7 Ways to Avoid Overwriting

posted by Michelle Griep for Janalyn Voigt
sign bearing this quote by an unknown author hangs in my office, a powerful
reminder that I write not to massage my mind but to be understood.  I’ve had to learn this the hard way.
When Eric
, a NY Times
bestselling author, agreed to read the first chapter of an epic fantasy
work-in-progress, I labored to make it stunning with awesome descriptions and
catchy phrasing. Eric came back with the gentle remark that I am a good writer
who doesn’t need to grandstand. Let the story shine through, he told me. After
I got over my initial reaction to this comment, I reread my manuscript. Wouldn’t
you know it, but he was right. I’d been showing off my skill with words rather
than serving the story. I reworked DawnSinger, and it found a publisher.  
I went over the
manuscript a ‘last time’ before sending it to my publisher, hoping to avoid
edits. One of my strengths as a writer, I am told, is the ability to bring
settings to life for readers. Playing to this strength, I added even more
description, having completely missed Eric’s advice that I needed to work on
pacing. Back came my manuscript for the first round of edits with many of the descriptive
passages I’d worked so hard to create either crossed out or marked for
shortening. Through more rounds of edits than I’d care to admit to, I learned
to carve away not only extraneous description, but everything that didn’t
support the story.
When I edit I always
confront that dreaded monster, Purple Prose. Over time I’ve cut that beasty
down to size. Edits for Wayfarer, book two in my Tales of Faeraven trilogy, were lighter, and I believe they’ll be
easier yet for DawnKing, book three. Eradicating
my tendency to overwrite has developed my deep instinct for story, and anything
that detracts annoys me as much as fingernails on a chalkboard.
The cure for
overwriting is to focus on story.
I summed up my
thoughts on the difference between storytelling and storycrafting for my
agency’s blog, Wordserve Water Cooler in ‘Are You A Storyteller or Storycrafter? In
this post I make the point that story always trumps craft. That’s not to say
vivid descriptions and skillful phrasing aren’t important, but in the right
places. Knowing where these are takes practice, humility, and the feedback of
others. I can offer a few tips gleaned from my own experience, though.

How To Avoid Overwriting

1. Include your character in scene descriptions. I made the mistake of taking too literally the advice to treat your setting as a separate character. In every scene, describe the location as part of the point-of-view character’s experience. This will automatically cut out some tangents you might otherwise embark on.

2. Avoid excessive use of adverbs and adjectives. One sign of strong writing is that nouns and verbs pull their own weight and don’t need to be propped up with other words. Take the presence of an ‘ly’ word as a challenge to find a better verb or noun .

3. Avoid overuse of phrases using participles (words ending in ‘ing’). Strong sentences don’t need to lean on tacked-on phrases. However, it’s important to vary sentence structures, so eliminating participial phrases altogether isn’t necessary or desirable. Balance is the key here.

4. Be appropriate for your genre. Writers of fantasy or historical fiction often need to add a bit more description to convey foreign or bygone worlds. This doesn’t grant the writer a license to bog down readers in detail, though. One of the most important skills a writer can develop is the ability to convey a lot with an economy of words.

5. If you notice a string of little words in a sentence, chances are you can cut some of them or recast the sentence to avoid wordiness.

6. Let dialogue do its work. Pare beats or dialogue tags to those needed for clarity. Opinions vary on what is too little or too much, though. Watch for agreement in the feedback you receive. Where there is no agreement, trust your instinct as a storyteller.

7. Question every scene to make sure it needs to exist. Sometimes combining two scenes into one makes sense. If cutting a scene doesn’t impact the story, or if you can sum up an entire scene with a sentence elsewhere, your course is clear. Making cuts can help your pacing and decrease the likelihood readers will skip over passages. Readers who have not been slowed by extraneous passages will have more patience for your book overall.

Honing a strong sense of story can’t be taught, only refined. It can take time but is worth the effort. In a crowded marketplace a gifted storyteller stands apart.


Love settling down with a warm cuppa and a good book? Enter to win a $20 Starbucks card in the Wayfarer Launch Celebration Giveaway Drawing. Entries close at midnight on February 8th. The winner will be announced on February 15th at http://JanalynVoigt.com.

Wayfarer Launch Celebration $20 Starbucks Card Giveaway.
One person will win a $20 Starbucks card. One entry per person per day.

Janalyn Voigt’s unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and fantasy creates worlds of beauty and danger for readers. Tales of Faeraven, her epic fantasy series beginning with DawnSinger, carries the reader into a land only imagined in dreams.

Janalyn is represented by Sarah Joy Freese of Wordserve Literary. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA. 

When she’s not writing, Janalyn loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors.

Author Site for Janalyn Voigt: (author journals, travel journals, guest journals, and book news)

Site for Writers: Live Write Breathe (teaching articles plus free How to Edit PDF)