The risk of overwriting

So, you’ve got that perfect opening in your head. The characters you’ve been dreaming up for months are sketched to the finest detail. You’ve got a thrilling opening line and have imbued your story with plenty of detail – both illustrative and meaningful. The scene plays out like a movie in your head, filmed in HD…

You take a sip of tea and start writing…

… and the feedback that comes back from friends, family and the internet is that your scene feels sluggish and bogged down, that it’s too long, that it fails to capture the readers attention.

Congratulations, you have overwritten!

Writer in the park by Thomas Nugent is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Overwriting means that you’ve included too much description and detail in your writing. It’s a flaw that happens easily. As said above, you have that perfect scene all planned out in your head like a movie. So you want to present it to the readers in every last detail. You want them to experience the magic of your story just like you did when you thought it up.

But, hey, nothing’s more boring than someone recounting a movie scene in every last detail.

The problem is that the theatre of the mind works best with less detail, not more. Leaving things open gives the imagination room to flourish. Witholding information creates mystery.

Take, for example, this sentence:

The man in the corner smiled.

You, as the reader, will instantly have an image in your head. But, there is also a mystery. Why is he smiling? Is it a kind smile or a sly one? Is he observing the scene, or thinking of something else? Whichever it is, you want to know more. You’d keep on reading.

Now, what happens if I add more detail?

The old man sitting in the corner smiled.

Still quite intriguing, despite the extra information. We’ve placed the man in the room and we know he’s old. Your mental image of him will be more defined. But that definition also somewhat constrains the theatre of the mind.

Here’s one more, now verging into overwritten territory:

The old man sitting in the corner took a sip of tea, picked up his newspaper and smiled kindly at me.

This is now getting a bit… stale. There’s a description of two actions (sipping tea and picking up a newspaper), that are perhaps not relevant to the story. Sure, they illustrate the scene, but maybe only one of them would be enough?

Note the addition of the adjective to describe how the man was smiling. Kindly. We get a clear sense of the man’s intentions. But a lot of the mystery is lost.

Now, here’s what fully overwritten looks like:

The man sitting in the corner, who was wearing a green coat and a brown hat, took a sip of his herbal tea, which he had ordered just a few minutes ago, picked up the newspaper with the headline screaming KING RESIGNS, and smiled kindly at me as I took off my jacket and started to peruse the menue in the small cafe down the street from where I lived in Glasgow.

We can all agree that this is far too much. But this might well be how the scene plays out in your mind. The problem is, by providing all this detail, you do not actually improve the reader’s experience, you stifle it.

Creativity is a funny thing. We as writers want to share the perfect fruits of our creativity with as many readers as possible. But often, we are reluctant to let our readers creativity flourish just as well while they read our stories. The kindest thing you can do for a reader is not to present them with the full detail of your own imagination, it’s to help them grow their own.

And you do that with less, not more.

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