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Writer’s Craft #48 – Overwriting

November 28, 2011
Kelly A. Harmon

Kelly A. Harmon

Kelly A. Harmon defines “Dischism” for us as this week’s guest on the Writer’s Craft. Kelly writes fantasy and dark fantasy with the occasional science fiction piece. See her list of publications and honors.


More than a dozen or so years ago– long before I was ready to submit to agents or editors– I finished a novel, and sent it to a New York agent. I was lucky enough to be mildly acquainted with someone who was very good friends with this author’s representative.

With my friend’s blessing, I name-dropped in the cover letter and mailed off my manuscript.

I was a good writer. I was employed at a local newspaper. I had a beat. And I could work to nearly any deadline.

But I didn’t know a thing about writing fiction.

I’d written two openings to my novel, one much longer than the other. It seemed a bit verbose to me, but on the advice of a relative – who told me he enjoyed it much better than the shorter version– I mailed it off with the manuscript.

(Hey: I was new at fiction, and a reader enjoyed it. So, who was I to judge? )

Here’s the opening paragraph, scanned, as it was returned from the editor:

Prologue - Click to Enlarge

Oh, boy, is that horrible!

Note the red marks? The editor was nice enough to mark up several pages and include a single-spaced two page letter telling me (among other things) that I was “writing by the pound; ” that I needed to show, not tell; and the pacing was too slow for the idea.

What he should have said, in big red letters across the first page is, “Enough of the adjectives and adverbs, already! This stinks!”

Famed writer/editor Sol Stein has a formula for this kind of writing: 1 + 1 = ½. What he means is each time you add to the description, you decrease the impact of your words.

I’ve taken to heart this agent’s assertion that I’d overwritten those opening pages. Now, I shoot for streamlining my work by choosing the most correct verb or noun for the sentence rather than loading it up with modifiers.

What my inexperienced self would have taken 200 words to write, now takes me about 30.

(What I should have done from the beginning is applied my journalism experience and included “just the facts” of the story.)

Have you had a similar experience? If not, what have you learned on your writing path so far?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Kari Terhark permalink
    November 28, 2011 9:29 am

    A big thanks for posting this, I think it took a lot of courage. Oi, and it is these type of examples that I learn from the most (not those silly writing classes where the instructor blabs on about ‘showing not telling’ with no meaningful examples).

    Will you share what you did with this feedback, can we see your revised opening paragraph?

    I did something very similar in my own novel in progress, which I’ll share. (This is the opening of Ch. 2)

    “During the second week of April, under a sullen grey sky and diffuse sun, Jonathon Behrens decided that he would spend his first earnings on someone other than himself. He stood at the bow and smiled as the clouds sputtered above him, content to let the warm drops roll off his eye lashes and into his eyes. He didn’t mind that his clothes became heavy, or that his hair clung to his neck, because he was imaging how the most beautiful face in the world would light up while saying ‘Yes’.”

  2. November 28, 2011 1:31 pm

    Hi Kari

    I still cringe at those pages, but I’m forever grateful this agent took the time to write me back in such detail. I learned a lot. Quickly.

    What did I do with the feedback? I took it to heart. I edited a 150,000 words down to less than 100,000. (Very useful exercise that, and it helped me hone my voice.)

    The opening pages were part of a prologue, which I dropped completely. I did edit the information back into the book in a later chapter, but pages and pages were condensed into only a few sentences.

    Can I find those revised sentences? Hhm, I think I might need a trip to the floppies for that. I’ll see what I can dig up. 🙂

  3. November 28, 2011 1:59 pm

    First, thanks for sharing an experience that many would keep private.

    Second, I had a similar but inverted experience. As a long-time writer for a technology newsletter, I, too, knew how “to write,” but knew nothing about fiction. Therefore my first attempt at a novel could be termed “underwriting”: not enough external description, and way more than anyone needed to know about the thoughts of the protagonist. I wasn’t aware of these defects, of course; I simply thought that my writing had minor (ha) weaknesses. This assessment was substantially downgraded after several submissions and rejections.

    My solution? I had the embryonic novel reviewed by a professional editor, who confirmed (in a very tactful way) that it was indeed horrible. The editing service was well worth it, equivalent to an intense and cost-effective short course in writing. A couple of years later, after extensive revision, I had it reviewed once more by a second editor. Still well worth it. After several years I completed my first novel, and now am marching ahead at a better pace, no longer horrible.

    • November 28, 2011 7:08 pm

      Hi N.E.

      I didn’t even know about paying for a professional edit when I started out. Would you recommend that route over a critique group?

  4. November 28, 2011 2:09 pm

    Ah-h, the daemon red ink!

    Who among us hasn’t experienced it in one form or another? You were lucky to have an editor respond in person. It took me quite a while to understand why I wasn’t hearing anything about my subs or just receiving that ubiquitous form letter in the mail. This was way back last century, before email was invented!Thankfully I figured it out before too long.

    • November 28, 2011 7:09 pm

      Hi Widdershins – I realize now just how lucky I was to get that kind of feedback. A two-page, single spaced letter? Unheard of. I suspect it was the name dropping of a good friend that did it…

  5. November 28, 2011 6:49 pm

    In a screenwriting class I took years ago we were forbidden from using adverbs. Lol. That’s stuck with me all these years, though, so I’m always searching for one powerful verb rather than dressing a weak one up. (okay, a few sneak on there once in a while)

    Thanks for sharing! Very brave of you.

    • November 28, 2011 7:27 pm

      Hi Accidental – I suspect I would have enjoyed a class with your screenwriting teacher. I, too, practice “adverb eradication”. I’m a big fan of choosing the most appropriate verb.

      And, as you probably know, avoiding adverbs slims word-count bloat.

      That being said, I think it’s *impossible* to get rid of all of them. Many don’t have to “sneak” in my work. I let them in. They’re quite useful in dialogue for realism. We talk in adverbs all the time (because it’s easier.) And sometimes it just “feels right” to use one.

      I find myself using them in some cases just (!) to maintain the rhythm of the prose.🙂

  6. November 28, 2011 8:38 pm

    I think we’re in danger of becoming too spare in our writing–when we speak we use many adverbs, why should our writing be any different? I agree that too many adverbs can slow action and dilute the impact of a scene but they are also useful and shouldn’t be discarded like some worn coat that may be old but elegant. And style is another entire subject to discuss– I agree some of your piece is a bit over the top but it also has a style that is unique–do we we all become automatons to someone’s rules or do we let the readers decide? if they don’t like the writing they won’t buy the book, right?

    • November 28, 2011 11:15 pm

      Hi Nikki –

      I was being a bit tongue-in-cheek there, as I suppose were my instructors. It was really an exercise in thinking and strengthening writing. And in particular (because adverbs come in many forms), thinking about overuse of -ly adverbs. I don’t think we’re in danger of becoming too spare, here, i think we’re becoming more specific and more engaging writers. We can say someone walked slowly down the stairs and it can mean so many things. To me, a stronger way of expressing would be in the verb. Did she creep, saunter, amble, or drift down the stairs?

      I totally agree with you about style. I would hate to have writing become some kind of cookie cutter form. I have found some recent YA books I read to be a bit bland/generic in style. But I think that had less to do with over-writing than voice, which is challenging to master.

    • November 29, 2011 6:24 pm

      Hi Nikki!

      I think you’re totally on the mark with adverbs. I like to say I ‘eradicate’ them, but they do have their place.

      But I also think that beginning writers (and even some pros) have a tendency to use them overmuch, particularly in descriptive passages, where they might be better served to find the “right” word instead of a modifier.

      You’re right about style, too (and thanks for the kind words). Something to consider — which I probably should have made more of a point of — is that NY had (at least when I submitted this) a strict word count limit on first (genre) novels. I had to streamline if I wanted a NY contract.

      These days, I don’t think the count matters so much, especially with all the publishing options available to us.

      Thanks for sticking up for adverbs!

  7. JohnP permalink
    November 29, 2011 9:21 am

    An excellent topic and kudos to you.
    I believe it’s a workable definition of “professional” when you can accept well-meant advice and appreciate the effort someone put in to help.

    I have found that I ramble when I don’t quite have the scene firmly established in my head and use the circumlocution to fill it out.

    Very well done.

    – John

    • November 29, 2011 6:26 pm

      Hi John

      Thank you for your kind words.

      I’m the opposite writer of you: when the scene’s not established in my mind, I have little to say about it. Sometimes I have to force myself to write things like, “She did this, and then that, and then they went out together.”

      Then I’ve at least achieved a skeleton I can flesh out.

  8. November 29, 2011 9:25 am

    Just curious: did the agent say anything about opening with weather? That’s supposed to be one of the big no no’s (though I have seen it work).

  9. November 29, 2011 12:11 pm

    Kelly,
    I learned the same thing. Keep it simple. Cut the adverbs and adjectives. But it took me a long time. In rewriting (for rereleasing all of them this last year) my older novels (going back to 1984) I was appalled at all the extra useless words I’d included in those early days. Ha, ha. We live and learn. Thanks for the neat post. I think this subject is one of the most important truths a writer can/must learn. Warmly, Kathryn Meyer Griffith, 2012 EPIC EBOOK AWARDS FINALIST NOMINEE for her The Last Vampire-Revised Author’s Edition (originally a 1992 zebra paperback)

    • December 5, 2011 5:31 am

      Hi Kathryn!

      Thanks for wandering by. I’m curious: how long did your editing process take? Did you find it got easier with each successive book?

  10. November 29, 2011 6:40 pm

    Hi Faith! You made me go to the file cabinet and dig out “The Big Folder of Rejections” and find the letter.

    Still embarrassing to read, but I’d forgotten that the agent had also taken the time to praise some parts of my manuscript, too. (Score one for the beginning author.)

    Not once is weather mentioned.

    I’m familiar with weather openings being a big no-no, but I went for it in this version of the novel because the storm was magically created in order to force a situation. (Hence all the lovely melodrama.) In my mind, it was almost a character.

    If you’ve got a reason to open your story with the weather, I think you should.

    • JohnP permalink
      November 29, 2011 7:25 pm

      Sorry to laugh but I thought i was the only one who tormented myself with the huge stack of “Don’t give up your day job” letters

      • November 30, 2011 10:34 am

        Hi John!

        I wouldn’t give up my big stack of rejections for anything! They’re like badges of honor. 🙂

  11. December 2, 2011 3:01 pm

    Thanks for the post, Kelly!

    My first editor was death on adverbs. My draft ms pages came back the way yours did–dipped in blood. He also wasn’t that fond of adjectives, either. I like to think I’m a better writer for his guidance.

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