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Over-Writer Say What??? -- by Tara Southwell

If you've started going through the submission process and have gotten rejected you may recognize this phrase: "Your MS/short story/extract is over-written." *Commence head scratching* What is over-writing and why is it so bad?

Quite simply, over-writing is the excessive use of descriptors. Did you hear the one about cutting all the "ly" words from your work? Or adverbs? Oh yeah honey, now you're onto it. But if not, I'll give you an obnoxious example:

1.) Lightly she dipped amongst the gently wafting blooms, picked them carefully and tucked them into her glowing hair.

How do we make this sentence something other than horrible? We could completely cut the "ly" words from this sentence and it would read:

2.) She dipped amongst the wafting blooms, picked them and tucked them into her glowing hair.

You could leave it at that, of course, and it would still be horrible, but not nearly as horrible as Ex 1. You can see that just eliminating the adverbs doesn't actually make it "good," it just makes it "less bad." There is an underlying misunderstanding of what description is for that we're missing out on here. So let's pick these apart a little more to get to the root of the problem.

In Ex 1 we're describing a scene of cliche frollicking in a field of flowers. The cliche is so bad that it's laughable, and when we see it in someone else's work we readily identify these kinds of faux pas (why are all these terms in French, btw? if we have a historian in the house feel free to enlighten, lol) but the harsh truth is that we all do this. Depending on where you're at in the world, what your language of origin is and perhaps what genre you read/write, you will have different stereotypes to contend with, but they're there. Your MC's heart is "hammering" or "racing", for example. Trying to avoid phrases and images that are cliche is hard, and often ends up with us using really weird substitutions so that "heart hammering" turns into "heart slamming against his ribcage" (which, biologically speaking, isn't recommended by most physicians) or "heart racing" turns into "heart galloping" and so on.

Also, let's take a look at the structure of Ex 2. There are three clauses, which is extremely cliche and referred to as "the rule of three's" and is to be avoided as much as possible. Stringing the three-clause sentence or the three-descriptor sentence (The blooms were fragrant, brightly colored and well-formed.) together with others of the same type results in prose that's down-right barftastic. Cutting this sentence apart gives us:

She picked the wafting blooms and tucked them into her glowing hair.

A little better, but still not quite "good". And here's where we're going to get into the real nitty-gritty of what description is for: highlighting what's really important. What's the point of this sentence? What are we trying to convey? Without some context it's impossible to tell, so we'll say that our MC is picking crocus saffron. Let's say that it was doubtful there would be a saffron harvest this year because of some environmental catastrophe (too much rain, not enough rain, etc). In this case, tucked them into her glowing hair is clearly inappropriate. Would these kind of prized flowers be treated with such disrespect as to be tucked into a girl's hair? Of course not. So this sentence is bad on two fronts: 1, it doesn't show the process of harvesting saffron in an authentic way and 2, it doesn't conjure up the emotion of the moment. Does it matter that her hair is "glowing"? No. If this were a scene of romance, sure, glowing hair might be acceptable (though still kind of barftastic). Therefore, an entirely new sentence, even a paragraph since this is supposed to be a moment of victory/joy/relief for the MC, is called for.

Notice also that, from Ex 1, the only word which actually makes the cut for being authentic was "carefully," an adverb ending in "ly". "Ly" is not evil. Neither are adverbs in general. It's far more important that we analyze our intent in the use of descriptors in general.

Posted by Tara Southwell 31 May 2014 at 01:40
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Responses to this blog

Fiddlestik 31 May 2014 at 14:50  
On the subject of adverbs, another way to prevent over-use is to ask, "Can this general verb and adverb be replaced by a more specific, pointed verb that's just as good, or better at capturing the sense?" Sometimes we rely on adverbs because we don't keep good stock of verbs.

I like the emphasis on both looking at the scene from an analytical standpoint and seeing the scene in detail. Cliches are often the result of relying on shortcuts instead of laboring through the visionary process. In the end, there are no quick fixes for description, just putting in the work.
Tls_6669 1 Jun 2014 at 12:39  
I also recently read an article, which I can't find again or I'd link to it, that talks about how many cliches and expressions have managed to sneak their way into English. I don't know if this is true of other languages, so I'd be interested to see if anyone can comment on that.
Kids_table 1 Jun 2014 at 13:07  
For me, it's about cutting as many words as possible and still getting the same image across.
Lightly she dipped amongst the gently wafting blooms, picked them carefully and tucked them into her glowing hair.
I'd cut lightly because it's implied by dipped, gently because it's implied by wafting (you can hardly waft aggressively), but I'd keep carefully. Picking flowers isn't something I usually do carefully. When you cut that word, for me, you changed the image. You can still cut it, but you'd have to change the sentence to regain the meaning.

And I disagree that the rule of threes is clich?. In fact often I find adherence to that particular 'rule' can cure an awkward sentence.
Tls_6669 1 Jun 2014 at 13:48  
I can't find the link (I'm on a roll with that today, lol) but I've read at least one, if not a few, articles about the rule of three. Individual sentences always sounds better in sets of three. However, taken together over and over again it tends to sound very monotonous. That's probably why I never "got" iambic pantameter in high school. Repetitive rhythms in the written word get on my nerves lol.
Blandcorp 2 Jun 2014 at 08:36  
Before I fall over this like a ton of bricks (cliche! this should be read as the touche! of cloak and dagger), let me begin with a positive. The advice to have a clear intent for description is spot on, and it's maybe the best way to keep description under control- asking it to do more things than just fill words on the page. And another good way mentioned here is to find a couple of really important details and highlighting just those, rather than trying to cram everything in, which would just confuse the reader.

The devil, as always, is in the details.

Also, let's take a look at the structure of Ex 2. There are three clauses, which is extremely cliche and referred to as "the rule of three's" and is to be avoided as much as possible. Stringing the three-clause sentence or the three-descriptor sentence (The blooms were fragrant, brightly colored and well-formed.) together with others of the same type results in prose that's down-right barftastic.
Citation please.

The advice more commonly given (and with more common sense) is to vary sentence structure. Rule of 3, used as opposed to overused, is perfectly cromulent, just as anything else.

Also, the idea that someone frolicking in a field is an image that needs to be avoided is exactly the kind of thinking that gets people to write pained substitutes like "his heart slammed against his ribcage". Or indeed, conjure up (imo similarly pained) crocus harvest failures.

Look, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes you just need someone frolicking in a field for one second. It's as simple as that, and comparing what could be a moment to let the pacing catch its breath, as it were, to something which contains a full story is hardly fair. Full stories will also contain (necessary) pacing lulls. Pacing lulls cannot contain a whole story.

It's more plausible to say a thing to know, in order to be good, is how to manage the "tells" and the "catching breaths" and yes, even cliches, rather than to give the easy advice of "cut it all out". You can't cut it all out, and if you try, you get something unnatural, contrived, pained. Rather, and this is the best advice here, one needs to know what the sentence/passage is supposed to do. I'm saying, sometimes you do want your prose to just stop, smell the flowers, and put some of them in her glowing hair.

We can all agree examples 1 and 2 are designed to be terrible and nigh-passable respectively, but I notice there's no example of a crocus-harvest-failure improved version. May I hypothesize this is because writerly oomph is to some extent subjective, so while it's easy to conjure up bad, few feel comfortable providing examples others would, in general, agree to be good writing?

I'm sorry to come down so hard on this, but a lot of writerly advice ("avoid passive", "avoid cliches", "don't use rule of three sentences" ...) seems to come from a place of "if it might get them in trouble, tell them not to do it at all". This is not the kind of approach one would have for, say, swimming (or other things), and it's not an approach one should take for writing either.

Tls_6669 4 Jun 2014 at 02:45  
@Blandcorp: After having re-read the post I can see where you might have drawn an air of sermonizing or otherwise acting like a know-it-all, for which I'm more than happy to apologize. On my blog, on the page where all the "pseudo-advice" is archived I have a disclaimer to the effect that we should all take anyone's advice in writing as debatable. I thank you for a thoughtful expansion on the topic and open disagreement, since it furthers the cause of all of us becoming better writers.

I think you bring up some valid points, and varying sentence structure is indeed one I agree with. However, as far as cliches are concerned, I think it's absolutely necessary to cut them. The reason they become so prolific in the first place is that, at the time of their invention, these phrases were apt descriptions of things (sensations, sounds, images, etc) that the majority of people can relate to. Creating new descriptions of those same sensations is obviously harder.

I don't think the comparison to swimming is accurate, since there are definitely times when an instructor says, "No, don't do it like that! Do it like this!"

If this blog post, and the comments in response, open someone's mind to habits that might be holding them back, we've both done what we set out to do.
Demonqueen 5 Jun 2014 at 13:52  
Re: the French factor...

There was a time about one thousand years ago when the royal courts and parliaments of most of the world spoke only French, and English was considered a peasants language. England itself was ruled over by only French speaking aristocracy for about three hundred year, until they decided that English had evolved into a superior tongue and adopted it as the official language of England and all its kingdoms, or some such thing. If you are interested in the history of our beloved language it is fascinatingly documented in The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson.

The French get rather defensive about preserving their language and resent the intrusion of English, but I always tell them 'shift over, you had your turn centuries ago, now it's ours! And besides, a third of English vocab is French anyway, so chill out.' (for example, every word ending in 'tion' is French.)

So, you can all wake up now...

re: Overwriting is also just as much about overdoing the physical reactions to emotion as well as too many words in a sentence. Too much of tightened breath, lumps in throats, etc. and it becomes too laboured, and stale. I used to have a lot of characters with hammering hearts, pounding pulses, etc., and when I would read my stuff back to myself I was like, 'she's going to have a heart attack any minute if we keep going like that! Call a doctor!' So I had to really condition myself to swerve away from any kind of emotional reaction in that strain. Not saying I always succeed in a first draught, but at least I became aware of it. I am trying to retrain myself in the art of subtle suggestion in my fiction, not easy to master at all.

Tls_6669 5 Jun 2014 at 18:40  
@Demonqueen: Thanks for the explanation of the French vocabulary, I've always wondered about that lol. And I think your point about emotional reactions is also great.

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