Writing Tip: Overwriting

Power of WordsGood writing is invisible. That’s the bottom line.

We’ve all heard the expression: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I’m not sure if it’s a side effect of well-intentioned English assignments or a romanticized view of the muses pouring sweet words into a writer’s ear, but many inexperienced writers are guilty of overwriting.

Sometimes called “purple prose,” overwriting is overly elaborate and flowery. It’s too descriptive. It draws the reader out of the story and calls attention to itself. Think of a good book or a good movie. You sit in front of the screen or turn page after page without really being aware that time is passing. This is invisible storytelling. In most good books, the words are there to take the reader along for the ride, not to call attention to the words themselves.

All too often, we are forced to reject submissions because the plot is lost behind overwritten passages. Sometimes, purple prose is so invasive that we never even get to the plot. An overwritten passage might look something like this:

She sat in the tall, wooden chair with the pink, plush upholstery. She picked up the heavy, leather menu and opened to the crème colored cardstock pages, perusing the items offered for dining. Should she order beef wellington with seared Brussels sprout, or butterfly shrimp imperial with sautéed mushrooms in crème sauce? The waiter arrived, pouring icy cool water into a glass. She watched the condensation appear on the crystal glassware and listened to the ice plop into the glass one by one like little children jumping into a pool on the first day of summer. The waiter smiled like the Cheshire cat and asked if she would like to look at the wine menu…

In the scene above, there is no need for so much description. And what are we supposed to take away from the scene, anyway? The writing isn’t slanted to make us feel a certain way about the character. We have no idea what she cares about, or fears, or likes. Is she nervous? Is she waiting for someone? Is she smug?

Instead, writers should use description to create the outline of a scene. I like to use the metaphor of a coloring book. The artist of a coloring book provides enough lines so that we see what the picture is supposed to be, but we are left to fill in the colors. An author should do something similar. Provide enough details to let the reader know what the scene is supposed to be. Trust the reader to fill in the rest.

When would such detail be justified? If the plot or the characterization requires such focus on detail, such a passage might be justified. For instance, if I want to illustrate that a character who feels trapped at her desk job, I might add a paragraph describing her desk in detail, but I would make the description work harder than simple description. I would add figurative language and words with strong connotations that suggested being trapped in order to show how she feels. I might compare the pattern on the carpet of her office to the bars of a prison. Or highlight the restrictive connotations of the paperclip chain she made. Maybe I could describe the intricate doodles she made in the margins of her desk calendar to show how bored she is. In any case, I would make sure the description contained strong connotations that helped characterize her and highlight the problem she has with her job.

Most importantly, writers must understand that the reader is not captive. The printed word is competing for a reader’s time. There’s DVR, smartphones, dogs, kids, restaurants, the gym… writers must earn the reader’s respect. Any word that isn’t pulling its weight should go—especially purple prose.

So often, we learn how to forge elaborate metaphors while in English class or writing workshops. Learning the tools is one thing. We need to know what we’re capable of before we can perfect our art of writing. But once we know what tools we possess, we need to know the most effective tool to use in each situation. If we use too many tools, we end up making even more of a mess than when we started.

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