Overwriting

Here’s a question someone asked on one of the online boards:

What exactly do you mean by ‘over writing’? I’m curious: I’ve heard it said a lot, and have always suspected it as being shorthand for just not liking a writer’s style. Does it mean more flowery, too many adjectives, stuff like that? Or sentences overloaded with ideas?

I think overwriting is ubiquitous on writing sites and can refer to several causes/symptoms. Sometimes it’s the use of three descriptors where one is enough. Often it’s senseless and endless exaggeration; everything has to be the most, the biggest, the people (especially the women) beautiful beyond compare, etc. This boils down to too many adjectives and adverbs and sometimes a misperception of the audience.

Often the root cause of too many adjectives and adverbs is the writer’s desire to describe whatever it is absolutely down to a gnat’s eyebrow, so that the reader is forced—forced I tell you!—to see it just the way the writer wants it seen. Caving in to this desire is almost always a mistake. Stephen King has described this problem, and its cure, elsewhere online, so I won’t go into a lot of detail on it here. I think it’s enough to say that written narration is a pretty broad-brush medium. The writer only needs to get things down generally, often just to indicate rather than describe, and each reader’s mind’s eye will supply (and apply) the specifics. Exposition is almost always overdone—too much of it too specifically gone into. A good example of how little exposition is needed is No Country for Old Men. Just pick it up and start reading from the beginning (or read the Look Inside pages on Amazon) and notice how little exposition there is and how you don’t miss it at all.

But overwriting, its causes and cures, can be more complicated. When reading someone’s manuscript, it’s difficult to separate out what is consciously intentional from what just happens to arrive at the point at which the writer needed something, i.e., what’s more toward the unintentional vs. the on-purpose end of the spectrum. What I mean by that is what’s written down in full awareness and what comes from habit, the writer’s more-or-less unexamined proclivities and tendencies, and we all have them. What I think I’ve learned about writing fiction is that until one becomes aware of it, the basics of the writer’s personal behavior patterns often get superimposed on the characters and their interactions without the writer really being too much consciously aware of it. I think this is particularly true of the writer’s personal modes of handling emotional issues and behavior. Maybe there are two issues involved. One is the writer’s lack of awareness that this is what he’s doing—how do I relate to people in the real world and do I relate to my characters the same way? Then there is the situation for writers who haven’t yet reached a point where they’ve got their characters over there in another part of their mind where they are characters and not in some sense “the writer” in another guise. Of course, in another sense, everyone and everything must be by definition part of the writer (since it all comes out of his/her mind). Down this path lies endless back and forth, and I’m not going there; you know what I mean. Of course they’re all you, but when you’re more experienced (hardened? deft? facile? schizophrenic?), not that much you.

Maybe the root causes can be a lack of confidence in the writing and a lack of understanding how fiction works its magic in the mind of the reader. Getting this right is for a lot of people probably a pretty intuitive thing, but I don’t think it has to be kept at that level. I would contend that the more conscious you make the process the better the writer you’ll be. Here’s a snippet of scene (a re-write by me of someone else’s purposefully bad example):

“You’ve got to be kidding,” the hooker said.
They stood on the corner, a light drizzle turning the midnight streets to inky blackness.
“You’ve got a freaking beard down to your bellybutton, and you want me to do what to you?” She laughed. “You are one sick dude!”

Take just the phrase: a light drizzle made the streets an inky blackness. A true-life fact: this is pretty far from being an accurate description of how a dark, asphalt street really looks in a light rain. But what I was consciously aware of when I wrote it was that all I needed was a rough brushstroke or two that would get the idea across, because the picture it generates in the reader’s mind is a  memory of all those wonderful movie shots where they have wetted down the streets beforehand because it makes them look so cool and dramatic. No one’s mind’s eye sees a real street; everyone imagines the movie image, which is so much better.

What the opposite of overwriting? I think a lot of the art of writing well is to stay what could be called “below the line.” By this I mean restrain yourself in the writing (or in the editing) process so that you allow the reader to bring his/her own images and associations to what you’re doing. In the most powerful writing, the connections occur in the reader’s mind. If you’d like more examples of how to do it, I always suggest finding a copy of “Lie Down in Darkness,” William Styron’s first novel. It is filled with such an abundance. I just picked it up and flopped it open and here’s what I saw on page 126:

“Wait, no!” she began. “As God is my witness—”
But only watched those smooth young wanton legs, limp-kneed, moving across the lawn, and into the house. Milton sitting spraddle-legged in his chair, glass in hand, turning lazily to see Peyton disappear beyond the door, his red neck swelling, enlarging as Helen approached on the run, digging in with her heels past the lawn chair.

Not a lot of words to create an indelible impression of a rather complicated bit of business. And don’t you just love those young wanton legs? Maybe that’s an intersection of prose and poetry. And don’t you see Milton spraddle-legged, glass in hand, turning lazily, his red neck swelling? You don’t need to have clarified just how drunk he is. Of course, “Lie Down in Darkness” is probably unique in the annals of American fiction; it’s certainly one of a kind so far as I know. I’m unaware of any modern English-language novel that’s as richly layered.

What, you haven’t read it? You should do that right away.

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