Writing Fiction? 10 Sneaky Overwriting Traps to Avoid

by | Dec 2, 2015 | Craft | 23 comments

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.

The Write Life has teamed up with Self-Publishing School to create this presentation, “How to Write & Publish Your Book in 90 Days.” In it, you’ll learn how to finish your book in just 30 minutes per day. To sign up for this free training, click here.

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