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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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