{Between the Lines}

The Agents of Books & Such Literary Management Muse About Books, Publishing, and Life

Don’t Overdo it! Examples of Overwriting

Rachel Kent

I read at least three proposals every week, sometimes more. In many of these proposals, I notice common writing errors, and I’d like to point these out so you can check for them before submitting your work to editors and agents.

One mistake is overwriting. Many authors believe their writing style is what makes their project appeal to readers. This is the case within certain limits. Finding your “voice” and using it effectively is a learned skill. Below are some overwriting examples.

1) The Thesaurus: It’s a really good idea to have a thesaurus on your desk while you’re writing, but don’t overdo it.

“The whyfor for a thesaurus is to ameliorate a skald’s word stock rather than to regurgitate the same jargon.” (Or: A thesaurus is to help you come up with new words rather than using the same words over again.)

If your reader has to pull out a dictionary to figure out what you’re talking about, you’re doing it wrong. 🙂 Unusual or little-known words should be relatively discernible from the context. Plus, while readers want to understand the subject matter and to read beautiful words and phrases, if reading the book is too difficult, they’ll quit. We all want to be challenged, but we need to be built up at the same time. We want to know that we’re smart enough to read the book in our hands, or we’ll find something else that entertains and encourages us. This applies to nonfiction too. Be careful that your writing doesn’t become too technical if you are trying to write to readers who aren’t experts in the subject matter.

2) Dialect: When you use dialect in your fiction or your illustrations in your nonfiction, be careful not to overdo it. People who aren’t familiar with dialect will have a hard time understanding dialogue and the important plot elements that are revealed through the dialogue. Common dialect is okay, like ‘y’all’, as long as the use of these common words isn’t overdone. Many of us use dialect in one way or another. I know that I do; I’m a California-girl all the way. But when you’re writing, be sure that the characters are speaking clearly because there’s no way to interrupt them to ask them to repeat what they said or to explain it to us. Here’s my Cali-girl example, “Like, I went to the beach on, like, um, Saturday with my girlfriends. We totally, like, swam and stuff. It was awesome.” I don’t sound like that (I hope!), but I know I say “like” in just about every sentence. It’s a lot more distracting when it’s written, isn’t it?

3) Making Things Up: Be careful of overwriting by making up words. This can be very distracting and can leave the reader with no idea what you’re trying to convey. Fantasy and sci-fi writers have to be the most careful with this because those genres give the author permission to “play” with the rules of the world. A published book that comes to mind is A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. If this book wasn’t assigned reading, very few people would ever go past the first page or two. Should a work of such genius, with similar first pages be submitted to me, I’m sorry to say that I most likely wouldn’t be the one representing it because the beginning is too confusing. I also found the fake swear/slang words in The Maze Runner to be distracting. I’m not sure if this counts as dialect or if it’s better as an example of “Making Things Up.” I suppose it is fake dialect.

4) An Old-Fashioned Style: Writing with “old-fashioned” words and grammar can drive a reader crazy. Here’s an exaggerated example:

A young chit of one and twenty became lost on her way to the market. Her beau arrived to sup with her, but upon learning of her absence, he, distraught, sought her through the night. As dawn broke, the two were reunited in love’s true embrace.

Just tell us the story in contemporary language.

5) Overkill on the Dramatic: Don’t over-dramatize the story. You don’t have to throw every known plot device or overdone writing style into your story. Short sentences can and do create tension, but you really can have too many.

“Out the window. Black. Darkness everywhere. Lightning flashed. Blinding. Spots float. In her eyes.”

This is also a problem in nonfiction in a slightly different way. Nonfiction is often written with an agenda, to prove a point, or to promote a cause, and at times a nonfiction author can get so caught up in the cause that she overwrites. It becomes “drama” instead of a sound argument for the point he or she is trying to make.

I hope this list helps as you move forward with establishing your tone and voice.

What are some other ways projects can be overwritten? I’m sure I didn’t cover them all, and I’d love to fill out the list! And please try your hand at writing some bad examples. It’s pretty fun!

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