There are a few writer-world problems you can have. The muse taking an extended break. Losing a month’s worth of progress to backup failure. Realizing the “unique” book idea you’ve been working on for five years was just published by someone else.
6 Ways To Stop Overwriting Your Stories
In the first draft, I underwrite. It’s all about getting the story out and doing it quickly with basic sentences. In the next couple of drafts, I go the other way, making up for all the basic-ness by cramming every word I can into a sentence.
As you can imagine, that ups my word count but leaves my MS a bloated mess. To deflate it and get to the heart of the story and characters without excess word-clutter, there are a few tips I use. If you’re suffering the same writer-problem, give the following a try…
1. Cut Unnecessary Words
If you haven’t searched your MS for the word “that” have you really edited?
“That” is the queen of unnecessary words, and in most cases can be cut without losing the meaning of the sentence.
“Always” is another word that sneaks in and likes to fatten your sentences. In fact, there are plenty of little words that worked fine as you were stringing them together, but can now be removed to make the most of your sentences instead.
When you trim away those unnecessary words and see your paragraphs are still perfectly telling your story in a clear, concise manner, you’ll understand how overwriting can muddy your work.
For more ideas on what to cut, check out The Delete Checklist.
2. Kill/Combine Characters
Overwriting isn’t just about extra words on every page, it’s also about what happens on the page and who it happens to.
In those early first drafts, when you’re telling yourself the story and getting everything that comes into your head on the page, it’s easy to miss that sometimes those ideas don’t work.
It’s even easier to miss that sometimes a character doesn’t work. You’ve put them through so much on your journey to the last draft, deleting them entirely would be soul-destroying. But do you know what a character who does nothing but take up sentences destroys? A good story.
Sometimes it’s necessary to cut a character. Sometimes it’s necessary to combine two minor characters into one.
If you’re looking to cut back on overwriting, study each character, examine what they bring to the story. If they lift right out, changing nothing major, or if you can take their purpose and give it to another character where it ups the stakes, do it.
3. Tighten Each Sentence
A step further than deleting unnecessary words is tightening each sentence.
For this, you must take a hard look at every sentence in your MS, and work out if you can rewrite it with fewer words.
Overwritten: Jenny squinted at the bright, sparkly silver sequins on Carla’s short, tight dress.
Tightened: Jenny squinted at the silver sequins on Carla’s minidress.
We still get the impression of how Carla’s dress looks—just in the form of a tighter sentence.
4. Fill In The Right Details
Nailing description is an art-form. Knowing what to describe so the reader can “picture” your setting or what a character looks like takes skill. When you’re learning this skill, it’s so easy to put down every descriptive word out there.
Purple-prosing your descriptions is overwriting 101, and the key to cutting down on it is learning to fill in the right details.
Sure, a reader might need to know what kind of cafe the MC is meeting her love interest in. Set the scene with coffee aromas, colorful tabletops, and the delicious cake treats she buys for her, just don’t overwrite it. Describing the coffee scent down to the bean and where it was manufactured, the specific hue of each quirky table and how it matches the cupcake icing described in such detail every reader could be a contestant on Cupcake Wars is not the way to go.
There’s adding details that set a scene, and there’s wasting words and the reader’s time. Perfect crafting your descriptions with the right imagery in as few words as you can, and not only will you not be overwriting, but you’ll be gaining a great skill.
5. Take Out Repetitive Ideas
Readers read at different paces. While one might devour a book in a whole day, another will read the first two chapters, put the book down for six months, then read chapter three to nine before finally finishing the book after a three-week break. For
monsters readers who read like this, it’s a good idea to include a recap of events.
This could happen via something as simple as another character reminding the MC (and the reader) in the middle of the book about certain things that happened at the start through an off-the-cuff remark.
Doing this repeats something that already happened, but it’s not overwriting. Where it veers into repetitive overwriting is when you express the same idea over and over again. For example, if your MC is using the loss of a loved one as motivation, mention it. Once, maybe twice. If you mention it every single time they do anything at all, it’s words that can be slashed.
Sometimes this kind of overwriting happens in the first few drafts when you haven’t worked out where the best place to reveal certain info is. The key is to look for every instance of that specific info and decide where it’s best placed in your book, then delete every other mention.
6. Watch Your Body Movements
Well, not your body movements, but the movements of your characters.
Check to see how many times your characters “nod” or “reach their hands out”. Are they “Looking up and to the right” instead of just “looking sideways”?
You may think you’re being specific. You may think typing out every single movement is fine—I’ve got drafts upon drafts where I’ve done just that—but it’s overwriting. Make the character movements clear and concise, omit the movements that aren’t necessary, and watch your word count shrink.
Are you an overwriter too? Do you have any tips for keeping word counts down? Be sure to leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear them.
— K.M. Allan