My high school teacher tried to make me a poet, and in that I failed (clearly); but remembering some of those techniques is just the reminder I needed.

  14. LN Bey
    April 6, 2016 at 9:03 am

    “Just” — ugh! It’s like finding a termite infestation, every time. I never (even) know I’m doing it. I’m not so bad with “even” and “really”, but “now” — how did they all get in there? *I* didn’t do it. I couldn’t have.

    I’ve always been of the opinion that we’re allowed a *few* more adverbs in erotica than in literary fiction, but yes, I still cut, cut, cut, in the final pass. The more you remove, the more tolerable the remaining ones are.

    Excellent article!

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