Overwriting, the Death of Clarity
Since the start of 2020 I have been working as a contract editor and manuscript assessor for a memoir publisher in North Carolina. Besides loving the steady work and its associated income, I have worked on an amazing variety of memoirs: a man recalling one day on the lake fishing with his dad, a pioneer in women’s liberation and feminist psychotherapy reviewing her career, an adult victim of child abuse recounting the fear and pain he and his two brothers endured and where each is now, the story of the only Jewish family in a small rural North Carolina town in the 1940s.
My eyes have been opened to the diversity and richness of the lives of those around us; a reminder that you never know what someone has been through simply by looking at them. And an understanding that how well or how poorly someone is doing in life is often the result of circumstances beyond their control.
I suppose I already knew this through my work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I am reminded almost daily to not be judgmental of the behavior of a cashier in the supermarket, the saleswoman at a department store, the glum bank teller, or someone in an elevator who is distance and aloof. I don’t know them, their work situation, or what happened to them at home last night or this morning. I just know that life isn’t always a bed of roses. There are families full of love, support, and good memories. And others full of pain, heartache, and regret. Or all of the above.
So, what does any of this have to do with Strike The Write Tone? Or my blog articles that I use to offer advice for writers? Not a damn thing. It’s just what was on my mind as I sat down to blog after a long absence. Let me try to offer editing guidance. Hmm, let me see.
Well, I posted on my Facebook business page at the end of 2019 that my word for 2020 is “Simplicity. No matter your genre, keep your writing as straightforward and to-the-point as possible. Write to communicate, not to impress. Keep it simple.” I also shared this quote.
I had just done a couple of manuscript assessments for newbie writers and this was heavy on my mind. I can recall during my college days, trying to sound as sophisticated and academic as possible when writing an essay or research paper. Everyday words and straightforward sentences were for life outside the classroom. I spent a lot of precious time perusing Roget’s Thesaurus for multi-syllabic versions of commonplace words and fashioning exquisite run-on sentences. When, if read aloud, my paper sounded like something an Oxford don would say, I knew I had succeeded. Sadly, my good grades reinforced this misguided belief.
The finest manuscripts I have edited and assessed this year are those that clearly and humanly register in my brain and my heart. This is not to say that a writer shouldn’t strive to create beauty with their words. I’m not advocating zero description or flat, colorless passages. But I have read some gloriously simple sentences that brought tears to my eyes; tears of sadness and tears of joy. I would love to share one or two, but I cannot. Yet. Let’s get the writers published, then I will.
What I’m talking about is known as overwriting.
Overwriting is a wordy writing style characterized by excessive detail, needless repetition, overwrought figures of speech, and/or convoluted sentence structures. (Thank you, Richard Nordquist).
Overwriting is the hallmark of a writer who is 1) untested, 2) untalented, 3) unedited, 4) egotistical, or 5) some combination of these. If you find yourself laboring and straining to construct a sentence, you might be overwriting.
OK, I know what you’re thinking—I’m saying writing should always be easy and effortless and flow out of you like water from a garden hose. No. That is not what I’m saying. The truth is, writing is hard. But not the kind of hard that has you re-working a run-on sentence for an hour trying to select the three most perfect adjectives to describe a cloud. In fact, writing is at its hardest when you are trying to convey an elemental thought or image. Simple beauty in a single sentence is more difficult to achieve than pages upon pages of overwrought passages. Keep it simple. I'll leave you with this:
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
~William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style