Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I'm falling before the first hurdle"

Over-done, over-written and over here

A while ago I blogged about being drunk on words, and why it's a good sign in a beginner. Too many would-be writers think their writing is spare and muscular, when in fact it's just bald and impoverished. But if the writerly teetotallers are guilty of underwriting, then the inebriates are also guilty: of over-writing. "It's overwritten" is a very baffling reaction to your work, even though it's a common one. The problem is that overwriting is very easy to feel, but even as a teacher I find it quite hard to analyse. So when a friend asked me to decode a comment about their writing being overwritten, I had a think. And these are some of the reasons, I'd suggest, that your writing might seem overwritten to others:

1) Too many adjectives and adverbs tacked onto each verb and noun. Concentrate instead on the verbs and nouns themselves, and the sensory, physical reality of the characters-in-action in their setting.

2) Too many fancy verbs bumping into each other: yes, a good verb works better than a dull verb spiced up with an adverb, but do give a strong verb the space to run without tripping up on the verb too close in front of it.

3) Too many metaphors/similes/images/figurative language bumping into each other. You may think you wouldn't dream of mixing a metaphor, but you do need to be aware of the metaphorical content of, for example, off-the-peg phrases, or verbs which you're using in a figurative context. You may hardly be aware that they're actually metaphorical themselves - a different metaphor. (My personal aide-memoire for this problem is the glorious phrase that the Worker's Revolutionary Party came out with: "There is an army of strange bedfellows jumping on the bandwagon.") It's particularly disastrous when the physical image in the metaphor clashes with the physical situation on the ground in the story.

4) Too many new coinages and non-standard words. If you make a verb of a word which isn't normally - if your characters carriage their way home or cooking-pot their hatred - then it's a stronger hit than travelling home or nursing hatred, and it needs space round it to breathe. If you have an anglo-saxon attitude to blood-girths and earth-bonds, then give them enough space to work their magic.

5) Every point/emotion/statement/feeling/description is over-laboured, over-worked, over-explained. You're just using too many words for each thing you’re trying to say, like your dotty aunt who can't say anything less than three times, with different details, circling round and round the story in the hope of getting the reaction from you that she wants. How much time and attention any bit of writing takes up should be proportionate to its importance in the story as a whole. And it's not just jokes which are killed by being explained. This is more of a risk with introspection and backstory, and it's not the same as a Henry Jamesian exploration of a mental state, where every sentence actually does lead on to the next in a causal chain, leading us into an ever-deeper understanding. But you have to be a genius to do that well, and most of us aren't. Trust your reader to get it: remember that it's story they found for themselves, between your words, which is the story they'll make their own.

6) Too much Telling - trying to explain and label everything like a teacher - when you could just Show us. See my post here, to think more about Showing and Telling.

7) Too much Showing - giving us a ton of detail and demanding we do the maths - when you could just Tell us. See my post here, for whether you're showing too much.

8) The reactions of people – the descriptions of feelings and things - are over the top for the actual seriousness of the event. Don’t make people go scarlet and feel sick and trembly for a minor embarrassment in the shop. And check that you have really conveyed the seriousness of the situation in itself, as part of the structure and nature of the story and the building of the plot, because only then will a big reaction - and the events which follow - be convincing.

9) You never, ever let up with the intense prose, and the intense action. It's not that you should ever stop bothering to think about exactly what word or event should come next. But if your powerful words and powerful scenes are going to get a chance to work properly on the reader, they need time to work, before the reader has the next thing thrown at him/her. Even in thrillers the hero gets a chance to catch his breath and work out who's after him and why, this time, out of range of the enemy; even in romances the heroine shuts herself into her bedroom... and whether the period of quiet reflection is confided to a locked journal, or to Facebook, it's a while before she has to get going again. Humans are built of systole and diastole, as I was exploring here, and fiction must do the same.


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Lev Parikian

Guilty as charged to all of those... (he admitted wincingly, feeling sickly scarlet with throbbing and shameful embarrassment, like get the idea.)

Marisa Birns

Yes, overwriting acts as a speed bump, forcing the reader to jump out of the fictive world over and over again.

Always feel as if the author is saying, "Look, look at what I can do."

Not a satisfactory read.


Less is more? Sigh. It is hard when you have fallen in love with something!


Thanks Emma, a timely post for me. My writing group last night advised that my opening pages were 'dense,' being much too polite to say 'overwritten'... Off I go to lay about me with the scalpel.

Bren Gosling

When I look back at my early writing(when I began all of this 3 or so years ago now) I often cringe at my own overwritng - and it's exactly as you say Emma, an atempt to over impress. When I read this stuff back, especially with the distance of time, it sounds laboured and mostly aweful. This is where discipined practice and workshoping of ones material comes into its own, for in this way one gradually hones and develops as a writer. Confidence then comes in the editing of first drafts - the 'knowing' that some things are unecesarily overstated(I frequently still do this in first drafts and acknowledge its ok IN FIRST DRAFTS because I am still trying to get out what it is I want to say)and are best cut.

Writing short stories and especially completing the Short Story Writing Course with Katy Darby at London City University is also something that helped alot in making every word count and cutting words that don't.
Bren Gosling

Emma Darwin

... all too well!

Emma Darwin

That's certainly one kind of over-writing: the self-consciously fancy sort. (though both self-consciousness and fanciness may be in the eye of the reader, not the writer). But there are others. Some of them are just like having to eat too much, too rich pudding, I think, and induce a queasy sort of readerly indigestion.

Emma Darwin

Less isn't always more. It's only more when more is too much...

Emma Darwin

"dense" is a neutral word, but I do think that a page needs breathing space. I'm aware, for example, that I write more discursively on here than in academic prose, say, because I want it to be easier to read. It's less important to say as much in as short a space as possible, and more important to make it agreeable to read.

Emma Darwin

Though I don't think you should beat yourself up. "Attempt to impress" sounds egregious, but often it just comes from a very honourable attempt to evoke things - feelings, places, people - as powerfully as possible. It's just that, as a beginner, it's hard to tell what's right and enough for the reader, and what's wrong or too much, and therefore counterproductive. I think you're right that a good and well-timed course can help enormously, very fast, in a writer learning that kind of discernment about their own work.

Bren Gosling

"egregious" - that's a new word for me... will have to look that one up!
Bren Gosling

Mike Clarke

The observation at the start of the post 'Too many would-be writers think their writing is spare and muscular, when in fact it's just bald and impoverished' is brilliant. For me that sums up the difficulty of applying 'less is more' as advice -- because to do so there must be some 'diamonds in the dustheap' (as Virginia Woolf is quoted as saying).

As Bren Gosling says above, overwriting in a first draft is surely better than underwriting.

Having said that I wrote a sentence in something that I'm workshopping tomorrow which I liked as it was so simple. I thought about elaborating it but I didn't think it needed any embellishment. It was simply: 'They kissed'.

Folis Barty

George Orwell helps with 'egregious' and overwriting:

Read: "Write well."


Bren Gosling

Thanks for this link - Have looked at the article but its something I will have to re and re and re read I think!
Bren Gosling


I'll never forget the writing of Coningsby by Benjamin Disraeli. "Never was a sky more beautiful..." "Never had a man felt as he felt..."


Interesting post.

I think there is a danger of looking at writing out of context when it comes to questions such as "what is overwritten?". What isn't mentioned here is deliberate over-writing as may be done for parody or comic effect, or writing that deliberately uses an excess of jostling adjectives and adverbs knowingly.

My favourite book is Gormenghast - which uses the most verbose and OTT writing style. The idea of "making every word count" is ridiculous in this context. Does he *need* every single word? No. Does he write in 100 what could be written in 10? Yes. Is it great writing? Most definitely. It is over-written in one sense in that it is over the top and excessive and overly detailed and cloying and trapping and sometimes like wading through toffee - but this is a perfect reflection of the world he is trying to create which is also cloying and trapping and like wading through toffee. Read some other of his works and you will see it is a deliberate style he has chosen to use to represent the world of Gormenghast. (When the characters move out of Gormenghast ino the world outside in the third book of the trilogy - the style changes altogether to become simpler and more spare.) The world of Gormenghast is one full of pointless and meaningless tradition and elaborate ritual that has become divorced from any purpose and meaning. likewise, the elaborate and labyrinthine sentences Peake uses are strictly speaking unnecessary in terms of pure meaning, but in terms of creating the atmosphere and feeling in the reader of the world he is describing - matching style to purpose - it is a tour de force.

This is why I think that when it comes to matters of style you have to look at writing in context. It's not about every word being entirely necessary. It's about the style matching the world of the book and reflecting what the writer is trying to say.

I think people tend to forget about this in their obsession with cutting adjectives and trying to make everyone write like Raymond Carver.

For me, bad overwriting is writing that is over the top or purple or ploddingly detailed or overloaded with no purpose or poetry or comic or dramatic intent and is not a consistent or deliberate choice and communicates nothing of any interest and has no music. But that definition is so unhelpful and dependent on context, I'm not sure you can make a general rule.

Mike Clarke

RosyB makes a very perceptive point about matching the writing style to the context.

I'm sure Dickens is also full of similarly over-the-top writing about over-the-top characters -- but he's capable as well of confronting emotional truths.

Another valid use of over-writing might be to slow pace and create suspense.

Emma Darwin

A favourite word of mine! So onomatopoeic.

Emma Darwin

yes, sometimes less really is more, and more would be less... The answer is, of course, that it's not as simple as either statement...

Emma Darwin

Trouble is, "write well" is true, but not terribly helpful. It's a bit like saying to someone "you must improve your spelling." Sure, but how?

Emma Darwin

There's something to be said for a good, rhetorical flourish...

Emma Darwin

Yes, context is all - and most of all, all in comic fiction. It marches to a slightly different drummer, perhaps.

Emma Darwin

And, of course, even Carver didn't write like Carver, till Gordon Lish got his hands on him...


So pleased I read this. Thanks, Emma for the advice. I used to write overloaded pieces like I was in a chariot race, egging the horses on, collecting up as many adjectives and adverbs along the way. Embarrassingly, I'd read it back and convince myself it was good! Now I think I have the opposite problem; I underwrite, making my stories sound flat and dull.

Emma Darwin

I think we all over-correct, when we're learning anything. It's one aspect of the Ugly Duckling phase, perhaps: when you have the new understanding and knowledge, but it hasn't quite yet bedded down into your natural writerly voice and habits.


Thank you for your reply, Emma. Yes, I think you are right, I'm in a different phase. I feel like I'm in No-Man's-Land, struggling to forge my way ahead, trying to create my own style whilst being true to the craft. Writing academically over the years has not helped either, as I think it has stifled my creativity.


Do you think poets are more likely to be guilty of this? I ask because I like to write poetry but find it difficult to switch between poetry and prose. I find that writing poetry effects my use of punctuation. I also tend to become too emotive. If only I could master the two like Shakespeare!

Emma Darwin

I don't think poets are guilty of over-writing by nature - you could argue that poets, more than most, are likely to spot when there are too many words trying to explain things than are needed. It's actually a poet's tip which I often use with fiction/non-fic students: try cutting the last two lines. Because so often those are doing the explaining/Telling which is redundant if you've presented/Shown things successfully.

Having said that - I think poets find it hard to step back from the close-up of finding the right words, to look at the big structure and narrative drive, and see where the two are not meshing. And in fiction, generally speaking, story is king. You may very well have to murder some gorgeous writing, if it's too expansive and evocative where we need to be swift...

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