Writing Fiction? 10 Sneaky Overwriting Traps to Avoid

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If you’re an author working on your first fiction book, you have a lot to worry about.

Character development, motivation, developing your plot and subplots, writing great dialogue, and setting vivid scenes are just a few items that are likely on your mind.

Now, take those and add one more thing: You need to be concerned about overwriting.

Overwriting is what happens when you don’t recognize you’ve achieved your writing goal. So you just keep writing.

Fiction writers can overwrite in two ways.

The first is overwriting on a micro level within the story. For example, continuing dialogue between two characters long after that dialogue has stopped adding anything useful to the story.

The second is overwriting on a macro level, when you continue to write and add elements to a story long after you should have finished working on it.

The best way to avoid overwriting is to recognize it by reading your own words from a critical and analytical point of view. As a new writer, this may be difficult at first.

But after a while, you’ll be able to recognize these 10 indicators of overwriting:

1. You go overboard describing your secondary characters

Your readers don’t need to know all of each character’s physical attributes. They also don’t need an extensive life history for every character.

Edit your character descriptions to focus on the details that relate to their interactions with your main characters.

2. You use too many adverbs and adjectives

Using too many adjectives and adverbs results in writing that’s flowery and difficult to digest.

Trust your readers to understand what you mean without excessive description.

3. You write to meet a quota

This is a huge contributor to macro-level overwriting. Maybe you set a personal goal that your book would be a minimum number of pages, or you and your publisher have agreed to a certain length.

In any case, if you are writing beyond the scope of your book’s goal just to have more pages, something needs to be revisited.

4. You try to explain too much in a single passage

You have an entire book to reveal your characters’ personalities, allow your plot to unfold, and lay out the scenery for your readers.

Avoid long descriptive passages, instead revealing important elements to your audience as they read.

5. Your dialogue drags

Dialogue is a wonderful thing. It’s a great method to introduce new characters, and it can reveal a lot about how your characters relate to one another. Dialogue can even be used as a pivot point in your story.

But consider the length of the exchanges between your characters. If your dialogue goes on and on, take a second look to determine what you can shorten.

6. Your dialogue is too formal

Length isn’t your only concern when it comes to dialogue. Be careful your characters’ conversations don’t become too stilted and formal.

Normal dialogue usually consists of short sentences, one- and two-word answers, and sentence fragments. Your dialogue won’t be realistic if your characters speak in formal, fully developed sentences and speak full paragraphs without interruption.

7. You overuse similes and metaphors

A well-placed language device can help bring your writing to life. But your prose is full of similes and metaphors, these devices are no longer well placed.

Instead, use similes and metaphors only when you want to drive home a particularly striking point — not as a means of describing ordinary subjects.

8. You use needlessly complex words and phrases

You don’t need to prove the depth of your vocabulary in your fiction writing. Use plain, easy-to-follow language.

For example, it is usually better say your character ran through the woods than to say that your character cantered through the thicket.

9.  You get bogged down by technical descriptions

This can be a real problem for science fiction, historical fiction and fantasy writers. An intricate backstory can create a riveting universe for your story, but you can risk alienating your readers.

If you spend too much time explaining historical context or write exhaustive passages explaining the inner workings of various pieces of technology, you’re going to leave the reader behind.

10. You’ve written more than a few pages without reviewing and deleting

The best time to catch overwriting is during the writing process.

As you write, take breaks to read the previous passage or two. Then, ask yourself if you’re using too many words to get to the point. While many writers recommend writing first and editing later, periodically checking in on your progress can help you catch bad overwriting habits as you work.

Which of these overwriting traps have you fallen into? How did you fix it?

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Daniela McVicker is a young and ambitious writer with a passion for traveling and self-developing. She knows that writing is a way to change people's thoughts and, together, we can make this world better.... .

| @danielamcvick

Daniela McVicker
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  1. I liked 1-9. but have to disagree with 10. I like stream of consciousness writing and may write an entire story before I go back and edit. In fact, many successful writers say that editing before you write the entire story can be distracting and cause you to never finish.

    I guess in this case people should do what seems natural to them (no editing until after the proof is finished or editing every other page).

    • @Gaines – I agree that if stream of consciousness writing is your style, going back and editing every few pages is too disruptive. However, most new writers, the ones mainly being addressed here, aren’t fluent enough as writers to pull off that kind of style. Yes, there are the rare few who have a natural ability that goes beyond the norm, but for the most part, new writers struggle to get even outlined, organized stories down.

      I work with a lot of these newer, and often younger, writers and find the the kind of errors they make are not only of the kind mentioned in this article, but involve basic things like spelling and grammar. As new fiction writers, they are so eager to get their stories out, they offer an incomplete manuscript that’s no more than a lot of jumbled, illogical, and horribly-written garbage. Confront them about their mistakes and they usually respond with, “I’m going to fix it when I finish the book.” No, they won’t. If they’re too lazy during the initial writing stages to even do something as simple as use spell-check, they sure as heck aren’t going to have the self-discipline needed to go back and correct an entire, twenty-five-chapter story. So for most younger, newer writers, I have to say that #10 is excellent advice.

      For me, editing after every few chapters (but not pages) is useful in terms of continuity. Not only do I often catch typos and other errors, I catch any inconsistencies that can have a devastating affect on the way the rest of the story is formulated. When a stream of consciousness mood hits, I write straight through until it has run its course, and then go back and proof what I’d done. So I suppose for someone who has been writing for a while, stopping every few pages to go back and proof read can be counter-productive. But for new writers, it’s a great idea.

      • While I agree that point 10 might be good practice for inexperienced writers, it’s not necessarily a good habit to get into.

        When I started out (many years ago!), I used a slightly different method, which has served me well through a slew of novels. I write, fast and free (not quite stream of consciousness, but close). That’s the first draft. The *second* draft is a total rewrite, first word to last. By then I’ve worked out all the niggles of plot and character in that first, hasty draft and I’ve made all those stupid spelling mistakes that come when the mind is working faster than the fingers! The second draft is an altogether more considered work – it’s *not* just a line-by-line retune of the original material.

        This sounds like a lot of work, so why bother? Why is this better than working problems out a few pages at a time? Because I find that ‘tinkering’ destroys the natural rhythm and flow of a work. Going back and correcting typos is one thing, but rewriting bits, maybe moving stuff around, getting the creases out, can make the overall effect lumpy. This is where the *writer* shows through in the writing, and that’s never a good thing. That second, much better, draft still flows and has a natural integrity because, like the first, it has been worked on as a single entity. (It still has to go through my editor and proofreader, and some bits will be altered, but they will, generally, be very minor at this point.)

        So yes, point 10 might be good advice for writers in the early stages of their development, but a variation on it is as applicable to writers wherever they are on their journey. (The other nine can never be left behind!)

        • I too first finish what i am writing then edit, then i can do thorough editing or totally rewriting but not while writing.

        • I like what you have to say here. It isn’t easy to do, though. I fall somewhere in between. I do go over what I’ve written while I’m writing, because it helps me with continuity, but I also try not to do it too much because I get really bogged down with it and find I don’t get very far very fast in my story.

      • This! Thils is what I do every few chapters or so I look hard at every word, does it belong, does it realky fit, is it too dry, more or less description, how’s the grammar/spelling, any punctuation mistakes, check the dialoge is it on the nose, and is this chapter important to the characters and story. Abd that’s why when I revise its way slower then writing. I can write all start at nine in the morning then boom its three pm. It’s crazy.

    • The Write Watchman says:

      I’m a long-time writing teacher, developmental editor, and published and award-winning writer. The key to writing is to learn what works for YOU, not what someone else tells you should work for you. Different writers have different processes, so it’s wise not to let others, no matter how professional or experienced they are, tell you what you must do. It is YOUR writing, your idea, your style, and your process. Cull it and revise it with new ideas and interactions, but never think that what you enjoy, even love, doing as a writer and what works for you is wrong just because some expert tells you it is. That is how I deal with my own writing and also my many clients. Eventually you will realize how to say what you want to say better. The only exception to this idea is if you are writing a research paper or doing technical writing. Both do have distinct and expected styles and formats you should learn and then follow closely.

      • I agree very much with The Write Watchman. I think whilst taking advice from other writers is great, all of it needs to be taken with a grain of salt whether it’s someone who has never been published (such as myself) or a major author such as Stephen King.
        That being said, my advice on number 10. would be fix spelling errors and grammar and punctuation, but I don’t (personally) edit every few pages. It’s not to say that I *won’t*, as I find it’s a great way to get myself back into the flow if it’s been a while or I feel unmotivated, but for me, if I don’t keep going I’ll get bogged down and will never finish.
        But the thing to remember with Judy Colella’s reply is – from my own personal experience – first drafts are meant to be messy. At least mine are. I call myself a mixture of a plotter and panster. I have an outline, but often it’s no where near complete. My most recent book had a scene by scene outline from start to finish but there are many scenes needed to be added or changed. I just don’t like going back and editing the pages I’ve just written because they may be deleted in later drafts. If it’s only quick editing, I could do that because I’m the kind of person who can ignore clunky prose, but if you can’t, *I* recommend not reading over your work again until you can edit. But that’s if you are a write-the-whole-draft-in-one-go type of person.
        I would just hate it if I spent a whole day fixing up a chapter and making it sound amazingly polished, only to finish the first draft and think “crap, I need to delete that”.
        But again, it’s all about what works for each writer. I’ve taken things from here and there and am still working out what works best for me.
        Advice isn’t Gospel, it’s only a guide.

        • Sorry, I just have to address more of Judy’s comment, with my personal opinion.

          I was one of the new and young writers who just wanted to get my manuscript out there. I finished writing the last scene in a free period in my last year of high school and I instantly started Googling publishers. I didn’t even know about agents, let alone that first drafts need HEAPS of work. Thankfully I didn’t approach anyone yet as I like Googling things. I learnt that I needed to edit. I learnt what others did and applied the ideas I liked. My spelling and grammar needed HEAPS of work and I’m still learning. But that’s because it was a FIRST draft. It’s unfortunate that ill-advised first time writers send out their first drafts. Hopefully someone more experienced can push them in the right direction.

          But I don’t think (again personally) that even though I’m still young (20) and inexperienced (never been published) that I need to edit the pages I’ve just written after my writing session. Chances are, if I haven’t got the correct grammar it’s because I don’t know. I don’t just ignore fullstops because I’m inexperienced. Any writer who does that, is frankly, stupid.

          And honestly, those writers who are too *lazy* to click on the words with the red lines under them or to fix their scenes probably won’t make it as writers. They’re just wasting their time and any professionals help they have enlisted.

          • Kayleigh Sky says:

            I have to comment on your response, Jo. Please don’t call other writers stupid. This is a smaller community than you probably realize, and you might wish for the good will of these other writers one day. And regarding the comment another commentator made about the “lazy” writers won’t edit their scenes or make small corrections as they go, this has no bearing on whether they will “make it” as writers. I do not correct as I go; nor do I worry about the red lines because I don’t see any. I turn auto-correct and spell check off. My first draft is not for correction. It’s for Story. That’s all I care about–getting the story on paper. Correction, rewrite, and revision come later. I am a published writer, and this is my process. I wish everybody luck and success in their work, because this is often a brutal business. Writers get hit hard emotionally throughout their careers. We put our hearts and souls out there for people to see. Nobody’s right or wrong here, and we really need to be kinder to each other.

          • I’m really sorry for offending you – and anyone else I might have. The impression I got from Judy’s reply was that she dealt with people who didn’t want to change their manuscript because they either couldn’t be bothered to or they didn’t think they had to. Which of course, is there choice, but my honest opinion is, they won’t make it because they’re not willing to change when a professional offers them advice. Which, again, of course it’s their choice to take it. It might not apply. I just, obviously, got the wrong idea from Judy’s reply.
            I take back my stupid and lazy comment. You are right, that was very rude of me, and I was using the wrong words to get my point across. I obviously needed to vent, then rewrite my response with more thought.

          • Kayleigh Sky says:

            No offense taken, Jo! We have different perspectives; nothing wrong with that. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I wish you the best of luck in your writing journey. Hope to see your name in print soon! 🙂

          • Different perspectives are good, definitely! Because everyone is different! I just need to walk away from the keyboard, and then come back with a clearer perspective, and nicer language! Like I’ve said, I’ve been there too! 🙂

  2. Jen Freeman says:

    All of the above mentioned points in regard to over-writing traps are something l try very careful to adhere to.

    I am currently working on the ending of Web Island, the first book in a thriller/conspiracy trilogy. I always go back over my recent work and edit as needed. On the first draft of a particular piece of writing, l just want to get the words down. Then, after a short break, anything that needs to be edited is usually obvious and is fixed at the time (I hope!).

    Because my trilogy is quite complex, with quite a cast of characters, l have to be particularly careful that everything works to keep the story moving forward, while keeping the reader engaged and keen to find out what happens next. Great fun 🙂

    Having said that, it always amazes me that l can find yet another way to edit and improve what l’ve written!

  3. Great suggestions daniela, every one worth mulling over.


  4. “Young and ambitious”
    Lol you don’t look that young. Mid 30s, maybe? Though I agree most “writers” are past their prime when they begin to write.

  5. Kayleigh Sky says:

    I have to agree with some others commenting here about number 10. I write all my books all the way through and that included my first. My goal is to just get it down on paper. The rest comes later. I don’t know any writer, certainly none in my circle, who doesn’t believe that what they are writing is garbage. It’s almost impossible to completely silence that inner critic. I think going back to review writing that is probably lousy in its current form would throw most writers into a black pit of despair. 🙂 I’d say that more people, especially new writers, who edit as they go are more at risk of not finishing their draft than those who don’t edit as they go. Revision and editing is its own global process, and in my opinion, one that is better tackled after the first draft. This is where suggestions 1 through 9 would make wonder additions to a review process.

  6. Good points to keep in mind, but then how does one explain the Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicle’ phenomenon?

  7. Hello The Write Life;

    Generalizations are nasty things for everyone concerned that should be avoided at all costs. Taking generalized advice is another habit a person is best avoiding. To subject oneself to generalizations applied to a given professional activity meanwhile is worse than both.

    Writing is a personal and solitary pursuit. Advice regarding how to do it while often well intended is rarely either useful or helpful as each writer is individual in habit and circumstance. Those who succeed are often those left to figure it out on their own.

    Write. Avoid advice. The rest will take care of itself.

  8. LiNCOLN PARK says:

    I dunno… My characters LIKE cantering through thickets. That is — when they’re not cascading or meandering through the ominous brush lol

  9. What do you mean under “too formal” ?!
    Maybe, I like to use my own style and nobody can tell me what do I need to write about.


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  2. […] versão do artigo “Writing Fiction? 10 Sneaky Overwriting Traps to Avoid”, escrito por Daniela McVicker, publicado em 02/12/2015 no The Write Life […]

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