The Problem of Overwriting

Happy New Year all. I trust your prayerful writing plans for 2012—including attendance at at least one writer’s conference—are in high gear.

If so, good! Keep them that way.

For the first blog of the new year I’m going to start out with a complaint from Yvette, a Facebook friend of mine. Yvette is a reader of fiction and the other day she posted on my wall:

I’ve been reading some wonderful fiction lately published by small presses. The stories and especially the characters are riveting. There’s one problem. The foreshadowing is heavy-handed. Even if it’s a mere fleeting hint, it’s about as subtle as a bulldozer. I’m not a fiction writer, but I would like fiction writers to know that we readers are not idiots and we would appreciate more finesse when it comes to preparing us for what is yet to come. I can’t say what appropriate foreshadowing looks like. All I know is that what I’ve been reading isn’t it.

I agree with Yvette. One of the mistakes I often see in manuscripts is the tendency to overwrite. At its worst, this comes across as “telling” and telling too much. One of my artist friends once told me that a good artist knows that what he leaves out of a painting is as important as what he puts in.

That’s true of fiction too.

For your first draft of a novel, sure, throw it all in. Kitchen sink included. But one of the many tasks you’ll perform in your several subsequent drafts is the elimination of unnecessary information. Some of it may be simply repetitious or irrelevant to the story, but some of it may also be because you think if you don’t include the information, the reader won’t get it. If, through subtlety and good writing you’ve done your job, the writer will get it. Trust your reader. Learn to write with more nuance. A little foreshadowing goes a long way. Learn to know what to leave out. Park the bulldozer and throw away the keys!

I wonder if this problem of overwriting is also why conversion scenes are so hard to write? They can easily come across as cheesy if not done properly. I’d love to hear some examples of conversion scenes in fiction that you think worked well. To be honest, I’d almost trust a non-believing writer more with a conversion scene than a believing one.

Again, the key is in the ability to write an almost nuanced scene rich with poignancy and meaning.

Here’s an exercise that might help you learn to write with nuance. I want you to write an eight-line love poem without using the word “love.” It’s not easy….and yet the meaning is all richer for doing it well.

That’s true in fiction too.

(If today’s blog has been helpful, spread the word. Send the link to a writing friend).

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9 Responses to The Problem of Overwriting

  1. Erin J. January 3, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

    Writing exercise: 8-line poem on love without using the word “Love”

    Layers of longing scraped the soil of my soul.
    Tentative shoots arose at our first meeting
    like underdeveloped wishes, ready to receive the rain.
    Only with the ripening seasons have I come to know
    with what depth the digging roots of branching ecstasy and pain
    these fragile fronds carry into my changing consciousness.
    Upon the someday harvest of our hearts, may you receive
    instead, a full surrender of my all.

  2. Kathy Boyd Fellure January 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Great advice. I’m passing this onto my intensive novel critique group on Friday.
    Very timely.

    Thank you,


  3. Murray Pura January 3, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

    I guess as a person who started in literary fiction, I think the literary fiction readers will get it, but I’m not so sure romantic fiction readers will. It’s nice to hear you believe they also like subtlety and nuance and not having everything spelled out. Though I wonder if all fiction editors have as literary a background as you, Nick. I had at least one editorial experience in Christian fiction over the past 18 months that made me feel they wanted me to write with a ball peen hammer.

    Conversion experiences? Tolstoy basically has one in War and Peace. In contemporary literature, I think Grisham did a good job with one in The Testament.

  4. Richard Mabry January 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

    Nick, I’ll have to devote some time and thought to that writing exercise. Thanks for proposing it.
    As for foreshadowing, I agree–I hate it when that happens. Of course, when you don’t know the exact denouement or the identity of the villain (as is the case when I start all my novels), you have to scatter clues indiscriminately through the book, and that certainly takes away a lot of foreshadowing.
    As always, thanks for sharing.

  5. Mary Kay January 3, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Like Richard, this 8 line poem will take some time. What won’t take time is applying this
    perspective. As always, thanks, Nick. Now, off to edit!

  6. Nick January 3, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    Erin, that’s a GREAT poem!

  7. Heather Marsten January 4, 2012 at 5:48 am #

    I would imagine a conversion scene would need to be built up with background information. In the writing class I’m taking my current assignment is to write the last chapter of my memoir. I plan to end it with the salvation prayer, but several chapters earlier I finally walk into my pastor’s office and announce, “But Pastor Don, I’m a good witch.” I came from an occult background and in most of my book I hate God. So Pastor Don and I spend two years counseling to heal the father wounds from the abuse I received. I spent many weeks with what I termed a sin of the week that I was sure God couldn’t forgive. It culminates with the sin of the last chapter and I was finally broken. I hope it doesn’t sound cheesy, but without the previous chapters I guess it could. My prayer is that my memoir ministers to those who were abused or come from an occult and new age background. Salvation did not come easy to me. And even after I was saved I still struggled with God for many years.
    Have a blessed and happy New Year.

  8. Nick January 4, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

    Heather, for non-fiction, it’s good to be as true to the facts as possible. Many of the writers I work with are writing fiction and for them, there is the freedom to make up the necessary “facts” of the conversion scene. It’s hard to do convincingly, though.

  9. Dana E January 4, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    I am definitely guilty of overwriting at times. Now I ask myself if I’d be insulted as a reader when I read my stuff.

    As for fiction conversion scenes- maybe writers try to make them too dramatic, when something simple (yet, life-changing) would be more believable.

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