I was inspired by u/CancerDuck868‘s post here, and I thought I’d add something that I’ve learned over the years vis-a-vis avoiding overwriting. NB: This list isn’t the end-all, be-all of overwriting errors. But these are among some of the most noticeable ones that can be easily fixed.
These mistakes are frequently made by amateur writers who are still developing their craft and tend to see writing high volume as a crowning achievement. Often times, the results they produce is often overwritten and can easily be pared down to something much more manageable and to the point.
The 9 Errors are:
- Nested Dependent Clauses
- Dialogue Tagging Errors
- Gerund phrases that imply simultaneity
- Modifiers and pronouns with ambiguous antecedents
- Missing commas before nouns, in spoken address.
- Unnecessary prominence given to unimportant story elements
- Excessive physical description of characters and setting.
- Too many adjectives and adverbs.
- Using a new noun to re-describe a person or object
Nested Dependent Clauses
These usually happen when a writer wants to dump as much information as possible. They can be–but aren’t necessarily always–run on sentences. But they are often caused by the use of prepositional phrases. For example:
Jack liked driving across the country in his red pickup truck that he fixed up with his father years ago after he’d gotten into college, where he met the love of his life, Jill.
Fixing these requires breaking these into its logical, constituent parts:
Jack liked driving across the country in his red pickup truck. He and his father fixed it up years ago after he’d gotten into college. It was there that he met the love of his life, Jill.
Once the nested dependent clauses are broken up, it’s easier to see which phrases are necessary for the story, and which are just empty filler.
Dialogue Tagging Errors
In general, you’ll find that:
- You most likely don’t need to include any dialogue tags: We’ve all read passages where it’s an endless stream of “he said”, “she said”, “he exclaimed”, “she shrieked”, etc. And I daresay we all skipped right over the dialogue tag unless it came with additional stage directions.
- ‘Said’ is a perfectly fine dialogue tag, contrary to what you’ve been taught in elementary school.
- You should avoid using an adverb with said. Because at that point, you might as well use one of the terms from the ‘said is dead’ charts.
The most important takeaway that I’ve learned over the years is that the dialogue itself should convey all the necessary emotion. The dialogue tag’s job is to identify who’s speaking. If you need some additional emphasis on the emotions, you should look to using stage directions rather than a different form of said.
Consider the two examples:
Jill slammed her hand against the bars. “This is bullshit!”
Jill shrieked loudly. “This is bullshit!”
Another major error people make with dialogue tagging is to use a comma when a period is required. The rule is:
- Use a comma when the dialogue tag is a type of speech.
“That was great,” Jack whispered.
- Use a period when the dialogue tag is not a type of speech.
“That was great.” Jack clapped.
Some words are used like they’re speeches, but they’re not. For example:
“That was great.” Jack coughed.
Cough is not a type of speech. The general rule that I found works is: when in doubt, act it out.
Gerund phrases that imply simultaneity
This is the most egregious error that writers tend to commit that causes overwriting. I’ll admit, I still find myself committing these same errors. If you look hard enough, I’m sure you’ll find professionally published authors making the same errors as well. The best way to demonstrate is with an example:
Stepping into the hall, Jack opens his coat, pulling out a key and locking the door behind him.
The way it’s currently written, it implies the actions are all happening at the same time. That’s what gerund statements do. However, the above sentence is describing a sequence of events, all performed at different times. Your writing must match that:
Jack steps into the hall and opens his coat. He pulls out a key and locks the door behind him.
Think of gerunds as a really long adjective (in fact, if you’ve ever studied Latin, there’s an entire construction called gerundives that does exactly that). More often than not, it’s a lot better to just avoid gerunds altogether. They’re really tempting to use and fixing them can take way more effort than you expect.
Modifiers and pronouns with ambiguous antecedents
I like to call this the hallmark of an amateur writer. Others might use something less flattering: bad writing.
This usually happens when you write about a large number of people and objects, or describing multiple things all at once. As such, fantasy and sci-fi are the most frequent instances of this error.
The masters gave two orcs bowls of food, and told them they would need to present them to the quartermaster when they finished using them, and then return to them in the morning.
You’re not quite sure just to whom each “them” refers to at first glance. When found in a longer piece, it can get really frustrating to read. Fixing it requires you to break this massive thing apart.
The two orcs were given bowls of food by their masters. The masters explained that after finishing the food, the orcs would need to present the bowls to the quartermaster. The orcs are then to report back to their masters.
Is it longer? Absolutely. But in this case, you have no confusion about what is going on. It’s much easier to edit and condense this version than the first one.
When writing, it’s imperative that you make it absolutely clear which pronoun refers to which antecedent, and which noun/verb each dependent clause is attached to. Otherwise, you risk writing a giant wall of text that readers won’t want to read.
Missing commas before nouns, in spoken address
It’s the difference between:
Let’s eat, grandpa!
Let’s eat grandpa!
This happens all. the. time. on reddit. And it bleeds through to writing. The good news is, once you start noticing this problem, getting rid of it is easy.
Unnecessary prominence given to unimportant story elements
Beginning writers love making this error. Often times fearful that their readers won’t see the world as they see it, they’ll fill page after page of description that doesn’t really move the story along.
The doorbell rang. Jack grunted as he shifted his body on the hard stool. His knee popped and his mind raced, wondering who could be at the door. As he rose, the doorbell rang again, pealing its message urgently at him. He reached up with his hand, twisted open the doorknob, and revealed Bob on the other side.
“Hey Jack.” Bob grinned, his perfect teeth beaming in the dim light. His pressed pants were flawless and he wore a sharp sports coat over his solid frame. “I left my phone here.”
Depending on the needs of the story, you could reduce this entire thing to:
The doorbell rang. It was Bob.
Sometimes, it’s important to give prominence to story elements. That is the hardest, but most important, skill a writer can learn: to determine what’s worth including and what isn’t. There’s no simple way about it, and this is something that only comes with practice.
Excessive physical description of characters and setting
This kind of ties in with the previous point, but limited to only physical descriptions. Fantasy writers tend to do this a lot with descriptions and costumes. GRRM is a prime example of this. The man can plot a story, but my god, does he go overboard with describing feasts and fat pink masts.
Part of the pleasure of reading comes from filling the world with your own image of what the author has described. One example I like using is the description of the Donnager from The Expanse:
Like all long-flight spacecraft, it was built in the ‘office tower’ configuration: each deck one floor of the building, ladders, or elevators running down the axis. Constant thrust took the place of gravity.
But the Donnager actually looked like an office building on its side. Square and blocky, with small bulbous projections in seemingly random places. At nearly five hundred meters long, it was the size of a 130-story building.
There’s no additional description of the color, no description of any activity from floor to floor, no description of what each projection was. We, as readers, are left to our own devices to imagine what the Donnager looks like. That creates a more powerful image for the readers.
Like the use of negative space in graphic design, sometimes you can make a greater impact on the readers by letting themselves fill in the blank and create an image that is personal to them.
Too many adjectives and adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs are like spices: add a little bit and they make an impact. Add too much and you’ve ruined a dish. If there’s a way to write something without adjectives and adverbs, then do so.
I forcefully threw the baseball bat and it flew across the yard like a helicopter.
I flung the baseball bat and it helicoptered across the yard.
Using a new noun to re-describe a person or object
This is a problem that happens a lot in Romance. A writer will use a different name or noun to redescribe a person or object, but ends up making it feel like a new character is introduced.
Sheila knocked and a handsome man answered the door. He stood tall, like an oak tree. He pulled her inside and asked her to sit. “Would you like a drink?” asked the living adonis. The nervous woman took a cup. A bit later, the muscular hunk sat down across from her.
You as the writer may know that there are only two people involved, but a reader can easily see five people: Sheila, the handsome man, the living adonis, the nervous woman, and the muscular hunk.
There’s really no reason to use a different noun to redescribe each person. Often times, if you’re only working with two characters, you can get away with using just “he” and “she”.
Sheila knocked and handsome man answered the door. He stood tall, like an oak tree. He pulled her inside and asked her to sit. “Would you like a drink?” he asked. She took a cup. A bit later, he sat down across from her.
In general, you should try to write the most amount of plot with the fewest possible words. Now, are there instances where writers have not only used the above errors but used them to great effect? Absolutely! But more often than not, writers–especially amateur writers–will find themselves committing these errors and producing reams of bloated writing that could be reduced to just a few paragraphs.
I hope this has been helpful, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses!