6 Ways To Stop Overwriting Your Stories

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.

Then there’s writer-problems you can fix. Learning how to show and not tell, eliminating your staging, and as this blog will explore, curbing the need to overwrite.

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.

For example:

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

You can find me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

47 thoughts on “6 Ways To Stop Overwriting Your Stories

    1. 😅 sounds like it, Anne. I’ve bloated my current WIP from 71,000 words, past my goal of 75,000, to over 80,000 and I still have 12 chapters to edit/rewrite. I think I’m going to need to apply theses tips on the final edit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wheeee!
        On a side note, one thing that helped me deal with “bloat” was to save the big draft, and then make a new draft where I cut EVERYTHING. Helped me be a little more vicious with my cuts because I knew that if, afterward, something wasn’t working, I still had the safety net of the old file to revisit.
        Of course now I have about 10 versions of the MS on my computer, so making sure I published the right one took some double and triple checking…:D

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a great tip too. 😅 yes to multiple versions. I have lots of those! If I’m editing a scene I know needs changing but I want to keep the original, I copy it into a “deleted text” file. That file is now so big it has just as many words as my MS 😅.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I don’t know why, but combining characters is one of my favorite ways to tighten up a story. It also adds so much tension too?? Though I’m usually an under writer in both drafting and editing. I think I need to let myself get carried away by subplots more XD Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: 6 Ways To Stop Overwriting Your Stories | wordrefiner

  3. In my sixth draft, steps 1 + 3 combined took out roughly 25000 words so it works. I also removed a character from the story though it was mostly collateral damage: his purpose was related to a portion of the story I removed and, by that move, the character became redundant.
    My main issue is usually making the sentences too complicated in the early drafts. As a result, the ‘that-ectomy’, the adverb purge, and sentence tightening take the word count down a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. To each their. I eritre furious and fast to get my words down. And the flow and steady for editing and revising. A steamof writng continuous helps the writing process and unexpected ideas keep me going. It’s usually crap with a few jems filtered in. The real word comes and the proofreading stages🤐🤔

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ruth Miranda

    I’m often considered an overwriter (although I have four novellas to prove the opposite) but the truth is my word count was far bigger at first draft than it is when book is finally published. For example, my upcoming release was 256000 words at the end of draft one. It’s now roughly around 176000 I think, and I’m still going through it. But the thing is, I don’t often agree with what the ‘powers that be’ consider overwriting, I think it does depend on personal taste, yes, but mostly on fads and trends going about. I love purple prose, said it often, especially when it comes to physical descriptions that tend to go overboard and exagerate it, it gives me a certain gothy feel, a rushing to my senses, and raises my heartbeat. But that’s just me, I do realise most readers loathe this. I still do it, though, and then get very frustrated with feedback telling me my writing is clunky and purple prose-ish and annoying ahahh. As for repetition, I beg to differ as it depends A LOT on the ambiance you’re trying to give the story. Again, I realise it’s something readers in general do not appreciate, but when you want to write something instilled with obsession, something that’s cloying and claustrophobic even, it needs repetition. A lot of it. Especially if it’s written in first person. As for THAT oh lord, it takes me days to get rid of my excess of THATs and then I still keep finding more and more of them… 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I go overboard with “That” too, Ruth. If I recall correctly, I think you even pointed it out in a beta read for me once 🤣. You’re a machine when it comes to writing. I don’t know if I could ever get my word count that high for one book, even with my tendency to overwrite 😅.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. A nice post! My favourite writer for this is Gene Wolfe. Whatever his other faults may be, his descriptions – or lack of them – are delicious. Somehow, he gets across the sensation of halcyon Greek winds without ever mentioning them! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Much writing is following current fashion, I think. Tell Charles Dickens to cut his descriptions. Adverbs were not always the road to hell.
    It’s also a matter of personal preference. In 2 separate critiques I had for my current wip, I wrote a couple of sentences about how the people (Anglo Saxons) gathered wild fruits and nuts in the autumn, ready for winter. One critiquer loved it, saying it helped set the scene. Another told me to get rid of it as it was an info dump.
    Having said that, what you have said is extremely helpful. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yep, everyone has a different opinion on what works and what doesn’t in a story, or what’s info-dumping or interesting info to know. I’ve had beta feedback like that too.

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  8. Great tips! This is such a common problem, even in books released by the big publishers. I don’t think I have read a big title in recent years that I didn’t feel needed to cut down, some much more than others. Seems to have been a significant problem in the 80s. Like the comment about body movements. I am reading a book right now that all to often gives a play-by-play of movements. “He rose from the bed and turned towards the door. He reached a hand out to grab the door handle, then turned it and pulled. Then he stepped out of the room.” — I think you meant, “He stood and left the room.” 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, JM. Yes, that’s exactly the kind of overwriting in body movements I’m talking about. I’m guilty of doing that in early drafts. Maybe it’s because I’ve read it in published books and thought that was the thing to do? 🤔. Either way, I’m trying to cut it out now.

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  9. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

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