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.

The secret to good flash fiction

Do you ever write flash fiction? I highly recommend it. It’s a great tool to hone your writing and pare it down to the essentials. There are lots of fun forums and competitions for flash fiction, including on the amazing writing forum that is

But how does it work?

The rules vary, but usually you have to write a full story in less than 100 words. Sometimes, there are prompts or words that must be included.

The trick? Every story needs to have a beginning, a middle and an end. And this is where many flash fiction writers fall flat. I’ve read so much flash fiction that is basically just a scene, not a complete story in itself.

I came first in a fiction writing contest with the following flash fiction story. Let’s take a look:

Prompts: Diamond/Fountain/Red
Word Count: 99
Title: Heera Mandi

Madame Bhatti peers from the balcony. She tugs at her red sari. The phone still hasn’t rung, no visitor has knocked on her door.
A man hurries past the crumbled fountain. “Sir,” she calls. “Would you come up?”
The man smiles, shrugs, walks on. Madame Bhatti sighs. Diamond Market is quiet these days; the only sound the distant roar of cars.
She closes her eyes and remembers. The smell of spices, the silk pillows. Women laughing, and the twangs of the sita. Her singing, glorious, enticing. Fit to attract a prince.
The prince came. But he did not stay.

Photo by AaDil on

Let’s dive in

The story has a clear opening: the first paragraph. It introduces our main character, gives us a glimpse of their personality (she fixes her sari), then immediately presents the story conflict (she is worried because no one has called today).

We then get the main meat of the story. She calls to a man, who ignores her. Then she remembers her glory days. There are few descriptions here, but the ones that I used evoke a sense of place. Crumbling, quiet, distant. All these attributes help the reader feel engrossed in the story.

The prince came. But he did not stay.

The final sentence is the cracker that makes this story work. It sums up Madame Bhatti’s whole life story. It also provides a resolution: the good times were fleeting, and they will never come back.

When writing flash fiction, you really want to focus on the ending. You need to deliver an emotional kick, as well as wrap the action up. A story is only a story if it is concluded properly.


  • Open the story with a proper opening
  • Keep the action brief, the descriptions to a minimum
  • When you do use descriptions, make sure they evoke a sense of time and place
  • Make sure youre story has a distinct beginning, middle and end
  • Deliver a kicker ending line
  • Make every word count. If a word does not contribute to your story, kill it

Writing Magazine: Creating a New Noir

In September, I was lucky to be featured in the incredible Writing Magazine, a resource I subscribed to for years. See the article here.

We can look at things a little differently, we can open the shutters, let daylight in and ask the secretive dame what she really thinks. Her answers, dear reader, may surprise you.

Writing Magazine, 3 September 2021

Writing Magazine is a great read for everyone who is into creative writing – be it novels, poetry or short fiction. They even have interesting sections on memoirs and non-fiction. I highly recommend it.

My article looked at women in the Noir genre, and how some of Noir’s tropes are changing in the 21st century. I’m not sure I’ve actually “reinvented” Noir, but I do like to think that I’ve given it a bit of a kick up the a**e in The Long, Long Afternoon.

Photo by cottonbro on

The Long, Long Afternoon is a very noir book, even though it is set in sunny California and features starched curtains and prim aprons instead of neon-lit blinds and chain-smoking low-lives (although there is some smoking, and a couple of shady characters, too. Noir is not necessarily about a time and place, it is about atmosphere. Noir creates a sense of unease, a feeling of being rejected by one’s peers. It is for mavericks, for people who cross social and cultural boundaries.

I wish there was more Noir in fiction, especially in historical fiction. Noir allows us authors to introduce a modern perspective to historical events or settings. It’s a modern genre, but it applies to all ages – after all, there have always been people who felt uneasy about the way things were going, and became mavericks of their time.